January 12, 2017

Greenspan "Implemented a Successful Rule-Based Monetary Policy"

(p. C12) Effective public policy requires getting good ideas and putting them into practice. There is no better account of the world where economic ideas emerge as economic policy than Sebastian Mallaby's thoroughly researched (there are 1,625 endnotes) "The Man Who Knew," which takes up Alan Greenspan's long career. Mr. Greenspan knew the ideas, Mr. Mallaby first argues, and then tells story after story of how the economist worked them into policy in Washington. Mr. Greenspan approved President Ford's questionable stimulus package in order to implement ideas on spending control; he skillfully drove reform ideas as chair of the Social Security commission; he implemented a successful rule-based monetary policy at the Fed with careful data analysis for many years, but ran into difficulties when the data gave mixed messages toward the end of his term.

For Taylor's full book recommendations, see:

John Taylor. "12 Months of Reading." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 7, 2016, and has the title "John Taylor on Alan Greenspan.")

The book recommended, is:

Mallaby, Sebastian. The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

January 10, 2017

Business Cycles Can Be Moderated

LongEconomicExpansionsGraph2016-12-05.pngSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B2) It's tempting to think of an economic expansion as being like a life span. The older you get, the closer you are to death; a 95-year-old probably has fewer years left to live than a 60-year-old. But this year Glenn D. Rudebusch, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, looked at the evidence from post-World War II United States economic expansions, and did not find that pattern held up at all.

"A long recovery appears no more likely to end than a short one," Mr. Rudebusch wrote. "Like Peter Pan, recoveries appear to never grow old."

Expansions don't die of old age. They die because something specific killed them. It can be a wrong-footed central bank, the popping of a financial bubble or a shock from overseas. But age itself isn't the problem.

A look around the world also shows plenty of examples of expansions that have lasted a lot longer than either the seven years the current United States expansion has been underway or the longest expansion in American history, from 1991 to 2001.

Britain had a nearly 17-year expansion from the early 1990s until the 2008 global financial crisis. France had a slightly longer expansion that ended in 1992. And the record-holders among advanced economies in modern times, according to the research firm Longview Economics, are the Netherlands, which experienced a nearly 26-year "Dutch miracle" that ended in 2008, and Australia, which has an expansion that began in 1991 and is on track to overtake the Dutch soon for the longest on record.

For the full story, see:

NEIL IRWIN. "Expansion Is Old, Not at Death's Door." The New York Times (Fri., OCT. 28, 2016): B1 & B2.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Oct. 27, 2016, and has the title "Will the Next President Face a Recession? Don't Assume So.")

Rudebusch's research, mentioned above, appeared in:

Rudebusch, Glenn D. "Will the Economic Recovery Die of Old Age?" FRBSF Economic Letter # 2016-03 (Feb. 8, 2016): 1-4.

November 11, 2016

"Politicized Regulatory State" Cuts Hiring and Slows Innovation

EaseOfDoingBusinessGraph2016-09-30.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Sclerotic growth is America's overriding economic problem. From 1950 to 2000, the U.S. economy grew at an average rate of 3.5% annually. Since 2000, it has grown at half that rate--1.76%. Even in the years since the bottom of the great recession in 2009, which should have been a time of fast catch-up growth, the economy has only grown at 2%.

. . .

. . . the U.S. economy is simply overrun by an out-of-control and increasingly politicized regulatory state. If it takes years to get the permits to start projects and mountains of paper to hire people, if every step risks a new criminal investigation, people don't invest, hire or innovate.

. . .

How much more growth is really possible from better policies? To get an idea, see the nearby chart plotting 2014 income per capita for 189 countries against the World Bank's "Distance to Frontier" ease-of-doing-business measure for the same year. The measure combines individual indicators, including starting a business, dealing with construction permits, protecting minority investors, paying taxes and trading across borders.

. . .

Most of all, the country needs a dramatic legal and regulatory simplification, restoring the rule of law. Middle-aged America is living in a hoarder's house of a legal system. State and local impediments such as occupational licensing and zoning are also part of the problem.

. . .

There is hope. Washington lawmakers need to bring about a grand bargain, moving the debate from "they're getting their special deal, I want mine," to "I'm losing my special deal, so they'd better lose theirs too."

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN H. COCHRANE. "Ending America's Slow-Growth Tailspin; The U.S. economy needs a dramatic legal and regulatory simplification." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 3, 2016): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 2, 2016.)

September 21, 2016

Maduro Counts on Marxist Professor to Be Miraculous "Jesus Christ of Economics"

(p. B1) CARACAS, Venezuela--President Nicolás Maduro, hoping for an economic miracle to salvage his country, has placed his trust in an obscure Marxist professor from Spain who holds so much sway the president calls him "the Jesus Christ of economics."

Alfredo Serrano--a 40-year-old economist whose long hair and beard have also elicited the president's comparison to Jesus--has become the central economic adviser to Mr. Maduro, according to a number of officials in the ruling United Socialist Party and other government consultants.

. . .

Most international and domestic economists blame Venezuela's food shortages, which have triggered riots, on price controls and expropriations. Mr. Serrano, though, attributes an "inefficient distribution system in the hands of speculative capitalism," which he says allows companies to hoard products. He also says foreign and local reactionary forces are waging an economic war against Venezuela.

The adviser has championed urban agriculture in a country where about 40% of fertile land is left fallow by price controls and seed shortages. Mr. Maduro created the Ministry of Urban Agriculture, headed by a 33-year-old member researcher at Mr. Serrano's think tank, Lorena Freitez. A senior adviser at the think tank, Ricardo Menéndez, heads the planning ministry.

"Serrano is a typical European leftist who came to Latin America to experiment with things no one wants at home: state domination, price controls and fixed exchange rates," said José Guerra, a Venezuelan opposition lawmaker and former chief economist at the central bank.

For the full story, see:

ANATOLY KURMANAEV and MAYELA ARMAS. "Maduro Turns to Spanish Marxist for a Miracle." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Aug. 9, 2016): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 8, 2016, and has the title "Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro Looks to a Marxist Spaniard for an Economic Miracle.")

September 17, 2016

Cutting Taxes Helps Economy More than Increasing Government Spending

I believe the "policy missteps" diagnosis is mainly the right one, but quote some comments on the "secular stagnation" diagnosis because I want to document that for easy access for my book project.

(p. 3) Economists, like physicians, sometimes confront a patient with an obvious problem but no obvious diagnosis. That is precisely the situation we face right now.

. . .

Secular stagnation Lawrence H. Summers, former economic adviser to President Obama, has suggested that the problem predates the recent financial crisis. He points to the long-term decline in inflation-adjusted interest rates as evidence of reduced demand for capital to fund investment projects. He cites several reasons for the change, including lower population growth, lower prices for capital goods and the nature of recent innovations, like the replacement of brick-and-mortar stores with retail websites. The result, he says, is secular stagnation -- a persistent inability of the economy to generate sufficient demand to maintain full employment.

His solution? More government spending on infrastructure, like roads, bridges and airports. If the government takes advantage of lower interest rates to make the right investments in public capital -- admittedly a big if -- the policy would promote employment in the short run as projects are being built and make the economy more productive when they are put into use.

. . .

Policy missteps When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the economy was in the midst of the Great Recession. President Obama's advisers relied on standard Keynesian theory when they proposed a large increase in government spending to energize the economy. The stimulus package was the administration's first economic policy initiative. As the economy recovered, the administration supported tax increases to shrink the budget deficit.

But even at the time, there were reasons to doubt this approach. A 2002 study of United States fiscal policy by the economists Olivier Blanchard and Roberto Perotti found that "both increases in taxes and increases in government spending have a strong negative effect on private investment spending." They noted that this finding is "difficult to reconcile with Keynesian theory."

Consistent with this, a more recent study of international data by the economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna found that "fiscal stimuli based on tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than those based on spending increases."

For the full commentary, see:

N. GREGORY MANKIW. "Economic View; One Economic Sickness, Five Diagnoses." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., JUNE 19, 2016): 5.

(Note: ellipses added, bold font in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 17, 2016.)

A Larry Summers paper on his version of secular stagnation, is:

Summers, Lawrence H. "U.S. Economic Prospects: Secular Stagnation, Hysteresis, and the Zero Lower Bound." Business Economics 49, no. 2 (April 2014): 65-73.

The Blanchard and Perotti paper mentioned above, is:

Blanchard, Olivier, and Roberto Perotti. "An Empirical Characterization of the Dynamic Effects of Changes in Government Spending and Taxes on Output." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 4 (Nov. 2002): 1329-68.

The Alesina and Ardagna paper mentioned above, is:

Alesina, Alberto, and Silvia Ardagna. "Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending." In Tax Policy and the Economy. Volume 24, edited by Jeffrey R. Brown. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press; Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010, pp. 35-68.

June 7, 2016

Steady-State Stagnation Is Not an Option

Some environmentalists advocate an end to economic growth. Inside economics, and in the broader world, a heated debate has considered whether an economy can long stagnate in a steady-state. The idea that it can, is captured in the circular flow diagram that has been a fixture of many introductory economics textbooks for many decades. I argue that without the dynamism that is achieved by innovative entrepreneurs, long-term stagnation is not an option. Exogenous events, such as earthquakes, will always come along to disturb the steady-state. And when they do, only entrepreneurs can restore the steady-state. If there are no entrepreneurs, there will be decline. If there are entrepreneurs, they will not stop at the steady-state; they will seek progress. The choice is forward or backward. Long-term steady-state stagnation is not an option.

(p. 10) SANKHU, Nepal -- As the anniversary of Nepal's devastating earthquake came and went last week, Tilakmananda Bajracharya peered up at the mountainside temple his family has tended for 13 generations, wondering how long it would remain upright.

. . .

Many people here pin their hopes on promises of foreign aid: After the disaster, images of collapsed temples and stoic villagers in a sea of rubble were beamed around the world, and donors came forward with pledges of $4.1 billion in foreign grants and soft loans.

But those promises, so far, have not done much to speed the progress of Nepal's reconstruction effort. Outside Kathmandu, the capital, many towns and villages remain choked with rubble, as if the earthquake had happened yesterday. The government, hampered by red tape and political turmoil, has only begun to approve projects. Nearly all of the pledged funds remain in the hands of the donors, unused.

The delay is misery for the 770,000 households awaiting a promised subsidy to rebuild their homes. Because a yearly stretch of bad weather begins in June, large-scale rebuilding is unlikely to begin before early 2017, consigning families to a second monsoon season and a second winter in leaky shelters made of zinc sheeting.

. . .

. . . , some visitors who came here to assess the reconstruction expressed shock at how little had been done.

. . .

"It has been a horrible year," said Anju Shrestha, 36, whose shed stands on a site that once held a three-story brick house.

A neighbor, Kanchhi Shrestha, guessed her age at about 75, based on a major earthquake that occurred two years before she was born. She pulled her skirt up to show feet splotchy with raw sores.

"I will die in this shelter if they do not give me money," she said. "I have nothing to eat."

However, she added, it would be inappropriate for a person like her to demand assistance from Nepal's government.

"We cannot scold the government," she said. "If the government provides, we will fold our hands and tell them, 'You are God.' "

For the full story, see:

ELLEN BARRY. "A Year Later, Nepal Is Trapped in the Shambles of a Devastating Quake." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., May 1, 2016): 10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 30, 2016, and has the title "A Year After Earthquake, Nepal's Recovery Is Just Beginning.")

May 3, 2016

Info Tech Boomed Because It Was Least Regulated Sector

(p. A9) "The regulatory environment has become so onerous in America that it is now easier to start a business in England than in the U.S.," Mr. Hill says--and he would know.

. . .

In 1973 and only 27 years old, Mr. Hill founded Commerce Bank with one branch in Marlton, N.J. The fledgling company focused on customer service and called itself "America's most convenient bank." By the time Mr. Hill left Commerce Bancorp 34 years later, only months before the company announced it would be bought by TD Bank for $8.5 billion, he had grown the business to some 460 branches, with 14,000 employees and combined deposits of about $40 billion.

Now he's replicating that model in the United Kingdom with Metro Bank, which he founded in 2010. And Mr. Hill says there's an ocean of difference between doing business in the overregulated U.S. and in the U.K. "When I went to Britain I thought the regulatory environment would be much worse," he says. "It's infinitely better there."

The problem in the U.S. starts with towering federal regulations, such as the voluminous reporting and compliance rules in Dodd-Frank, the financial reform act that recently celebrated its fifth birthday. "Regulators are making it impossible for the medium and small banks to comply with the rules," he says. "The burdens get so intense that it is destroying the small and medium-size banks in America."

The result is that Dodd-Frank, a law intended to take on the systemic risk of "too-big-to-fail" banks, is multiplying the problem. "The big banks that are too big to fail are bigger now than ever, but the regulations have trickled down to the smaller banks that didn't cause the financial crisis" Mr. Hill says. As a result, community banks are disappearing. "When I started my first bank in the 1970s there were 24,000 banks in America," he says. "There are now 7,000 banks. It may soon be 500 or even fewer."

But it's more than Dodd-Frank that leaves him frustrated. "The feds have taken anti-money-laundering rules to the extreme," Mr. Hill says. "We have to monitor every deposit account every 24 hours. Somebody's monitoring your account every day." That's invasive and expensive.

He laments that the Community Reinvestment Act, a catalyst of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, still hasn't been repealed. "We are literally required to make loans that we know are going to fail," he says.

Then there's the tangle of local regulations that every American small business must cut through. "You don't need a building permit in Britain. Here [the U.S.] you have to get permits and you have to get inspections," he says. All that can eat up months and months. "I can build 100 branch banks in Britain before I can get one built in the U.S., thanks to regulators."

Policy makers and economists in Washington fret about what's slowing the rate of business startups and entrepreneurial ventures. But Mr. Hill says it's no wonder, with all this red tape, and it's no accident that the industry that is really booming, technology, is the one least regulated by government--though the assault against Uber suggests that Silicon Valley might not be immune for long.

. . .

And how much should we be worried about overregulation--or competition from abroad? "Here's my story in a nutshell and I hope Washington is paying close attention," Mr. Hill says. "A very successful American business model has been transferred to Britain, where it's even more successful because it doesn't have to deal with the same burdens of government."

He continues: "The politicians keep talking about fairness and helping the little guy. But it's the little startup businesses that get hurt the most from the heavy hand of excessive government regulation. How is that fair?"

For the full interview, see:

STEPHEN MOORE. "THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; The Demise of the Small American Bank; The man who put the customer first in retail banking says Dodd-Frank is crushing community banks and Britain is now a better bet." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 1, 2015): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date July 31, 2015.)

April 9, 2016

"China Has Blindly Constructed So Many Homes and Wasted So Much Resources"

(p. C6) In November [2015], President Xi Jinping told a meeting of officials that China must resolve the housing inventory situation and ensure the health of the property sector.

Since then, Meishan, a city of 3.5 million people, has become a showcase for efforts to lure rural dwellers to cities to buy homes as part of so-called destocking efforts to reduce the glut.

. . .

. . ., some analysts and local government officials warn the rural strategy isn't a cure-all. Banks typically hesitate to extend mortgages to rural migrants, whose homestead land doesn't typically qualify as collateral.

"Now with bad loans growing in China, banks are reluctant to lend to farmers. Farmers don't have assets and lending to them is risky," said Wang Fei, an official at Hubei Province's department of housing and urban-rural development.

. . .

Housing inventory in the city rose to 22.5 months last April, an alarmingly high level compared with a healthier rate of 12 months or lower. There were also cases where cash-strapped property firms defaulted on their loans, leaving behind unfinished apartments.

Buyers of Purple Cloud Golden World housing project are now stranded after Yang Jinhao, who controlled Sichuan Xinrui Property Development, got involved in a dispute with a shadow lender early last year.

"China has blindly constructed so many homes and wasted so much resources. I can't stand it!" said Yu Jianmin, a 70-year-old caretaker of the stalled project who said the construction firm he works for is still awaiting payment from Mr. Yang. Mr. Yang couldn't be reached.

For the full story, see:

ESTHER FUNG. "Discounts Help China Ease Home Glut." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 2, 2016): C6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 1, 2016, and has the title "China Sweetens Home-Ownership Deals for Rural Dwellers.")

April 1, 2016

Obama Says Stimulus Worked at Battery Plant Where CEO Remains "Frustrated" at Losses

(p. A12) JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- President Obama on Friday [February 26, 2016] used a visit to a high-technology battery plant in Florida to argue that the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies he signed into law during his first days in office had bolstered the economy, transformed the nation's energy sector, and positioned the United States for a strong rebound.

But Mr. Obama's trip to the Saft America factory here, opened in 2011 with a $95.5 million investment from the Department of Energy, also highlighted the challenges that have tempered the economic recovery and the difficulty that the president has had in claiming credit for it.

. . .

After touring the facility and watching a large robot named Wall-E assembling one of the batteries, the president called the factory "tangible evidence" that his stimulus package had worked and said that the economy was better off for it. "We took an empty swamp and turned it into an engine of innovation," he said.

That engine, though, has sputtered as it has struggled to start here. Saft, based in Paris, announced last week that it was reducing the factory's value because it had still not gained profitability in the competitive lithium-ion battery market. Saying he was "frustrated," the company's chief executive projected the plant might not be profitable for a few more years.

For the full story, see:

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS. "Obama Praises Stimulus at Battery Plant." The New York Times (Sat., FEB. 27, 2016): A12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 26, 2016, and has the title "Obama Points to Florida Factory as Evidence That Stimulus Worked.")

February 27, 2016

Bernanke's "Astonishing" Admission that He Tried, and Failed, to Save Lehman

(p. B1) It is astonishing to hear a former Federal Reserve chairman acknowledge that he may have misled the public as part of an agreement with another senior government official about one of the most crucial moments in recent financial history -- and that he now questions whether he should have "been more forthcoming." But that is what Ben S. Bernanke says in his new memoir, "The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath."

That crucial moment? The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Mr. Bernanke, in perhaps the most candid explanation of Lehman's 2008 collapse, writes that he and Henry M. Paulson, then the treasury secretary, purposely obfuscated when asked about Lehman's demise early on, allowing a narrative to develop that the government had purposely let the firm fail.

"In congressional testimony immediately after Lehman's collapse, Paulson and I were deliberately quite vague when discussing whether we could have saved Lehman," Mr. Bernanke writes. "But we had agreed in advance to be vague because we were intensely concerned that acknowledging our inability to save Lehman would hurt market confidence and increase pressure on other vulnerable firms."

. . .

(p. B4) He writes that it was simply impossible to save Lehman, pointing to the nearly $200 billion of losses that Lehman's creditors have since suffered. No one has come forward on the record, nor has any contemporaneous document been produced in the past seven years that said the government had found a way to save the company and specifically chose not to do so for political reasons, a point Mr. Bernanke alludes to in his book. "I do not want the notion that Lehman's failure could have been avoided, and that its failure was consequently a policy choice, to become the received wisdom, for the simple reason that it is not true," he writes. "We did everything we could think of to avoid it."

For the full commentary, see:

Sorkin, Andrew Ross. "In Bernanke's Memoir, a Candid Look at Lehman." The New York Times (Tues., OCT. 6, 2015): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date OCT. 5, 2015, and has the title "In Ben Bernanke's Memoir, a Candid Look at Lehman Brothers' Collapse.")

The Bernanke memoir is:

Bernanke, Ben S. The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015.

February 25, 2016

China "on a Treadmill to Hell"

(p. B1) DAVOS, Switzerland -- At the World Economic Forum here, chief executives and investors are blaming China for a slump in global markets.

Fears about the country's downshift, as its official growth slowed to a quarter-century low, have dominated high-level discussions, both during public debates and in smaller, private meetings.

The financier George Soros said at a dinner on Wednesday night [January 20, 2016] that a "hard landing is practically unavoidable," adding that China is the root of the current financial crisis.

. . .

(p. B6) Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist who has long warned of a potential financial crisis in China, remained skeptical [that the Chinese government will reform its policies]. "There is a big propaganda push to say everything is good, everything is fine."

Earlier in the week he told attendees at the forum that China's large accumulation of government debt would one day be a shock to a financial system that "amplifies shocks."

Others with bearish views on China have kept their claws out. Jim S. Chanos, who once said China was "on a treadmill to hell," said he remained deeply concerned. His hedge fund, Kynikos Associates, estimated that China's nominal gross domestic growth in 2015 was 5 percent compared with 15 percent just five years earlier.

"China's debt problems still lie ahead of it," Mr. Chanos said on Thursday, referring to concerns about the extent to which China's seeming economic growth is actually fueled by borrowing.

As for Mr. Soros, he told an audience at the Panorama Restaurant in the Seehof Hotel in Davos this year that the Chinese had waited too long to properly address the transition of its growth model. Asked by a Bloomberg reporter if there was a risk of repeating 2008, Mr. Soros said the market was in a similar time of financial crisis.

"But the source of the disequilibrium is different," Mr. Soros said, adding that in 2008, the main cause was the United States subprime crisis. "Now," he said, "the root cause is basically China."

For the full story, see:

ALEXANDRA STEVENSON. "Fears About China's Economy Fester at Davos." The New York Times (Sat., JAN. 23, 2016): B1 & B6.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date and phrase, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 22, 2016.)

January 5, 2016

Fewer Startups and Slower Growth Among the Fewer: Double Whammy to Economic Growth

(p. 7B) Previous studies have shown that, despite the success of firms like Facebook, the number of startups has dropped sharply, from about 13 percent of all firms in the late 1980s to about 8 percent in 2011. Now, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that the expansion of the remaining startups -- which traditionally has been much faster than the growth of existing companies -- has slowed considerably. By some measures, it now barely exceeds the average of older companies.

So there's a double whammy: fewer startups and slower growth among the survivors. This could be one reason why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so sluggish, with the economy's growth averaging about 2 percent annually from 2010 to 2014, much slower than earlier post-World War II recoveries.

For the full commentary, see:

Robert J. Samuelson. "Our rate of startups is stalling at an inopportune time." Omaha World-Herald (Sun., Dec. 20, 2015): 7B.

I strongly suspect, but am not sure, that the NBER working paper referred to above, is:

Decker, Ryan, John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and Javier Miranda. "Where Has All the Skewness Gone? The Decline in High-Growth (Young) Firms in the U.S." NBER Working Paper # 21776, Dec. 2015.

January 4, 2016

"We're from the Streets and We Want Change"

(p. A9) CARACAS, Venezuela -- On a sunny afternoon, Jorge Millán, an opposition candidate for congress, walked through the narrow streets of a lower-middle-class neighborhood, pressing the flesh in what was once a no man's land for people like him.

. . .

With the economy sinking under the weight of triple-digit inflation, a deep recession, shortages of basic goods and long lines at stores despite the nation's vast oil reserves, the opposition has its best chance in years to win a legislative majority.

. . .

"I was a Chavista, but Chávez isn't here anymore," said Mr. Omaña, referring to the followers of the former president.

"It's this guy," he said, referring to Mr. Maduro. "It's not the same."

Mr. Omaña complained about having to stand in long lines to buy food and about the fast-rising prices, saying that for the first time since Mr. Chávez was elected in 1998 he would vote for an opposition candidate.

"Enough is enough," he said. "We need something good for Venezuela."

Venezuelan politics was dominated after 1998 by Mr. Chávez and the movement he started, which he called the Bolivarian revolution, after the country's independence hero, Simón Bolívar. Mr. Chávez died in 2013, and his disciple, Mr. Maduro, was elected to succeed him, vowing to continue Mr. Chávez's socialist-inspired policies.

. . .

Opposition candidates said one of the biggest surprises of the campaign has been the warm reception they have received in what were once hostile pro-government strongholds.

Carlos Mendoza, 53, a motorcycle taxi driver and former convict who works in the district where Mr. Millán is running, said that he belongs to a group, known as a colectivo, that in the past was paid by the government to help out during campaigns, attend rallies and drive voters to the polls. Such groups were also often used to intimidate opposition supporters.

"They called us again this time," Mr. Mendoza said. "I told them, 'No way, you're not using me again.' "

"We're from the streets," he said, "and we want change."

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM NEUMAN. "Venezuela's Economic Pain Gives Opposition Lift Before Vote." The New York Times (Sat., DEC. 5, 2015): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 4, 2015, and has the title "Venezuela's Economic Woes Buoy Opposition Before Election.")

December 26, 2015

Cuomo Bans the Fracking that Could Revive New York's Southern Tier

(p. A25) CONKLIN, N.Y. -- The main grocery store here was replaced by a Family Dollar store, already faded. The historic front of the town hall, a castle no less, is crumbling, and donations are being solicited. The funds earmarked to strip off the lead paint from the castle's exterior went instead to clear mold from the basement.

This town of roughly 5,500 residents looks alarmingly like dozens of other towns and cities in New York's Southern Tier, a vast part of the state that runs parallel to Pennsylvania. Years ago, the region was a manufacturing powerhouse, a place where firms like General Electric and Westinghouse thrived. But over time companies have downsized, or left altogether, lured abroad or to states with lower taxes and fewer regulations.

. . .

In western New York, . . . , Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, pledged $1 billion in 2012 to support economic development. Since then, he has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into numerous Buffalo-area projects.

The Southern Tier has proved to be a harder fix. It is predominantly rural and lacks a significant population core that typically attracts the private sector.

The region is resource rich, but landowners are angry the government will not let them capitalize on it. Some had pinned their hopes of an economic revival on the prospect of the state's authorizing hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking; many of them can recite the payment formula gas companies were proposing: $500 a month per acre.

But the Cuomo administration, citing health risks, decided last year to ban the practice, leaving some farmers contemplating logging the timber on their land, a move that could destroy swaths of pristine forest.

For the full story, see:

SUSANNE CRAIG. "Former Hub of Manufacturing Ponders Next Act." The New York Times (Weds., SEPT. 30, 2015): A20-A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 29, 2015, and has the title "New York's Southern Tier, Once a Home for Big Business, Is Struggling.")

November 24, 2015

Haiti Stagnates Under Crony Capitalism

(p. A13) A May 2015 World Bank "systematic country diagnostic" on Haiti is instructive.

. . .

As the World Bank report notes, Haiti suffers from crony capitalism that holds back economic growth.

. . .

The record of Haiti's elected politicians, since the transition to democracy at the beginning of the 1990s, is dismal. The political class still uses its power for personal aggrandizement, as the infamous dictators François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude did for almost 30 years.

Just as discouraging is that after more than two decades of going to the polls, Haitians have yet to taste economic freedom, and emigration has become the only option for those who hope to get ahead by hard work. The World Bank reports that between 1971 and 2013 gross domestic product per capita "fell by .7% per year on average."

. . .

The World Bank authors gently speculate that there is "little competitive pressure." They observe this "could be the result of high legal or behavioral entry barriers" and this "could facilitate tacit agreements among families/groups to allocate markets among themselves, which may harm productivity and incentive to innovate."

This is polite jargon for collusion, which Haitians already know. They also know that absent the political will to open markets to competition, elections won't matter much.

For the full commentary, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "Diagnosing What Ails Haiti's Economy; The World Bank fingers cronyism, of which Bill Clinton was for years a symbol." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Oct. 12, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on Oct. 11, 2015.)

The World Bank report mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:


November 9, 2015

Marxist Wrecks Brazil Economy

(p. A6) "The Brazilian model celebrated just a few years ago is turning into a slow-motion train wreck," said Mansueto Almeida, a prominent commentator on economic policy. "Our political leaders want to point fingers at China or some external villain, but they cannot escape the fact that this self-inflicted crisis was made in Brazil."

Even with the country's legacy of economic turmoil, some historians say that Ms. Rousseff's track record on economic growth ranks among the worst of any Brazilian president's over the last century.

. . .

Hoping to prevent Brazil from cooling too much after the sizzling boom of the previous decade, Ms. Rousseff, 67, a former Marxist guerrilla who was tortured during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and took office in 2011, doubled down on bets that she could stave off a severe slowdown by harnessing a web of government-controlled banks and energy companies.

Ms. Rousseff pressured the central bank to reduce interest rates, fueling a credit spree among overstretched consumers who are now struggling to repay loans. She cut taxes for certain domestic industries and imposed price controls on gasoline and electricity, creating huge losses at public energy companies.

Going further, she expanded the sway of Brazil's colossal national development bank, whose lending portfolio already dwarfed that of the World Bank. Drawing funds from the national treasury, the bank, known as the B.N.D.E.S., increased taxpayer-subsidized loans to large corporations at rates that were often significantly lower than those individuals could obtain from their banks.

Ms. Rousseff's critics argue that she also began using funds from giant government banks to cover budget shortfalls as she and her leftist Workers' Party headed into elections.

"They deliberately destroyed the public finances to obtain re-election," said Antônio Delfim Netto, 87, a former finance minister and one of Brazil's most influential economists. Taking note of the government's inability to rein in spending as a budget deficit expands, Mr. Delfim Netto and other economists are warning that officials may simply opt to print more money, stirring ghosts in an economy once ravaged by high inflation.

. . .

Unemployment is expected to climb even higher as the authorities ponder ways to cut a federal bureaucracy that grew almost 30 percent from 2003 to 2013, to 600,000 civil servants.

A pension crisis is also brewing, partly because of laws that allow many Brazilians to start receiving retirement benefits in their early 50s, even though life expectancy has increased and the fertility rate has fallen, limiting the number of young people to support the aging population.

"How can a person who is 52 years old be able to retire with a pension?" Luiz Fernando Figueiredo, a former central bank official, asked reporters. "These things have to be confronted. If not, the country will become another Greece."

Parts of Brazil's business establishment are in revolt, openly expressing disdain. Exame, a leading business magazine, devotes an entire section called "Only in Brazil" to documenting problems with the public bureaucracy.

These examples include a $120 million light-rail system in the city of Campinas that lies abandoned because of poor planning, and a measure requiring companies to obtain a special license before allowing employees to work on Sundays.

For the full story, see:

SIMON ROMERO. "As Boom Fades, Brazil Asks How Sizzle Turned to Fizzle."The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word and date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title "As a Boom Fades, Brazilians Wonder How It All Went Wrong.")

October 25, 2015

Bernanke Not Clear if His Zero Interest Rate Policy Increased Inequality

(p. B3) . . . it is striking to find Mr. Bernanke . . . receptive to a . . . critique: that the bond-purchasing efforts, known as quantitative easing, increased economic inequality.

"Monetary policy is a blunt tool which certainly affects the distribution of income and wealth, although whether the net effect is to increase or reduce inequality is not clear," Mr. Bernanke wrote in a blog post on Monday.

This was not a white flag. Mr. Bernanke went on to argue that the stimulus campaign was justified irrespective of the impact on inequality. But it struck a surprisingly hesitant note on a day when the Brookings Institution, Mr. Bernanke's new home, hosted a conference on the same subject that was largely devoted to evidence that the Fed's efforts had reduced economic inequality.

. . .

Current Fed officials share Mr. Bernanke's judgment about the basic economic impact of the program. "Did these policies work?" Stanley Fischer, the Fed's vice chairman, asked rhetorically during a speech on Monday in Toronto. "The econometric evidence says yes. So does the evidence of one's eyes."

But the "eye test" has also suggested to many that the wealthy have benefited disproportionately. The stock market has soared, and investors have prospered, even as wage growth has stagnated. Kevin Warsh, a former Fed governor, has memorably described the Fed's current role as a "reverse Robin Hood," rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor.

For the full commentary, see:

Binyamin Appelbaum. "The Upshot; Ben Bernanke Says Fed Can't Get Caught Up in Inequality Debate." The New York Times (Tues., JUNE 2, 2015): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date JUNE 1, 2015 and has the title "The Upshot; Ben Bernanke Says Fed Can't Get Caught Up in Inequality Debate.")

October 11, 2015

Feds Constrain Startups

(p. A15) Virtually every state has suffered a drop in startups, which suggests that this is a national, and not a regional or state, problem.

. . .

If history is any indication, many of today's economic heavyweights will ultimately decline as new businesses take their place. Research by the Kaufman Foundation shows that only about half of the 1995 Fortune 500 firms remained on the list in 2010.

Startups also have declined in high technology. John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland reports that there are fewer startups in high technology and information-processing since 2000, as well as fewer high-growth startups--annual employment growth of more than 25%--across all sectors. Even more troubling is that the smaller number of high-growth startups is not growing as quickly as in the past.

. . .

Surveys by John Dearie and Courtney Gerduldig, authors of "Where the Jobs Are: Entrepreneurship and the Soul of the American Economy" (2013), show that entrepreneurs report being hamstrung by difficulties in finding skilled workers, by a complex tax code that penalizes small business, by regulations that raise the costs of doing business, and by difficulties in obtaining financing that have worsened since 2008.

For the full story, see:

EDWARD C. PRESCOTT and LEE E. OHANIAN. "Behind the Productivity Plunge: Fewer Startups; New businesses were created at a 30% lower rate in 2012 than the annual average rate in the 1980s." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., June 26, 2014): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 25, 2014.)

September 23, 2015

Venezuelans Irritated by Short Supply of Cerveceria Polar Beer

(p. 5A) CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelans are facing the prospect of a heat wave without their favorite beer, the latest indignity in a country that has seen shortages of everything from disposable diapers to light bulbs.

Cerveceria Polar, which distributes 80 percent of the beer in the socialist South American country, began shutting down breweries this week because of a lack of barley, hops and other raw materials, and has halted deliveries to Caracas liquor stores.

"This is never-never land," said Yefferson Ramirez, who navigated a rush of disgruntled customers Thursday behind the counter at a corner store in posh eastern Caracas. The shop has been out of milk and bottled water for months, but the beer shortfall is provoking a new level of irritation.

For the full story, see:

Associated Press. "Venezuela's top beer scarce amid heat wave." Omaha World-Heraldl (Sat., Aug. 8, 2015): 5A.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 7, 2015.)

September 22, 2015

Venezeuelan Socialists Seize Warehouses of Cerveceria Polar Beer

PolarWorkersProtestSocialistsSeizingProperty.jpg "Polar workers protested the government's decision to expropriate warehouse land in Caracas on Thursday [July 30, 2015]." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A7) CARACAS, Venezuela--The government ordered major food companies, including units of PepsiCo and Nestlé Inc., to evacuate warehouses in an area where the state plans to expropriate land to build low-cost housing.

. . .

Manuel Larrazábal, a director at Polar, said he hoped the government would reconsider the measure. "We don't doubt that they need to construct housing, which is so important, but we ask why it has to affect active industrial facilities."

. . .

Some workers painted messages including "No to expropriation" and "Let us work" onto the walls of the industrial park and on dozens of trucks that lined the streets outside, which were blocked by police and National Guard. Polar said the move would affect some 600 workers, as well as 1,400 employees who transport their goods around Caracas and two neighboring states.

. . .

Polar suspended operations at its facility after getting the order Wednesday night. The expropriation order extends a history of shaky relations between it and the government, which began under the late leader Hugo Chávez and continues under his protégé, Mr. Maduro.

In recent months, the company, which is the largest beer maker in Venezuela, said it had to halt work at several plants and breweries due to labor strife. It has also struggled with difficulties in acquiring raw materials and U.S. dollars to pay overseas suppliers, a process controlled by the government due to complicated currency regulations.

For the full story, see:

KEJAL VYAS . "Venezuela Takeover Order Riles Companies; Maduro's government wants industrial zone to build housing for poor." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 31, 2015): A7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 30, 2015.)

July 13, 2015

Banks Used "Regulatory Arbitrage" to Rent Seek at Taxpayers' Expense

(p. 21) Between 2009 and 2011, a group of economists at New York University's Stern School of Business published an influential series of reports and books that sought to explain what, exactly, happened during the financial crisis. The depth of the inquiry was notable because the school is generally thought of as a Wall Street-friendly training ground for future bankers. One of the most striking findings was that between 1980 and 2000, the large banks in America had significantly moved away from productivity ­enhancement and toward rent-­seeking.

For the reports' principal authors, Matthew Richardson and Viral Acharya, the evidence of this shift came from careful study of the various ways that banks have legally evaded regulation of their capital requirements. A fundamental tenet of bank regulation is that banks shouldn't borrow too much, because being overleveraged makes them vulnerable to collapse. But banks can most easily make huge profits if they borrow huge amounts, and they tend to pursue unsafe levels of borrowing. Then, the authors observed, they use their power as essential tools in an economy to negotiate bailouts from the government, forcing taxpayers to guarantee their losses. Richardson and Acharya showed that it was precisely because our banking regulations were so extensive and complex that banks were able to seek rents. They called this "regulatory arbitrage," a term that means banks have harnessed regulation and turned it into a powerful business tool.

For the full commentary, see:

ADAM DAVIDSON. "Wall Street Is Using the Power of Dodd-Frank Against Itself." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., May 31, 2015): 18 & 20-21.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 27, 2015, and has the title "Wall Street Is Using the Power of Dodd-Frank Against Itself.")

One of the relevant papers by Acharya and Richardson is:

Acharya, Viral V., and Matthew Richardson. "Causes of the Financial Crisis." Critical Review 21, no. 2-3 (2009): 195-210.

May 23, 2015

Henry Paulson Fears Chinese Economy "Will Face a Reckoning"

(p. B1) About 340 pages into Henry M. Paulson's new book on China, a sentence comes almost out of nowhere that stops readers in their tracks.

"Frankly, it's not a question of if, but when, China's financial system," he writes, "will face a reckoning and have to contend with a wave of credit losses and debt restructurings."

. . .

(p. B2) Like the United States crisis in 2008, Mr. Paulson worries that in China "the trigger would be a collapse in the real estate market," and he declared in an interview that China is experiencing a real estate bubble. He noted that debt as a percentage of gross domestic product in China rose to 204 percent in June 2014 from 130 percent in 2008.

"Slowing economic growth and rapidly rising debt levels are rarely a happy combination, and China's borrowing spree seems certain to lead to trouble," he wrote.

Mr. Paulson's analysis in his book, "Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower," is all the more remarkable because he has long been a bull on China and has deep friendships with its senior leaders, who could frown upon his straightforward comments.

For the full commentary, see:

Andrew Ross Sorkin. "DEALBOOK; A Veteran of the Crisis Tells China to Be Wary." The New York Times (Tues., APRIL 21, 2015): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date APRIL 20, 2015, and has the title "DEALBOOK; A Veteran of the Financial Crisis Tells China to Be Wary.")

The book discussed above is:

Paulson, Henry M. Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower. New York: Twelve, 2015.

April 9, 2015

Federal Government Main Cause of 2008 Financial Crisis

(p. A11) How much did the federal government contribute to the financial crisis? The question is quantitative, and the answer requires the kind of number crunching and careful thinking than cannot fit into an op-ed or television interview. Peter J. Wallison 's "Hidden in Plain Sight," is the book that answers the question most meticulously of any written since 2008.

At this point, seven years on, most readers of this newspaper will recognize that the federal government's role has been to force American taxpayers to subsidize trillions of dollars of risky lending. But each reader of Mr. Wallison's book will come away a bit embarrassed at having neglected or forgot about one or more of Washington's many contributions to the financial crisis.

. . .

In my opinion, a financial crisis is not only a likely consequence of implicit subsidies for risky lending but a necessary one because that is when implicit guarantees ultimately become real-life bailouts and trigger the taxpayer payments necessary to fund Washington's longstanding lending goals. Mr. Wallison gives taxpayers the inside story of how housing policy was like a siphon hidden inside their wallets--and why it hurt so much.

For the full review, see:

CASEY B. MULLIGAN. "BOOKSHELF; Capitol Hill Pickpockets; Risky loans made by Fannie and Freddie were the biggest factor that led to the financial crisis--and the direct result of federal policy." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Feb. 25, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 24, 2015.)

The book under review is:

Wallison, Peter J. Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World's Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again. New York: Encounter Books, 2015.

March 27, 2015

Recovery Slows When Start-Ups Are Taxed to Pay for Bailouts of Failed Firms

Vernon Smith, whose views are quoted below, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002.

(p. A11) The rescue of incumbent investors in the government bailout of the largest U.S. banks in the autumn of 2008 has been widely viewed as unfair, as indeed it was in applying different rules to different players. . . .

. . .

The rescue, . . . , had a hidden cost for the economy that is difficult to quantify but can be crippling. New economic activity is hobbled if it is not freed from the burden of sharing its return with investors who bore risks that failed. The demand for new economic activity is enlarged when its return does not have to be shared with former claimants protected from the consequences of their risk-taking. This is the function of bankruptcy in an economic system organized on loss as well as profit principles of motivation.

. . .

Growth in both employment and output depends vitally on new and young companies. Unfortunately, U.S. firms face exceptionally high corporate income-tax rates, the highest in the developed world at 35%, which hobbles growth and investment. Now the Obama administration is going after firms that reincorporate overseas for tax purposes. Last week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee urging Congress to "enact legislation immediately . . . to shut down this abuse of our tax system."

This is precisely the opposite of what U.S. policy makers should be doing. To encourage investment, the U.S. needs to lower its corporate rates by at least 10 percentage points and reduce the incentive to escape the out-of-line and unreasonably high corporate tax rate. Ideally, since young firms generally reinvest their profits in production and jobs, such taxes should fall only on business income after it is paid out to individuals. As long as business income is being reinvested it is growing new income for all.

There are no quick fixes. What we can do is reduce bureaucratic and tax barriers to the emergence and growth of new economic enterprises, which hold the keys to a real economic recovery.

For the full commentary, see:

VERNON L. SMITH. "The Lingering, Hidden Costs of the Bank Bailout; Why is growth so anemic? New economic activity has been discouraged. Here are some ways to change that." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 24, 2014): A11.

(Note: last ellipsis in original, other ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 23, 2014.)

March 10, 2015

Over-Taxed and Over-Regulated Castles for Sale in Italy

(p. A3) While castles and historic mansions in Italy have long been family inheritances, today dozens of them are for sale, even in one of the most conservative real estate markets in Europe.

. . .

On historic buildings, where owners used to pay little as compensation for the elevated costs of maintaining centuries-old structures, the taxes increased by 20 or 30 times, depending on the property's location.

On some buildings, taxes spiked from 3,000 euros (about $3,400) in 2011 to 75,000 euros (about $84,000) by 2013. That might be a small figure for castle dwellers in the United Kingdom, but it is a burden for Italian pockets, especially in regions where the property's market value or tourism interest is low.

The trends, to many here, are indicative of Italy's place as a country caught between its past glory and its modern difficulty in producing an innovative climate capable of ensuring its future.

. . .

. . . buyer beware: Living a nobleman's life in Italy comes at a cost, even for many tycoons. New owners face the same onerous bureaucracy as Italians to make even minimal changes to many older properties.

Under Italian law, the owner of a historic building is its custodian, bound to maintain it and grant its security and, in some cases, its use to the public. Many buyers give up on properties of great historic value, but in bad condition, for this reason, brokers said.

"This is a problem for possible investors, who want to have modern comforts like a spa, air-conditioning or a lift," said Mr. Pallavicini, of the Italian Historic Houses Association.

"We no longer live like in 1800," he added. "But 99 percent of those changes are either impossible or extremely bureaucratic and complicated in an Italian historic building."

For the full story, see:

GAIA PIANIGIANI. "PONTASSIEVE JOURNAL; Life of Italian Nobility for Sale, Complete With Regulations and Taxes." The New York Times (Weds., JAN. 28, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipses are added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 27, 2015.)

March 4, 2015

Depression of 1920-21 Ended Quickly, Without Government Stimulus or Bailouts

(p. C3) Beginning in January 1920, something much worse than a recession blighted the world. The U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression), as well as a 31.6% drop in industrial production and a 46.6% fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Unemployment spiked, and corporate profits plunged.

. . .

In the absence of anything resembling government stimulus, a modern economist may wonder how the depression of 1920-21 ever ended. Oddly enough, deflation turned out to be a tonic. Prices--and, critically, wages too--were allowed to fall, and they fell far enough to entice consumers, employers and investors to part with their money. Europeans, noticing that America was on the bargain counter, shipped their gold across the Atlantic, where it swelled the depression-shrunken U.S. money supply. Shares of profitable and well-financed American companies changed hands at giveaway valuations.

Of course, the year-and-a-half depression must have seemed interminable for all who were jobless or destitute. It was, however, a great deal shorter than the 43 months of the Great Depression of 1929-33. Then too, the 1922 recovery would bring tears of envy to today's central bankers and policy makers: Passenger-car production shot up by 63%, for instance, and the Dow jumped by 21.5%. "From practically all angles," this newspaper judged in a New Year's Day 1923 retrospective, "1922 can be recorded as the renaissance of prosperity."

In 2008, as Lehman Brothers toppled, the Great Depression monopolized the market on historical analogies. To avoid a recurrence of the 1930s, officials declared, the U.S. had to knock down interest rates, manipulate stock prices to go higher, repave the highways and trade in the clunkers.

The forgotten depression teaches a very different lesson. Sometimes the best stimulus is none at all.

For the full commentary, see:

JAMES GRANT. "The Depression Fixed by Doing Nothing; The agonizing but often forgotten 1920-21 economic crisis suggests that sometimes the best stimulus is none at all." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Jan. 3, 2015): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 2, 2015, and has the title "The Depression That Was Fixed by Doing Nothing; The often forgotten 1920-21 economic crisis suggests that sometimes the best stimulus is none at all.")

Grant's commentary is elaborated on in his book:

Grant, James. The Forgotten Depression: 1921, the Crash That Cured Itself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

February 23, 2015

Piketty Prefers Reform Instead of Receiving Legion of Honor

(p. A16) PARIS--French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," has turned down the Legion of Honor, saying the government should focus on reviving the country's anemic economy rather than "decide who is honorable."

Mr. Piketty's refusal of one of France's highest distinctions--announced via a short declaration to the Agence France-Presse news agency--is a snub to the government a day after President François Hollande cited the global influence of French scholars as evidence of the country's unfailing might.

For the full story, see:

INTI LANDAURO. "French Economist Refuses State Honor." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Jan. 2, 2015): A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 1, 2015, and has the title "French Economist Thomas Piketty Refuses Legion of Honor.")

February 20, 2015

High Costs of Public Sector Unions

(p. A11) . . . the costs of public-sector unions are great. "The byproduct of political management of the economy is waste," the author notes. Second, pension and benefit obligations weigh down our cities. Trash disposal in Chicago costs $231 per ton, versus $74 in non-union Dallas. Increasingly, such a burden is fatal. When Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, a full half of the city's$18.2 billion long-term debt was owed for employee pensions and health benefits. Even before the next downturn, other cities and some states will find themselves faltering because of similarly massive obligations.

There is something grotesque about public workers fighting for benefits whose provision will hurt the public. Citizens who vote Democratic may choose not to acknowledge the perversity out of party loyalty. But over the years a few well-known Democrats have sided against the public-sector unions. "The process of collective bargaining as usually understood cannot be transplanted into the public service," a Democratic politician once declared. His name? Franklin Roosevelt.

For the full review, see:

AMITY SHLAES. "BOOKSHELF; Public Unions vs. the Public; Pension and benefit obligations weigh down our cities. Trash disposal in Chicago costs $231 per ton, versus $74 in non-union Dallas." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Jan. 16, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 15, 2015.)

The book under review is:

DiSalvo, Daniel. Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

December 2, 2014

Lippmann Attacked FDR's Socialist National Industrial Recovery Act

(p. A13) . . . Duke economic historian Craufurd D. Goodwin employs the writings of the once-famous newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann to describe the fervid U.S. debates that began with the 1929 stock-market crash.

. . .

Lippmann established his intellectual credentials in the 1920s, writing several well-received books. They included "Public Opinion," which excoriated the press for sloppy coverage of government policies and actions. The book is often seen as a call for top-down rule by experts, but Mr. Goodwin argues that Lippmann had something else in mind--that he was eager for expert opinion and "reasoned study" to be widely disseminated so that self-government would be more fully informed and the citizenry less easily manipulated.

. . .

At first, Lippmann embraced the Keynesian argument that government could ameliorate downswings in business cycles through deficit spending, but he later had second thoughts about economic engineering and became more attuned to the free-market ideas of Friedrich Hayek, whom he knew and consulted.   . . .    Lippmann attacked as ill-conceived the most ambitious New Deal brainstorm, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which attempted to organize all business and industry into cartels to boost prices.

For the full review, see:

GEORGE MELLOAN. "BOOKSHELF; The Umpire of American Public Debate; Certain that a return of investment confidence would restore prosperity, Lippmann criticized those that blamed Wall Street for the malaise." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Oct. 14, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 13, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Walter Lippmann: Umpire of American Public Debate; Certain that a return of investment confidence would restore prosperity, Lippmann criticized those that blamed Wall Street for the malaise.")

The book under review, is:

Goodwin, Craufurd D. Walter Lippmann: Public Economist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

November 22, 2014

Socialist Price Setting Causes Shortages of Corn Flour, Car Batteries and Toilet Paper

(p. B1) Venezuela's prices on everything from butter to flat-screen TVs are set without warning by the government, which also caps corporate profits at 30%. Any profits evaporate quickly, however, because inflation is almost double that.

And expanded price controls imposed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded late leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez in April 2013, have exacerbated shortages of basic items such as corn flour, car batteries and toilet paper, triggering violent street protests since early February.

For the full story, see:

MAXWELL MURPHY and KEJAL VYAS. "CFO JOURNAL; Currency Chaos in Venezuela Portends Write-Downs." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 27, 2014): B1 & B6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 26, 2014.)

November 12, 2014

FDR Ruthlessly Manipulated Political Process

(p. D8) Michael C. Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly who wrote two books chronicling what he saw as the intertwined decline of democracy and journalism in the United States, died on Thursday [April 17, 2014] at his home in Lakeville, Conn.

. . .

The second book, "The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power From FDR to LBJ," published in 2004, measured some of the ideas in his first book against the history of the New Deal. It focused on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inner circle of advisers, a group of political operatives and thinkers often called Roosevelt's "brain trust," who helped conceive ideas like the minimum wage, Social Security and federal bank deposit insurance.

Mr. Janeway's father, Eliot Janeway, an economist, Democratic hand and columnist for Time magazine (a portfolio not unheard-of in those days), was a prominent member of that group.

Michael Janeway suggested that in undertaking the radical changes necessary to yank the "shattered American capitalist system into regulation and reform," Roosevelt and his team manipulated the political process with a level of ruthlessness that may have been justified by the perils of the times. But in the years that followed, he wrote, the habit of guile and highhandedness devolved into the kind of arrogance that defined -- and doomed -- the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Roosevelt's last political heir.

For the full obituary, see:

PAUL VITELLO. "Michael Janeway, 73, Former Editor of The Boston Globe." The New York Times (Sat., APRIL 19, 2014): D8.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has title "Michael Janeway, Former Editor of The Boston Globe, Dies at 73.")

The book mentioned in the passage quoted above is:

Janeway, Michael. The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ, Columbia Studies in Contemporary American History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

October 17, 2014

French Socialist Wants to Encourage Entrepreneurs by Reducing Regulations

MacronFrenchSocialist2014-10-07.jpg "Emmanuel Macron, France's new economy minister, has been a major force behind a recent shift by President François Hollande toward a more centrist economic policy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) . . . , what is important, Mr. Macron said, as a late train from the nearby Gare de Lyon rumbled beneath his window, is that France continue to streamline and modernize the welfare state.

"For me being a Socialist today is about defending the unemployed, but also defending businessmen who want to create a company, and those who need jobs," he said. "We have to shift the social model from a lot of formal protections toward loosening bottlenecks in the economy."

For the full story, see:

LIZ ALDERMAN. "France's 36-Year-Old Economy minister Is Face of the New Socialism." The New York Times (Tues., OCT. 7, 2014): B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 6, 2014, and has the title "Emmanuel Macron, Face of France's New Socialism.")

September 16, 2014

Structural Reforms Needed to Increase Innovation

(p. A13) . . . , a lack of "demand" is no longer the problem.

. . .

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford's Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth's Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago's Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

These views are a lot less sexy than a unicausal "demand," fixable by simple, magic-bullet policies. They require us to do the hard work of fixing the things we all agree need fixing: our tax code, our cronyist regulatory state, our welter of anticompetitive and anti-innovative protections, education, immigration, social program disincentives, and so on. They require "structural reform," not "stimulus," in policy lingo.

For the commentary, see:

JOHN H. COCHRANE. "OPINION; The Failure of Macroeconomics; When models don't yield the spending policies they want, some Keynesians abandon models--but not the spending." The Wall Street Journal (Thur., July 3, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 2, 2014.)

August 23, 2014

The Vagueness and Regulatory Discretion of Dodd-Frank Is "a Recipe for Cronyism"

(p. 218) Aaron Steelman has an "Interview" with John Cochrane. On Dodd-Frank: "I think Dodd-Frank repeats the same things we've been trying over and over again that have failed, in bigger and bigger ways. . . . The deeper problem is the idea that we just need more regulation--as if regulation is something you pour into a glass like water--not smarter and better designed regulation. Dodd-Frank is pretty bad in that department. It is a long and vague law that spawns a mountain of vague rules, which give regulators huge discretion to tell banks what to do. It's a recipe for cronyism and for banks to game the system to limit competition." On how to stop bailing out large financial institutions: "You have to set up the system ahead of time so that you either can't or won't need to conduct bailouts. Ideally, both. . . . The worst possible system is one in which everyone thinks bailouts are coming, but the government in fact does not have the legal authority to bail out." . . . Econ Focus, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Third Quarter 2013, pp. 34-38. https://www.richmondfed


Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.

(Note: italics, and first two ellipses, are in original; the last ellipsis is added.)

August 9, 2014

20 Years Before Fall of Rome, Ammianus Described "a World Exhausted by Crushing Taxes"

(p. 48) . . . ghosts surged up from the Roman past. An ancient literary critic who had flourished during Nero's reign and had written notes and glosses on classical authors; another critic who quoted extensively from lost epics written in imitation of (p. 49) Homer; a grammarian who wrote a treatise on spelling that Poggio knew his Latin-obsessed friends in Florence would find thrilling. Yet another manuscript was a discovery whose thrill might have been tinged for him with melancholy: a large fragment of a hitherto unknown history of the Roman Empire written by a high-ranking officer in the imperial army, Ammianus Marcellinus. The melancholy would have arisen not only from the fact that the first thirteen of the original thirty-one books were missing from the manuscript Poggio copied by hand--and these lost books have never been found--but also from the fact that the work was written on the eve of the empire's collapse. A clearheaded, thoughtful, and unusually impartial historian, Ammianus seems to have sensed the impending end. His description of a world exhausted by crushing taxes, the financial ruin of large segments of the population, and the dangerous decline in the army's morale vividly conjured up the conditions that made it possible, some twenty years after his death, for the Goths to sack Rome.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 6, 2014

"Different Structural Models Can Fit Aggregate Macroeconomic Data About Equally Well"

(p. 1149) There is an apparent lack of encompassing-forecasting and economic models that can explain the facts uniformly well across business cycles. This is perhaps an inevitable outcome given the changing nature of business cycles. The fact that business cycles are not all alike naturally means that variables that predict activity have a performance that is episodic. Notably, we find that term spreads were good predictors of economic activity in the 1970s and 1980s, but that credit spreads have fared better more recently. This is of course a challenge for forecasters, as we do (p. 1150) not know the origins of future business cycle fluctuations. Much needs to be learned to determine which and how financial variables are to be monitored in real time especially in an evolving economy when historical data do not provide adequate guidance.

Explanations for the Great Recessions usually involve some form of nonlinearity. The sudden nature of the downturn following the collapse of Lehman is consistent with nonlinearity being part of the transmission mechanism. At the same time, we lack robust evidence of nonlinearity from aggregate low-frequency macroeconomic data. Essentially, there is an identification issue as different structural models can fit aggregate macroeconomic data about equally well.

For the full article, see:

Ng, Serena, and Jonathan H. Wright. "Facts and Challenges from the Great Recession for Forecasting and Macroeconomic Modeling." Journal of Economic Literature 51, no. 4 (Dec. 2013): 1120-54.

July 10, 2014

Raghuram Rajan: "Never in the Field of Economic Policy Has So Much Been Spent, with So Little Evidence, by So Few"

(p. 213) Raghuram Rajan delivered the Andrew Crockett Memorial Lecture at the Bank of International Settlements, titled "A Step in the Dark: Unconventional Monetary Policy after the Crisis." "Two competing narratives of the sources of the crisis, and attendant remedies, are emerging. The first, and the better known diagnosis, is that demand has collapsed because of the high debt build up prior to the crisis. . . . But there is another narrative. And that is that the fundamental growth capacity in industrial countries has been shifting down for decades now, masked for a while by debt-fueled demand. More such demand, or asking for reckless spending from emerging markets, will not put us back on a sustainable path to growth. Instead, industrial democracies need to improve the environment for growth. The first narrative is the standard Keynesian one, modified for a debt crisis. It is the one (p. 214) most government officials and central bankers, as well as Wall Street economists, subscribe to, and needs little elaboration. The second narrative, in my view, offers a deeper and more persuasive view of the blight that afflicts our times." Rajan argues that central banks took the right actions during the financial crisis, but that the wisdom of the ultra-low interest rate policies in the aftermath of the crisis are not yet clear. "Churchill could well have said on the subject of unconventional monetary policy, 'Never in the field of economic policy has so much been spent, with so little evidence, by so few'. Unconventional monetary policy has truly been a step in the dark." June 23, 2013, at


Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 211-18.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

May 22, 2014

In France "'Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité' Means that What's Yours Should Be Mine"

SantacruzGuillaumeFrenchEntrepreneurInLondon2014-04-27.jpgGuillaume Santacruz is among many French entrepreneurs now using London as their base. He said of his native France, "The economy is not going well, and if you want to get ahead or run your own business, the environment is not good." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) Guillaume Santacruz, an aspiring French entrepreneur, brushed the rain from his black sweater and skinny jeans and headed down to a cavernous basement inside Campus London, a seven-story hive run by Google in the city's East End.

. . .

A year earlier, Mr. Santacruz, who has two degrees in finance, was living in Paris near the Place de la Madeleine, working in a boutique finance firm. He had taken that job after his attempt to start a business in Marseille foundered under a pile of government regulations and a seemingly endless parade of taxes. The episode left him wary of starting any new projects in France. Yet he still hungered to be his own boss.

He decided that he would try again. Just not in his own country.

"A lot of people are like, 'Why would you ever leave France?' " Mr. Santacruz said. "I'll tell you. France has a lot of problems. There's a feeling of gloom that seems to be growing deeper. The economy is not going well, and if you want to get ahead or run your own business, the environment is not good."

. . .

(p. 5) "Making it" is almost never easy, but Mr. Santacruz found the French bureaucracy to be an unbridgeable moat around his ambitions. Having received his master's in finance at the University of Nottingham in England, he returned to France to work with a friend's father to open dental clinics in Marseille. "But the French administration turned it into a herculean effort," he said.

A one-month wait for a license turned into three months, then six. They tried simplifying the corporate structure but were stymied by regulatory hurdles. Hiring was delayed, partly because of social taxes that companies pay on salaries. In France, the share of nonwage costs for employers to fund unemployment benefits, education, health care and pensions is more than 33 percent. In Britain, it is around 20 percent.

"Every week, more tax letters would come," Mr. Santacruz recalled.

. . .

Diane Segalen, an executive recruiter for many of France's biggest companies who recently moved most of her practice, Segalen & Associés, to London from Paris, says the competitiveness gap is easy to see just by reading the newspapers. "In Britain, you read about all the deals going on here," Ms. Segalen said. "In the French papers, you read about taxes, more taxes, economic problems and the state's involvement in everything."

. . .

"It is a French cultural characteristic that goes back to almost the revolution and Robespierre, where there's a deep-rooted feeling that you don't show that you make money," Ms. Segalen, the recruiter, said. "There is this sense that 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' means that what's yours should be mine. It's more like, if someone has something I can't have, I'd rather deprive this person from having it than trying to work hard to get it myself. That's a very French state of mind. But it's a race to the bottom."

For the full story, see:

LIZ ALDERMAN. "Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., MARCH 23, 2014): 1 & 5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 22, 2014.)

SegalenDianeFrenchEntrepreneurInLondon2014-04-27.jpg 'Diane Segalen moved most of her executive recruiting practice to London from Paris. In France, she says, "there is this sense that 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' means that what's yours should be mine."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

November 24, 2013

Fed Regulations Are "a Wild Card" Since "Regulators Have a Lot of Leeway"

(p. 1D) The president of First National of Nebraska, the nation's largest privately held banking firm, said new federal regulatory and com­pliance efforts stand to cost the company as much as $30 million this year.

"It is a big uncertainty in the banking world," said Dan O'Neill, speaking Wednesday at the com­pany's annual meeting in Omaha. "They are not operating off of concrete rules. A lot of it is their interpretation."

The federal Consumer Fi­nancial Protection Bureau was formed as a result of the federal Dodd-Frank laws passed in 2010 after widespread bank failures and bailouts using taxpayer money.

. . .

The bureau, he said, worries banks because there is not a "clear body of rules" from which the regulator is operating in eval­uating the fairness of a bank's business practices. He said the agency's regulators have a lot of leeway in deciding what to do af­-(p. 2D)ter examining a bank; penalties for running afoul include fines.

"So it is a bit of a wild card," he said.

For the full story, see:

RUSSELL HUBBARD. "ANNUAL MEETING; First National Chief Says Regulatory Costs Mounting." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., June 20, 2013): 1D-2D.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

November 15, 2013

Income of Rich Is More Volatile than Income of Poor or Middle Class

VolatileIncomeAndSpendingGraph2013-10-25.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) During the past three recessions, the top 1% of earners (those making $380,000 or more in 2008) experienced the largest income shocks in percentage terms of any income group in the U.S., according to research from economists Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen at Northwestern University. When the economy grows, their incomes grow up to three times faster than the rest of the country's. When the economy (p. C2) falls, their incomes fall two or three times as much.

The super-high earners have the biggest crashes. The number of Americans making $1 million or more fell 40% between 2007 and 2009, to 236,883, while their combined incomes fell by nearly 50%--far greater than the less than 2% drop in total incomes of those making $50,000 or less, according to Internal Revenue Service figures.

. . .

"High beta" is a term used in financial markets to describe a stock or asset that has exaggerated up and down swings with the market. Tech start-ups and casino stocks have high betas, for example. Yet studies show that today's rich have higher betas than many of the riskiest gambling stocks. Between 1947 and 1982, the beta of the top 1% was a modest 0.72, meaning that their incomes moved relatively in line with the rest of America. Between 1982 and 2007, their beta soared more than three-fold.

What created high-beta wealth? Economists aren't sure. The rise of the high-betas and the rise in inequality started at the same time, suggesting they have a common cause. Mr. Parker and Ms. Vissing-Jorgenssen cite new communication technologies that allow the best workers and products to be scaled over larger markets, thus making them more sensitive to economic changes. Others cite globalization and the rise of "winner-take-all" pay schemes.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT FRANK. "The Wild Ride of the 1%; The once-stable incomes of America's biggest earners now fluctuate dramatically from year to year. And as go the rich, so goes much of the economy." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 22, 2011): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The Parker and Vissing-Jorgenssen paper is:

Parker, Jonathan A., and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen. "The Increase in Income Cyclicality of High-Income Households and Its Relation to the Rise in Top Income Shares." Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 1-70.

November 13, 2013

Greenspan's Epiphany: As Entitlements Rise, Savings Fall


Source of book image:

(p. C11) In his new book "The Map and the Territory," to be released on Tuesday, Mr. Greenspan, 87, goes on a hunt for what has gone wrong in American politics and in the U.S. economy.

. . .

Mr. Greenspan's biggest revelation came one day about a year ago when he was playing with gross domestic savings numbers. What he found, to his surprise and initial skepticism, was that an increase in entitlements has closely corresponded to a decline in the country's savings. "We had this extraordinary increase in benefits, with each party trying to outbid the other," he says. "That practice has been eroding the country's flow of savings that's so critical in financing our capital investment." The decline in savings has been partly offset by borrowing from abroad, which brings us to our current foreign debt: "$5 trillion and counting," he says.

. . .

Studying the minutiae of the events leading to the financial crisis brought to mind some lessons from his famous friendship, from the 1950s on, with the late Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand.

. . .

Mr. Greenspan then believed in analysis based mainly on hard science and empirical facts. Rand told him that unless he considered human nature and its irrational side, he would "miss a very large part of how human beings behaved." At the time they weren't discussing economics, but today he realizes the full impact of emotions and instincts on markets. He also has come to admire psychologist and Princeton University professor emeritus Daniel Kahneman's work applying psychological insights to economic theory, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 2002.

. . .

With his new book, Mr. Greenspan hopes to provide politicians and the public with a road map to avoid making the same mistakes again. His suggestions include reducing entitlements, embracing "creative destruction" by letting facilities with cutting-edge technology displace those with low productivity, and fixing the political system by encouraging bipartisanship.

For the full interview/review, see:

ALEXANDRA WOLFE, interviewer/reviewer. "WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Alan Greenspan." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Oct. 19, 2013): C11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview/review has the date Oct. 18, 2013, and has the title "WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Alan Greenspan: What Went Wrong; The former Fed chairman on where the economy went wrong, where he went wrong--and Ayn Rand.")

The book discussed is:

Greenspan, Alan. The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature, and the Future of Forecasting. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.

October 28, 2013

Goldman I.P.O. Led to Pressure to Grow


Source of book image:

(p. B8) Steven G. Mandis, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University, takes a measured, academic approach to the question in a new book, "What Happened to Goldman Sachs," an examination of the bank's evolution from an elite private partnership to a vast public corporation -- and the effects of that transformation on its culture.

. . .

Mr. Mandis said that the two popular explanations for what might have caused a shift in Goldman's culture -- its 1999 initial public offering and subsequent focus on proprietary trading -- were only part of the explanation. Instead, Mr. Mandis deploys a sociological theory called "organizational drift" to explain the company's evolution.

The essence of his argument is that Goldman came under a variety of pressures that resulted in slow, incremental changes to the firm's culture and business practices, resulting in the place being much different from what it was in 1979, when the bank's former co-head, John Whitehead, wrote its much-vaunted business principles.

These changes included the shift to a public company structure, a move that limited Goldman executives' personal exposure to risk and shifted it to shareholders. The I.P.O. also put pressure on the bank to grow, causing trading to become a more dominant focus. And Goldman's rapid growth led to more potential for conflicts of interest and not putting clients' interests first, Mr. Mandis says.

For the full review, see:

PETER LATTMAN. "An Ex-Trader, Now a Sociologist, Looks at the Changes in Goldman." The New York Times (Tues., October 1, 2013): B8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date SEPTEMBER 30, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Mandis, Steven G. What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider's Story of Organizational Drift and Its Unintended Consequences. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013.


"Steven G. Mandis is the author of "What Happened to Goldman Sachs."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

October 19, 2013

Samuelson Disputed Nephew Summers' Praise for Milton Friedman

(p. A4) [Uncle Paul Samuelson and nephew Larry Summers] clashed over the fate of struggling mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were bolstered by a government backstop in July 2008 and later taken over completely by the U.S. Treasury.

Mr. Samuelson found "strange and harmful" his nephew's skepticism about the government backstop for the firms. Mr. Summers, a longtime critic of the two firms, wrote back that shareholders and management of Fannie and Freddie didn't deserve taxpayer support.

Friction had emerged earlier in 2006, when Mr. Summers praised the late Mr. Friedman in a New York Times column. Friedman was "the most influential economist" of the second half of the 20th century, Mr. Summers said.

"For your eyes only," Mr. Samuelson wrote to his nephew of Mr. Friedman, "I had to grade him low as a macro economist" and "stubbornly old fashioned."

For the full story, see:

JON HILSENRATH. "A Close Bond and a Shared Love for 'Dismal Science'; Correspondence Between Famously Brash Summers and His Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 14, 2013): A4.

(Note: bracketed words added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated on September 15, 2013 and has the title "Letters Show Little-Known Side of Summers; Correspondence With Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness.")

October 4, 2013

Taxpayers Work, Save and Invest More When Taxes Are Low


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. 15) The 1980s boom was launched on the simple insight that, by lowering tax rates and regulatory hurdles and juicing the incentives to produce, innovate and take risks, the animal spirits of the American free-enterprise system would revive. Two seminal books hatched the supply-side revolution. The first was Jude Wanniski's "The Way the World Works" (1978); the second, George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" (1981).

Almost as influential, coming a few years later, was Lawrence Lindsey's "The Growth Experiment" (1990). Slightly academic in nature, it was the first book to quantify the economic and revenue windfall of the 1981 Reagan across-the-board tax cuts. Mr. Lindsey's conclusion was that Reagan's 1981 tax act quickened the pace of production, which reduced the predicted revenue loss. His research found that although the Reagan tax cuts didn't "pay for themselves," the ones at the highest end of the income spectrum "did produce a revenue gain" because of "changes in taxpayer behavior." He concluded that "the core supply-side tenet--that tax rates powerfully affect the willingness of taxpayers to work, save and invest, and thereby also affect the health of the economy--won as stunning a vindication as has been seen in at least a half-century of economics."

He has now updated his book, taking us through the booms and busts of the past 20 years. It is a valuable project in part because Mr. Lindsey was a front-seat economic adviser to George W. Bush, serving as director of the National Economic Council and as one of the architects of the often-maligned 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.

Mr. Lindsey's central claim is that those tax changes saved the economy from the undertow of the financial meltdown at the end of the Clinton presidency.

For the full review, see:

Stephen Moore. "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'The Growth Experiment Revisited' by Lawrence Lindsey; The 25 years after Reagan's tax cuts saw unprecedented wealth creation and progress. America's net worth exploded by $40 trillion." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., September 10, 2013): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 9, 2013, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'The Growth Experiment Revisited' by Lawrence Lindsey; The 25 years after Reagan's tax cuts saw unprecedented wealth creation and progress. America's net worth exploded by $40 trillion.")

The book under review is:

Lindsey, Lawrence B. The Growth Experiment Revisited: Why Lower, Simpler Taxes Really Are America's Best Hope for Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

September 22, 2013

Growth of Labor Safety Net Made Great Recession Deeper and Longer


Source of book image:

(p. 309) [Mulligan's empirical results suggest] that employment was dropping not only because of declining demand for the employees' products, but also because employers were substituting capital and other factors for labor. This surprising finding suggests that although a decline in aggregate demand for goods and services was one of the reasons for the decline in labor, other causes were also at play in most sectors of the economy. This fact is consistent with an inward shift in the supply of labor to the marketplace during this period.

In chapter 3, Mulligan introduces the main culprit responsible for this supplycurve shift--the unintended consequences of increases in the social safety net that substantially increased the marginal tax rate on work. In his model, Mulligan operationalizes this force into changes in the replacement rate (the fraction of productivity that the average nonemployed person receives in the form of means-tested benefits) and the self-reliance rate (1 minus the replacement rate), which is the fraction of lost productivity not replaced by means-tested benefits.

His conjecture is that, in a reverse of government policies in the 1990s that made work pay for single mothers by transforming welfare as we knew it into a program that nudged single mothers off the Aid to Families with Dependent Children rolls and into the workforce, "temporary" government program expansions to mitigate the (p. 310) short-run consequences of unemployment and the bursting of the housing bubble made a prolonged paid period of nonwork an offer that many Americans found too tempting to refuse.

Mulligan identifies and incorporates the major expansions in eligibility and benefit amounts for Unemployment Insurance and food stamps into an eligibility index that shows that most of the 199 percent growth in these programs between 2007 and 2009 was due to these changes. He uses this growth rate in a weighted index of overall statutory safety-net generosity to determine the degree to which it has influenced overall employment. He does a similar analysis of the means-tested Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which facilitated substantial lender-provided discounts on home mortgage expenses for unemployment insurance-eligible workers. He finds that these market distortions that increased the marginal tax on work grew substantially in 2008, peaked in 2009--at almost triple their 2007 level--and then modestly fell in 2010 to a level appreciably above the 2007 level.

. . .

But his empirical evidence shows that the implementation of these "recession cures" was primarily responsible for the Great Recession's depth and duration.

For the full review, see:

Burkhauser, Richard V. "Review of: "The Redistributive Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy" by Casey B. Mulligan." The Independent Review 18, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 308-11.

(Note: ellipsis, and words in brackets, added.)

Book that is under review:

Mulligan, Casey B. The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

August 13, 2013

For Hubbard and Kane "Institutions Explain Innovation"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A11) Messrs. Hubbard and Kane argue, as do others, that certain policies and core principles are the key: property rights, flexible work rules, open markets. For the authors, such matters explain economic growth entirely.

To those who would cite the primacy of technological breakthroughs, Messrs. Hubbard and Kane assert that inventions only spark growth if there are systems in place (such as intellectual-property rights) that enable inventions to flourish and their value to spread. "The wheel and the windmill were invented many times," they write, "then forgotten, until finally one society had the institutional framework to implement them widely and pass them on permanently." In short, "institutions explain innovation."

For the full review, see:

Matthew Rees. "BOOKSHELF; How the Mighty Fall; The Roman empire eventually lost its economic vitality thanks to price controls, heavy taxes and state-sponsored debt relief.." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 21, 2013): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 20, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Hubbard, Glenn, and Tim Kane. Balance: The Economics of Great Powers from Ancient Rome to Modern America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

August 9, 2013

Less Credentialed Hazlitt Got More Right than Keynes and White


Source of book image:

(p. C5) One of the many merits of "The Battle of Bretton Woods," a superb history of mid-20th-century monetary affairs, is the timing of its publication. Today, as never before, central banks are printing money, suppressing interest rates and manipulating markets. You wonder where it will all end.

. . .

(p. C6) According to Mr. Steil, the recondite Bretton Woods debates failed to engage the American public as a political issue. If so, it was no fault of Henry Hazlitt's. An editorial writer for the New York Times, Hazlitt directed persistent, withering fire against White's and Keynes's brainchild. (His collected editorials, titled "From Bretton Woods to World Inflation," were published in 1984.) The conference had it all wrong, Hazlitt thundered in the Times. The IMF would subsidize unsound policies. What was wanted were sound ones.

"The broad principles should not be difficult to formulate," the readers of the Times were reminded on the eve of the gathering in New Hampshire. Governments should balance their budgets, forswear 1930s-style impediments to free trade (quotas, exchange restrictions) and refrain from "currency and credit inflation." And the currency itself? It should be "redeemable in something that is itself fixed and definite: for all practical purposes this means a return to the historic gold standard."

. . .

White was a Harvard Ph.D. Keynes was, at least according to Mr. Steil, "the most innovative and iconoclastic economist of his age, if not of all time." Hazlitt was no trained economist at all. But it was he, not the two acclaimed experts, who turned out to be right.

For the full review, see:

James Grant. "A Fateful Meeting That Shaped the World." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 16, 2013): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 15, 2013.)

The book under review is:

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

July 28, 2013

Children of Chinese Entrepreneurs Want to Work for Government


"Engineering student Xie Chaobo has yet to land a job." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) BEIJING--Xie Chaobo figures he has the credentials to land a job at one of China's big state-owned firms. He is a graduate student at Tsinghua University, one of China's best. His field of study is environmental engineering, one of China's priorities. And he is experimenting with new techniques for identifying water pollutants, which should make him a valuable catch.

But he has applied to 30 companies so far and scored just four interviews, none of which has led to a job.

Although Mr. Xie's parents are entrepreneurs who have built companies that make glasses, shoes and now water pumps, he has no interest in working at a private startup. Chinese students "have been told since we were children to focus on stability instead of risk," the 24-year-old engineering student says.

Over the past decade, the number of new graduates from Chinese universities has increased sixfold to more than six million a year, creating an epic glut that is depressing wages, (p. A10) leaving many recent college graduates without jobs and making students fearful about their future. Two-thirds of Chinese graduates say they want to work either in the government or big state-owned firms, which are seen as recession-proof, rather than at the private companies that have powered China's remarkable economic climb, surveys indicate. Few college students today, according to the surveys, are ready to leave the safe shores of government work and "jump into the sea," as the Chinese expression goes, to join startups or go into business for themselves, although many of their parents did just that in the 1990s.

For the full story, see:

MIKE RAMSEY and VALERIE BAUERLEIN. "Tesla Clashes With Car Dealers; Electric-Vehicle Maker Wants to Sell Directly to Consumers; Critics Say Plan Violates Franchise Laws." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., June 18, 2013): B1-B2.

ChineseStudentAfterGraduationPlans2013-07-23.jpgSource of table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

July 17, 2013

"The Million-Dollar Question" for "Our Long Economic Slump": Why "the Severe Downturn in Jobs"?

(p. 5) [There are] . . . two underappreciated aspects of our long economic slump. First, it has exacted the harshest toll on the young -- even harsher than on people in their 50s and 60s, who have also suffered. And while the American economy has come back more robustly than some of its global rivals in terms of overall production, the recovery has been strangely light on new jobs, even after Friday's better-than-expected unemployment report. American companies are doing more with less.

"This still is a very big puzzle," said Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard professor who was chief economist at the Labor Department during the Clinton administration. He called the severe downturn in jobs "the million-dollar question" for the economy.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "CAPITAL IDEAS; The Idled Young Americans." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., May 5, 2013): 5.

(Note: ellipsis, and words in brackets, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 3, 2013.)

June 27, 2013

$30 Million First National Bank Regulatory Costs Due to Dodd-Frank Replacing Clear Rules with Regulator "Wild Card" Leeway

(p. 1D) The president of First National of Nebraska, the nation's largest privately held banking firm, said new federal regulatory and compliance efforts stand to cost the company as much as $30 million this year.

"It is a big uncertainty in the banking world," said Dan O'Neill, speaking Wednesday at the company's annual meeting in Omaha. "They are not operating off of concrete rules. A lot of it is their interpretation."

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was formed as a result of the federal Dodd-Frank laws passed in 2010 after widespread bank failures and bailouts using taxpayer money. . . .

. . .

The bureau, he said, worries banks because there is not a "clear body of rules" from which the regulator is operating in evaluating the fairness of a bank's business practices. He said the agency's regulators have a lot of leeway in deciding what to do af-(p. 2D)ter examining a bank; penalties for running afoul include fines.

"So it is a bit of a wild card," he said.

For the full story, see:

Russell Hubbard. "First National Chief Says Regulatory Costs Mounting." Omaha World-Herald (THURSDAY, JUNE 20, 2013): 1D-2D.

(Note: ellipses added.)

May 5, 2013

In Latvia Deep Budget Cuts Lead to High Economic Growth

LatviaNewDairyFactoryOutsideRiga2013-05-04.jpg "A worker cleaned equipment at a new dairy factory outside Riga. The I.M.F. has hailed Latvia for its deep budget cuts." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

It is interesting that the New York Times photographer (see above) chose to display the Latvian economic success story in bleak shades of grey and darkness.

(p. A1) RIGA, Latvia -- When a credit-fueled economic boom turned to bust in this tiny Baltic nation in 2008, Didzis Krumins, who ran a small architectural company, fired his staff one by one and then shut down the business. He watched in dismay as Latvia's misery deepened under a harsh austerity drive that scythed wages, jobs and state financing for schools and hospitals.

But instead of taking to the streets to protest the cuts, Mr. Krumins, whose newborn child, in the meantime, needed major surgery, bought a tractor and began hauling wood to heating plants that needed fuel. Then, as Latvia's economy began to pull out of its nose-dive, he returned to architecture and today employs 15 people -- five more than he had before. "We have a different mentality here," he said.

. . .

Hardship has long been common here -- and still is. But in just four years, the country has gone from the European Union's worst economic disaster zone to a model of what the International Monetary Fund hails as the healing properties of deep budget cuts. Latvia's economy, after shriveling by more than 20 percent from its peak, grew by about 5 percent last year, making it the best performer in the 27-nation European Union. Its budget deficit is down sharply and exports are soaring.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW HIGGINS. "Used to Hardship, Latvia Accepts Austerity, and Its Pain Eases." The New York Times (Weds., January 2, 2013): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 1, 2013.)

April 28, 2013

Reinhart Rogoff Result Robust: High Debt Lowers Growth Rate from 3.5 to 2.3 Percent

(p. A29) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. In May 2010, we published an academic paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Its main finding, drawing on data from 44 countries over 200 years, was that in both rich and developing countries, high levels of government debt -- specifically, gross public debt equaling 90 percent or more of the nation's annual economic output -- was associated with notably lower rates of growth.

. . .

Last week, three economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, released a paper criticizing our findings. They correctly identified a spreadsheet coding error that led us to miscalculate the growth rates of highly indebted countries since World War II. But they also accused us of "serious errors" stemming from "selective exclusion" of relevant data and "unconventional weighting" of statistics -- charges that we vehemently dispute.

. . .

Our 2010 paper found that, over the long term, growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product. The University of Massachusetts researchers do not overturn this fundamental finding, which several researchers have elaborated upon.

. . .

There were just 26 cases where the ratio of debt to G.D.P. exceeded 90 percent for five years or more; the average high-debt spell was 23 years. In 23 of the 26 cases, average growth was slower during the high-debt period than in periods of lower debt levels. Indeed, economies grew at an average annual rate of roughly 3.5 percent, when the ratio was under 90 percent, but at only a 2.3 percent rate, on average, at higher relative debt levels.

. . .

The fact that high-debt episodes last so long suggests that they are not, as some liberal economists contend, simply a matter of downturns in the business cycle.

In "This Time Is Different," our 2009 history of financial crises over eight centuries, we found that when sovereign debt reached unsustainable levels, so did the cost of borrowing, if it was even possible at all. The current situation confronting Italy and Greece, whose debts date from the early 1990s, long before the 2007-8 global financial crisis, support this view.

For the full commentary, see:

CARMEN M. REINHART and KENNETH S. ROGOFF. "Debt, Growth and the Austerity Debate." The New York Times (Fri., April 26, 2013): A29.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 25, 2013.)

The full reference to the authors' book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

March 13, 2013

To Avoid Economic Crises We Need to Look at Evidence from Economic History

(p. 1093) Methodologically, the most fundamental and forceful message from the book is that, by ignoring history and the fact that crises remain frequent, recurrent, episodic events--in both rich and poor countries--almost everyone, including researchers and policymakers, made themselves vulnerable to the wishful thinking encapsulated in the book's title. There is a deeper statistical point here. Crises, and for that matter large recessions and other phenomena that are of first-order interest given their implications for economic activity, occur at quite a low frequency. They are rare events, meaning that they do not occur so frequently, at least for most countries in a short-span time series. Thus recent experience can be an unfaithful guide for scholars and statesmen alike, a good example being the complacent thinking that accompanied the erstwhile Great Moderation of recent decades even as financial pressures built up nationally and internationally. Possibly the most important lesson that readers will take away from this book is that if we are to do better in future, from our policy thinking in the chambers of power to our macroeconometric analyses in academe, (p. 1094) we need to admit the existence of, and come to grips with, a much broader universe of evidence.

For the full review, see:

Taylor, Alan M. "Global Financial Stability and the Lessons of History: A Review of Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff's This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 4 (Dec. 2012): 1092-105.

(Note: italics in original.)

The book that Taylor reviews, is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

February 1, 2013

Fiscal Stimulus Packages Did Not Stimulate

(p. 686) An empirical review of the three fiscal stimulus packages of the 2000s shows that they had little if any direct impact on consumption or government purchases. Households largely saved the transfers and tax rebates. The federal government only increased purchases by a small amount. State and local governments saved their stimulus grants and shifted spending away from purchases to transfers. Counterfactual simulations show that the stimulus-induced decrease in state and local government purchases was larger than the increase in federal purchases. Simulations also show that a larger stimulus package with the same design as the 2009 stimulus would not have increased government purchases or consumption by a larger amount. These results raise doubts about the efficacy of such packages adding weight to similar assessments reached more than thirty years ago.


Taylor, John B. "An Empirical Analysis of the Revival of Fiscal Activism in the 2000s." Journal of Economic Literature 49, no. 3 (September 2011): 686-702.

January 28, 2013

Governments Use "Financial Repression" to Lower Their Interest Payments on Debt

(p. 229) Carmen M. Reinhart, Jacob F. Kirkegaard, and M. Belen Sbrancia make a case for "Financial Repression Redux: Governments Are Once Again Finding Ways to Manipulate Markets to Hold Down the Cost of Financing Debt." "Financial repression occurs when governments implement policies to channel to themselves funds that in a deregulated market environment would go elsewhere. . . . One of the main goals of financial repression is to keep nominal interest rates lower than they would be in more competitive markets. Other things equal, this reduces the government's interest expenses for a given stock of debt and contributes to deficit reduction. (p. 230) However, when financial repression produces negative real interest rates (nominal rates below the inflation rate), it reduces or liquidates existing debts and becomes the equivalent of a tax--a transfer from creditors (savers) to borrowers, including the government . . ." "Financial repression contributed to rapid debt reduction following World War II. . . . It seems probable that policymakers for some time to come will be preoccupied with debt reduction, debt management, and efforts to keep debt servicing costs at a reasonable level. In this setting, financial repression, with its dual aims of keeping interest rates low and creating or maintaining captive domestic audiences, will continue to find renewed favor, and the measures and developments we have described and discussed are likely to be only the tip of a very large iceberg."

Reinhart et al as quoted in:

Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 223-30.

(Note: ellipses added by Taylor.)

For the full Reinhart et al paper, see:

Reinhart, Carmen M., Jacob F. Kirkegaard, and M. Belen Sbrancia. "Financial Repression Redux." Finance and Development 48, no. 2 (June 2011): 22-26.

January 24, 2013

Economics Should Be in "Broad-Exploration Mode"

(p. 85) What does concern me about my discipline, . . . , is that its current core--by which I mainly mean the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium approach--has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one. This is dangerous for both methodological and policy reasons. On the methodology front, macroeconomic research has been in "fine-tuning" mode within the local-maximum of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium world, when we should be in "broad-exploration" mode. We are too far (p. 86) from absolute truth to be so specialized and to make the kind of confident quantitative claims that often emerge from the core. On the policy front, this confused precision creates the illusion that a minor adjustment in the standard policy framework will prevent future crises, and by doing so it leaves us overly exposed to the new and unexpected.

. . .

(p. 100) Going back to our macroeconomic models, we need to spend much more effort in understanding the topology of interactions in real economies. The financial sector and its recent struggles have made this need vividly clear, but this issue is certainly not exclusive to this sector.

The challenges are big, but macroeconomists can no longer continue playing internal games. The alternative of leaving all the important stuff to the "policy"-types (p. 101) and informal commentators cannot be the right approach. I do not have the answer. But I suspect that whatever the solution ultimately is, we will accelerate our convergence to it, and reduce the damage we do along the transition, if we focus on reducing the extent of our pretense-of-knowledge syndrome.


Caballero, Ricardo J. "Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 85-102.

(Note: ellipses added.)

January 12, 2013

Solow Testifies on Irrelevance of DSGE Macro Models

In Nobel-prize-winner Robert Solow's congressional testimony, quoted below, "DSGE" is an abbreviation for "dynamic stochastic general equilibrium."

(p. 221) Solow argues: "It may be unusual for the Committee to focus on so abstract a question, but it is certainly natural and urgent. Here we are, still near the bottom of a deep and prolonged recession, with the immediate future uncertain, desperately short of jobs, and the approach to macroeconomics that dominates serious thinking, certainly in our elite universities and in many central banks and other influential policy circles, seems to have absolutely nothing to say about the problem. Not only does it (p. 222) offer no guidance or insight, it really seems to have nothing useful to say. . . . Especially when it comes to matters as important as macroeconomics, a mainstream economist like me insists that every proposition must pass the smell test: does this really make sense? I do not think that the currently popular DSGE models pass the smell test."


Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 219-26.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

December 5, 2012

Progress of Economic Science on Central Banking

The passage below is a comment by former head of the Fed, Paul Volcker.

(p. 25) . . . I recently commented to some of my economist friends that I'm not aware of any large contribution that economic science has made to central banking in the last 50 years or so.

Our ability to forecast is still very limited. The old issues of the relative role of fiscal and monetary policies are still debated. Markets are certainly more complex, and some of the old approaches toward monetary control seem less relevant. Recent events have certainly illustrated limitations in our understanding of the economy.

The advent of floating exchange rates, which partly reflects a shift in academic thinking, has certainly been important, but the underlying problems of policy seem familiar.

Stern, Gary H., interviewer. "Paul A.Volcker in Conversation with Gary H. Stern." The Region (September 2009): 18-29.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 3, 2012

Business Cycles May Arise from "the Summation of Random Causes," Rather than from Creative Destruction

The Slutsky result summarized below would seem to imply that you can explain business cycles without fingering creative destruction as the culprit, as Schumpeter had seemed to do. The costs of creative destruction are thus reduced, and the case for creative destruction strengthened.

(p. 232) Phil Davies and Joe Mahon investigate "The Meaning of Slutsky." "A middleaged professor working at a Moscow think tank, [Eugen] Slutsky was virtually unknown to economists in Europe and the United States when he published his landmark paper on cyclical phenomena in 1927. In a bold statistical experiment, Slutsky demonstrated that random numbers subjected to statistical calculations similar to those used to reveal trends in economic time-series formed wavelike patterns indistinguishable from business cycles. The implication was that a similar stochastic process--'the summation of random causes,' as Slutsky described it--might be at work in the actual economy, causing prosperity to ebb and flow without the agency of sunspots, meteorological patterns or other cyclical forces. 'That was a hell of an idea,' said Robert Lucas, a University of Chicago economist who pioneered modern business cycle theory, in an interview. 'It was just a huge jump from what anyone had done.'


Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 227-34.

(Note: bracketed name in original.)

The published version of the article summarized by Taylor is:

Davies, Phil, and Joe Mahon. "The Meaning of Slutsky." The Region (Dec. 2009): 13-17, 42-46.

November 24, 2012

Sweden Prospers from Low Taxes, No Stimulus and Fiscal Discipline


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) STOCKHOLM--Sweden's economy, bolstered by solid exports and healthy consumer spending, is picking up considerable steam even as many of its European neighbors gasp for breath amid the struggle to contain the euro-zone debt crisis.

Sweden's second-quarter economic output data, released Monday, significantly outpaced expectations, further solidifying the Northern European country's reputation as a haven in a volatile period. The Swedish krona, which recently reached a 12-year peak against the euro, strengthened further after the report.

. . .

. . . , Sweden has built a reputation for fiscal discipline since it suffered a financial crisis in the early 1990s. Successive governments have since stuck to a target to post a surplus of 1% of GDP over any business cycle.

Lawmakers resisted the temptation to borrow to fuel growth during the boom of the early 2000s, which meant Sweden hit the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 with strong public finances. The government hasn't needed to increase taxes in the way Spain has, or to cut spending as in the U.K.

For the full story, see:

CHARLES DUXBURY. "In Crisis, a Rare Swede Spot." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 31, 2012): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 30, 2012.)

November 22, 2012

"Highly Leveraged Economies, . . . , Seldom Survive"


Source of book image:

(p. 762) Every once in a while, a work comes along whose key points ought to be part of the information set of every literate economist. Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff's This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly is such a work. It describes and analyzes a long international history of several types of financial crises.

. . .

The authors resist giving too much structural interpretation to their analysis. Most would agree with their conclusion that " . . . highly leveraged economies, particularly those in which continual rollover of short-term debt is sustained only by confidence in relatively illiquid underlying assets, seldom survive" (p. 292).

For the full review, see:

Boskin, Michael J. "Review of: This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." Journal of Economic Literature 48, no. 3 (September 2010): 762-66.

(Note: ellipsis internal to the final quotation, and the italics, are in the original; ellipsis between paragraphs is added.)

(Note: the "p. 292" refers to a page in the book, and not a page of the review.)(

The book being reviewed, is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

September 26, 2012

Macro Policy Should Be Less Interventionist, More Rules-Based, and More Predictable

(p. 165) This article reviews the role of monetary and fiscal policy in the financial crisis and draws lessons for future macroeconomic policy. It shows that policy deviated from what had worked well in the previous two decades by becoming more interventionist, less rules-based, and less predictable. The policy implications are thus that policy should "get back on track."

For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:

Taylor, John B. "Getting Back on Track: Macroeconomic Policy Lessons from the Financial Crisis." Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 92, no. 3 (May-June 2010): 165-76.

July 23, 2012

Alexander Field Claims 1930s Were "Technologically Progressive"


Source of book image:

(p. 1) UNDERNEATH the misery of the Great Depression, the United States economy was quietly making enormous strides during the 1930s. Television and nylon stockings were invented. Refrigerators and washing machines turned into mass-market products. Railroads became faster and roads smoother and wider. As the economic historian Alexander J. Field has said, the 1930s constituted "the most technologically progressive decade of the century."

. . .

(p. 6) The closest thing to a unified explanation for these problems is a mirror image of what made the 1930s so important. Then, the United States was vastly increasing its productive capacity, as Mr. Field argued in his recent book, "A Great Leap Forward." Partly because the Depression was eliminating inefficiencies but mostly because of the emergence of new technologies, the economy was adding muscle and shedding fat. Those changes, combined with the vast industrialization for World War II, made possible the postwar boom.

In recent years, on the other hand, the economy has not done an especially good job of building its productive capacity. Yes, innovations like the iPad and Twitter have altered daily life. And, yes, companies have figured out how to produce just as many goods and services with fewer workers. But the country has not developed any major new industries that employ large and growing numbers of workers.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., October 9, 2011): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of the commentary is dated October 8, 2011.)

Book discussed:

Field, Alexander J. A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth, Yale Series in Economic and Financial History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

July 21, 2012

Technology Allows Start-Ups to Launch with Fewer Employees

HarelAndShilonOfBiteHunter2012-06-22.jpg "Start-up BiteHunter launched with three employees. Above, co-founders Gil Harel, left, and Ido Shilon." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

Lower costs to entry means more start-ups and that means more innovation, ceteris paribus. All good. For the labor market, there will be fewer initial jobs per start-up. But there will be more start-ups, and more opportunity for erstwhile laborers to themselves become entrepreneurs. So maybe still all good.

(p. B5) New businesses are getting off the ground with nearly half as many workers as they did a decade ago, as the spread of online tools and other resources enables start-ups to do more with less.

The change, which began before the recession, may be permanent, according to some analysts.

. . .

Rather than purchasing the tools and manpower needed to run their companies, more small firms are renting, sharing or outsourcing resources, typically through online services, according to Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, a research and consulting firm for small businesses.

. . .

Last year, Gil Harel launched BiteHunter, a search engine for restaurant discounts, with just three employees. Based in New York, the site used shared screens and other communications tools to work with developers in Russia, Uruguay and Israel.

"Just to build the infrastructure to get a business off the ground used to take a lot of money and people. But things that you couldn't do in the past, you can now do on your own," Mr. Harel says.

For the full story, see:

ANGUS LOTEN. "With New Technology, Start-Ups Go Lean; Web-Based Services Mean Fewer Workers Needed." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., September 15, 2011): B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

July 12, 2012

A Firm's Social Responsibility Is to Make a Profit

(p. B1) Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, blasted the very idea of corporate social responsibility four decades ago, calling it a "fundamentally subversive doctrine." Speaking for many capitalists then and now, he said, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business--to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game."

Companies shouldn't spend profits on unrelated job creation or social causes, he said. That money should go to shareholders--the owners of the companies. Pronouncements about corporate social responsibility, he added, are the indulgence of "pontificating executives" who are "incredibly shortsighted and muddleheaded in matters that are outside their businesses." And that indulgence can lead to inefficient markets.

. . .

(p. B2) "Jobs are an input, not an output; they're a cost of doing business, not a goal of doing business," says William Frezza, a Boston-based venture capitalist and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"From the perspective of defending capitalism, if you accept the premise of your opponent that business has to give back to society, you've already lost," he says. "To put sack cloth and ashes on--you've delegitimized capitalism, which is the goal of the protesters. Businesses give back to society every day by pleasing their customers and employing their employees. There's nothing business owes other than selling the best product at the best price."

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN BUSSEY. "THE BUSINESS; Are Companies Responsible for Creating Jobs?." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 28, 2011): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 1, 2012

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism


Source of book image:

Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists' assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.

Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)

I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior---not claims that are "true" in economics and other claims that are "true" in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)

But I don't think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.

Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important "law" in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their "De Gustibus" article.)

The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.

Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.

More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as "rational" in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, "The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.")

Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman's book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.

Book discussed:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

The Becker article mentioned above is:

Becker, Gary S. "Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory." Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.

The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:

Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum." American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.

May 31, 2012

Tax Hikes Punish Hard Work and Reduce Incentives to Invest

(p. A15) The supply-sider has a different view from both the Keynesian and the budget balancer. Fundamentally, supply-side advocates focus on the harmful effects of tax increases. Raising tax rates hurts the economy directly because tax hikes reduce incentives to invest and because they punish hard work. As such, tax increases slow growth. But budget cuts work in the right direction by making lower tax revenues sustainable. If spending exceeds revenues, then the government must borrow and this commits future governments to raising taxes in order to service the debt.

. . .

On the tax side, there is strong evidence that supports the supply-siders. Christina Romer, President Obama's first chairwoman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, and David Romer document the strong unfavorable effect of increasing tax rates on economic growth (American Economic Review, 2010). They report that an increase in taxes of 1% of gross domestic product lowers GDP by almost 3%. The evidence on government spending also suggests that high spending means lower growth.

For example, Swedish economists Andreas Bergh and Magnus Henrekson (Journal of Economic Surveys 2011) survey a large literature and conclude that an increase in government size by 10 percentage points of GDP is associated with a half to one percentage point lower annual growth rate.

For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD P. LAZEAR. "OPINION; Three Views of the 'Fiscal Cliff'; It's the tax increases we have to fear. Spending cuts won't hurt the economy." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., May 21, 2012): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated May 20, 2012 and has the title "OPINION; Edward Lazear: Three Views of the 'Fiscal Cliff'; It's the tax increases we have to fear. Spending cuts won't hurt the economy.")

The Romer and Romer paper mentioned is:

Romer, Christina D., and David H. Romer. "The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks." American Economic Review 100, no. 3 (June 2010): 763-801.

The Bergh and Henrekson paper mentioned is:

Bergh, Andreas, and Magnus Henrekson. "Government Size and Growth: A Survey and Interpretation of the Evidence." Journal of Economic Surveys 25, no. 5 (Dec. 2011): 872-97.

May 20, 2012

"An Entrenched Favors-for-Votes Culture Is Now Coming Unglued"


"Akis Tsochatzopoulos on April 11 became the highest-ranking Greek official ever to be detained on corruption charges." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A6) Prosecutors accuse the former defense minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, 73, a founding member of the Socialist Party and the highest-ranking Greek official ever to be detained on corruption charges, of pocketing at least $26 million in kickbacks for Greece's purchase of submarines and missile systems and funneling the money through offshore accounts to buy property.

. . .

The case of Mr. Tsochatzopoulos (pronounced zok-at-ZOP-ou-los) marks the rise -- and perhaps fall -- of a political culture that has dominated Greece for decades, in which alternating Socialist and center-right New Democracy governments helped spread the spoils and, critics say, the corruption, during the boom years. That system helped drive up Greece's public debt to the point that it was forced to seek a foreign bailout in 2010.

As the money has run out, an entrenched favors-for-votes culture is now coming unglued, and Greeks have become less forgiving of high-level missteps.

For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO and NIKI KITSANTONIS. "Corruption Case Hits Hard in a Tough Time for Greece." The New York Times (Thurs., May 3, 2012): A6 & A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 2, 2012.)

May 5, 2012

The One Percent's Quick History: "We Worked Hard, We Went to College, We Tried to Better Our Lives"

(p. F1) SOON after the Occupy Wall Street encampment was set up at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan last fall, 26-year-old Ryan Quick told his father, Leslie C. Quick III, a financier, that he might drop by the site.

"Don't you even let me see you over there," the father replied.

The senior Mr. Quick later said that he and his son were both "half-kidding" each other. But he need not have worried about any class rebellion. According to Mr. Quick, his son came back from his visit and said: "It just looks like a Phish concert. It's difficult to get engaged by something that doesn't really have a purpose."

As scions of a family that co-founded Quick & Reilly, a pioneering discount brokerage firm acquired for $1.6 billion by another company in 1997, the Quicks are undoubtedly among the "1 percent" -- the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Indeed, having made their fortune in finance, the Quicks might be particular targets.

. . .

(p. F5) "Almost all my clients are self-made," said Christopher J. Cordaro, chief executive of RegentAtlantic Capital, a wealth management firm based in Morristown, N.J., whose clients have at least $2 million in investable assets. "They're saying, 'We worked hard, we went to college, we tried to better our lives. Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?' "

That is also the Quick family's history. When he joined the year-old family firm after graduating from college in 1975, Leslie Quick recalled, "we didn't know if my father was going to declare bankruptcy or this discount brokerage thing was going to work."

For the full story, see:

FRAN HAWTHORNE. "Color the 1 Percent 99 Percent Conflicted." The New York Times (Thurs., February 9, 2012): F1 & F5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 8, 2012.)

April 16, 2012

"Mind-Your-Own-Business Cowboy Libertarianism"

MeadMattWyoming2012-03-31.jpg "Gov. Matt Mead at a meeting in the Capitol in Cheyenne. A portrait of his grandfather Clifford P. Hansen, a former governor, hangs behind him." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) If Washington is broken and unable to lead -- as millions of Americans believe, according to polls -- then who is left to fill the void? Mr. Mead's answer: States functional enough to soldier on through a time of dystopian crisis should be given the room to run. Whether they are led by conservatives or liberals does not matter so much, he said, as the ability to get things done.

"There certainly have to be national policies, and national rules and regulations -- I understand that," Mr. Mead, 49, a Republican and former prosecutor, said in an interview in his office here. "But I am in part a states' rights guy because I think we can do so many things better."

Better or not, Wyoming's way -- always idiosyncratic in the windblown, rural grain that mixes mind-your-own-business cowboy libertarianism and fiscal penny-pinching -- is getting its moment in the spotlight.

For the full story, see:

KIRK JOHNSON. "STATEHOUSE JOURNAL; Idiosyncrasy Runs Deep in the Soil of Wyoming." The New York Times (Fri., November 25, 2011): A15.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated November 24, 2011.)

April 11, 2012

"A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard Walk into a Bar"

(p. A15) A joke making the rounds: A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard walk into a bar. Each orders a drink. Who pays? The German.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID WESSEL. "CAPITAL; For Europe, a Lehman Moment." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., December 1, 2011): A15.

March 10, 2012

"Crises Are an Inevitable Concomitant of Risk"

(p. 11) Some economic risks are worth taking, and crises are an inevitable concomitant of risk. Crises, like firm failures, can be seen as a manifestation of the Schumpeterian process of creative destruction. The role for economic analysis is to ensure that the creation dominates and that the destruction is not too costly.


Eichengreen, Barry. Capital Flows and Crises. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

March 6, 2012

"Amazed by the Short-Term Psychology in the Market"

(p. A1) Even after European leaders appeared to have averted a chaotic default by Greece with an eleventh-hour deal for aid, worries persist that a debt disaster on the Continent has merely been delayed.

The tortured process that culminated in that latest bailout has exposed the severe limitations of Europe's approach to the crisis. Many fear that policy makers simply don't have the right tools to deal with other troubled countries like Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, a situation that could weigh on the markets and the broader economy.

"I don't want to be a Cassandra, but the idea that it's over is an illusion," said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard and co-author of "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." "I am amazed by the short-term psychology in the market."

. . .

(p. B3) "I don't think we're anywhere near the endgame," Professor Rogoff of Harvard said.

For the full commentary, see:

PETER EAVIS. " NEWS ANALYSIS; For Greece, a Bailout; for Europe, Perhaps Just an Illusion." The New York Times (Weds., February 22, 2012): A1 & B3 (sic).

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated February 21, 2012.)

Rogoff and Reinhart's thought-provoking and much-praised book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

March 5, 2012

Few Jobs from Billions Feds Spent on Green Stimulus

WindFarmTexas2012-02-29.jpg "County Commissioner Rosaura Tijerina supported tax breaks for the Cedro Hill wind farm, but it brought few new jobs." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Alfredo Garcia was among the residents of Webb County, Texas, banking on a windfall from federal stimulus money.

Mr. Garcia expanded his Mexican restaurant from 80 to 120 seats, anticipating a rush of new patrons springing from the nearby Cedro Hill wind farm, a project built with the help of $108 million from U.S. taxpayers.

When construction ended, Cedro Hill had just three employees and Mr. Garcia's restaurant, Aimee's, filed for bankruptcy protection. "Nobody came," said Mr. Garcia, a county judge who closed Aimee's last year, putting 18 people out of work.

Companies have received more than $10 billion to create jobs and renewable energy by building wind farms, solar projects and other alternatives to oil and natural gas under section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The program expired in December, and President Barack Obama proposed last week that Congress revive it in the 2013 budget.

On federal applications, companies said they created more than 100,000 direct jobs at 1603-funded projects. But a Wall Street Journal investigation found evidence of far fewer. Some plants laid off workers. Others closed.

The discrepancies highlight broader challenges calculating the economic benefits of stimulus spending. Jobs have been an important measure influencing distribution of more than $800 billion in stimulus money, which also has included tax breaks and spending on roads, sewers, schools, health and public assis-(p. A10)tance. Yet the number of jobs created or saved is largely based on formulas, mathematical models and reports by recipients, rather than actual tallies.

For the full story, see:

IANTHE JEANNE DUGAN and JUSTIN SCHECK. "Cost of $10 Billion Stimulus Easier to Tally Than New Jobs." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., FEBRUARY 24, 2012): A1 & A10.


Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ story quoted and cited above.

February 20, 2012

Nasar Gives Compelling Portrait of Joseph Schumpeter and His Vienna


Source of book image:

(p. C31) Ms. Nasar gives us Belle Époque Vienna -- infatuated with modernity and challenging London in the race to electrify with new telephone service, state-of-the-art factories and power-driven trams -- and then a devastating picture of Vienna at the end of World War I: war veterans loitering outside restaurants waiting for scraps, and desperate members of a middle class that saw inflation wipe out all its savings trading a piano for a sack of flour, a gold watch chain for a few sacks of potatoes.

. . .

Among the more compelling portraits in this volume is that of Joseph Alois Schumpeter, the brilliant European economist who argued that the distinctive feature of capitalism was "incessant innovation" -- a "perennial gale of creative destruction" -- and who identified the entrepreneur as the visionary who could "revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention" or "an untried technological possibility."

For the full review, see:

MICHIKO KAKUTANI. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; The Economist's Progress: Better Living Through Fiscal Chemistry." The New York Times (Fri., December 2, 2011): C31.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 1, 2011.)

February 13, 2012

Even Krugman Worries that China Faces "Economic Crisis"

China's economy is often touted as an exemplar of the success of government stimulus policies at promoting economic growth. So it is worth noting when a Nobel-Prize-winning international economist and advocate of government stimulus policies worries that in China:

(p. A25) . . . the bubble is bursting -- and there are real reasons to fear financial and economic crisis.

. . .

I've been reluctant to weigh in on the Chinese situation, in part because it's so hard to know what's really happening. All economic statistics are best seen as a peculiarly boring form of science fiction, but China's numbers are more fictional than most. I'd turn to real China experts for guidance, but no two experts seem to be telling the same story.

Still, even the official data are troubling -- and recent news is sufficiently dramatic to ring alarm bells.

. . .

Real estate investment has roughly doubled as a share of G.D.P. since 2000, accounting directly for more than half of the overall rise in investment. And surely much of the rest of the increase was from firms expanding to sell to the burgeoning construction industry.

Do we actually know that real estate was a bubble? It exhibited all the signs: not just rising prices, but also the kind of speculative fever all too familiar from our own experiences just a few years back -- think coastal Florida.

. . .

For what it's worth, statements about economic policy from Chinese officials don't strike me as being especially clear-headed. In particular, the way China has been lashing out at foreigners -- among other things, imposing a punitive tariff on imports of U.S.-made autos that will do nothing to help its economy but will help poison trade relations -- does not sound like a mature government that knows what it's doing.

And anecdotal evidence suggests that while China's government may not be constrained by rule of law, it is constrained by pervasive corruption, which means that what actually happens at the local level may bear little resemblance to what is ordered in Beijing.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL KRUGMAN. "Will China Break?" The New York Times (Mon., December 19, 2011): A25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated December 18, 2011.)

January 15, 2012

In Supporting Bailouts Buffett Was More Bootlegger than Baptist


Source of book image: online version of the Omaha World-Herald review quoted and cited below.

(p. 9A) Peter Schweizer's new book, "Throw Them All Out" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 211 pages, $26) mostly goes after members of Congress for profiting from inside information and making investments that are legal for them but would be illegal for almost anyone else.

But Chapter 6 is titled, "Warren Buffett: Baptist and Bootlegger."

Buffett is neither an actual Baptist nor a bootlegger, of course. Schweizer's reference is to the alliance of churchgoers and illegal marketers of liquor who both favored laws to limit the legal sale of alcohol, although for different reasons.

Schweizer wrote that during the 2008-09 financial crisis, Buffett pushed for government action and called attention to the problems, looking like a noble Baptist, but profited from the bailouts, like a bootlegger, through investments in Goldman Sachs, General Electric, Wells Fargo and other financial companies.

"Buffett needed the bailout," Schweizer wrote. "He began immediately to campaign for the $700 billion TARP rescue plan that was being hammered together in Washington." Several senators, including Ben Nelson, D-Neb., are Berkshire shareholders, Schweizer wrote, "and they had to know that passing the bailout bill would bring big returns for their Berkshire stock."

"There were many legitimate reasons to support the bill, and it can hardly be said that Buffett's support was the deciding factor," Schweizer wrote. "But his Baptist-bootlegger position was noteworthy for its strength in both directions: a lot of people followed his advice, and he and they made (p. 10A) a lot of money by pushing for the bailout. . . .

"Warren Buffett is a financial genius. But even more important for his portfolio, he's a political genius."

For the full story, see:

Steve Jordon. "Warren Watch: Author Says Buffett Is a 'Political Genius'." Omaha World-Herald (Sunday, November 20, 2011): 9A -10A.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Warren Watch: A 'Political Genius'.")

Steve Jordan is discussing the book:

Schweizer, Peter. Throw Them All Out. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2011.

Bruce Yandle is the former President of APEE and the author of the classic article on how bootleggers and Baptists often become allies in calling for government action:

Yandle, Buce. "Bootleggers and Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist." Regulation 7, no. 3 (1983): 12-16.

January 12, 2012

AFA Scholars Predict Sovereign Defaults

At the Chicago American Finance Association (AFA) meetings (held in conjunction with the AEA meetings), I attended a panel discussion on Fri., Jan. 6, 2012 on "Sovereign Default." The session was chaired by Simon Johnson, and included Kenneth Singleton and Carmen Reinhart (who has co-authored a much-discussed book on the history of economic crises). (Martin Feldstein was supposed to participate but did not, and I did not catch the name of the scholar who replaced him on the panel).

When asked if they expected multiple countries in Europe to default in the near to medium term, all panel members agreed that such default would happen. (The consensus was that Greece, and at least a couple of other countries, would eventually default---the Euros needed to bail them out were too large, even if the Germans and the ECB changed course and wanted to try.) Before seeing the panel, I was not aware that expert academic opinion was so agreed on this prediction.

There was less certainty about whether this would necessarily lead to the end of the Euro. Reinhart pointed out that even in Greece, where austerity is severe and unpopular, there is currently little popular support for abandoning the Euro.

The panelists seemed to believe that sovereign defaults might lead to slow growth, high taxes and inflation, but might not lead to catastrophe.

Reinhart suggested that Europe, and maybe also the United States and the rest of the world, might just muddle along for an extended period.

January 2, 2012

The Kauffman Foundation's Startup Act Would Encourage Entrepreneurs

The WSJ tells us the credentials of the authors of the following advice: "Mr. Muller is CEO of GenOn Energy. Mr. Zimpleman is president and CEO of the Principal Financial Group."

(p. A15) In our view, there is no hope of giving consumers renewed confidence in America unless governments at all levels mount a vigorous effort to get rid of rules that discourage entrepreneurs from launching and growing new businesses.

The Kauffman Foundation recently proposed a way to do that with a set of ideas aptly called the Startup Act. Those ideas, which would cost the government virtually nothing, include:

• Letting in immigrant entrepreneurs who hire American workers.

• Reducing the cost of capital through capital gains tax relief for early stage investments.

• Reducing barriers to IPOs by allowing shareholders to opt out of Sarbanes-Oxley.

• Charging higher fees for patent applicants who want quick decisions to remove the backlog of applications at the Patent Office.

• Giving licensing freedom to academic entrepreneurs at universities to accelerate the commercialization of their ideas.

• Having the government provide data to permit rankings of startup friendliness of states and localities.

• Regular sunsets for regulations and a consistent policy of putting new ones in place only if their benefits exceed their costs.

For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD R. MULLER and LARRY ZIMPLEMAN. "OPINION; An Entrepreneurial Fix for the U.S. Economy; Several reforms can make it faster and easier for new business startups.." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 29, 2011): A15.

December 31, 2011

Federal Subsidies Create Few Green Jobs

(p. F2) . . . solar power, which makes extensive use of robots in fabricating the cells, and has no moving parts to service once it is up and running, may be an odd choice for job creation.

"It's just not that labor-intensive," said Howard Axelrod, an engineer and economist. And as for the jobs it creates, there may be a price elsewhere, Dr. Axelrod said.

. . .

Build enough solar plants and some coal plants will shut down; that would amount to firing Peter to hire Paul.

. . .

And, economists point out, some of the work that renewable energy creates goes to people who already have jobs -- roofers who install the panels or truck drivers who move them around, or steel workers who make towers for new wind machines.

Some of the jobs could eventually go elsewhere. Two years ago, Evergreen Solar, which got $58 million in aid from Massachusetts for a factory in Devens, said it would shift production to China instead.

. . .

The debate is part of a larger discussion of what constitutes a "green" job. In October 2009, Congress gave the Bureau of Labor Statistics a special appropriation to count them.

. . .

"Driving a bus is driving a bus, right?" said Connie Mack, Republican of Florida. Hilda Solis, the secretary of labor, said they were "green buses." But aides later clarified that the bureau counted any bus driving job as green because it preserved natural resources.

None of this suggests that green is bad, just that it is not particularly job-heavy. In December 2010, Susan Combs, the comptroller of Texas, reported that school districts in her state were giving tax abatements to lure new jobs, but had to give $1.6 million for every wind energy job. Manufacturing jobs could be created for $166,000 each.

For the full story, see:

MATTHEW L. WALD. "Solar Power Industry Falls Short of Hopes in Job Creation." The New York Times (Weds., October 26, 2011): F2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date October 25, 2011.)

December 28, 2011

Collins Says Successful CEOs Are Empirical and Disciplined


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) 'Great by Choice" is a sequel to Jim Collins's best-selling "Good to Great" (2001), which identified seven characteristics that enabled companies to become truly great over an extended period of time. Never mind that one of the 11 featured companies is now bankrupt (Circuit City) and another is in government receivership (Fannie Mae). Mr. Collins has a knack for analysis that business readers find compelling.

Mr. Collins's new book tackles the question of how to steer a company to lasting success in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty and even chaos. Like his previous work, this book builds its conclusions on a framework of painstaking research, conducted over nine years and overseen by Mr. Collins and his co-author, Morten T. Hansen, a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

. . .

Messrs. Collins and Hansen draw some interesting and counterintuitive conclusions from their research. First, the successful leaders were not the most "visionary" or the biggest risk-takers; instead, they tended to be more empirical and disciplined, relying on evidence over gut instinct and preferring consistent gains to blow-out winners. The successful companies were not more innovative than the control companies; indeed, they were in some cases less innovative. Rather, they managed to "scale innovation"--introducing changes gradually, then moving quickly to capitalize on those that showed promise. The successful companies weren't necessarily the most likely to adopt internal changes as a response to a changing environment. "The 10X companies changed less in reaction to their changing world than the comparison cases," the authors conclude.

. . .

If "Great by Choice" shares the qualities that made "Good to Great" so popular, it also shares some that drew criticism. The authors' conclusions sometimes feel like the claims of a well-written horoscope--so broadly stated that they are hard to disprove. Their 10X leaders are both "disciplined" and "creative," "prudent" and "bold"; they go fast when they must but slow when they can; they are consistent but open to change. This encompassing approach allows the authors to fit pretty much any leader who achieves 10X performance into their analysis. Would it ever be possible, one wonders, to find a leader whose success contradicted their thesis?

For the full review, see:

ALAN MURRAY. "BOOKSHELF; Turbulent Times, Steady Success; How certain companies achieved shareholder returns at least 10 times greater than their industry." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 11, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 21, 2011

Lazear's Popcorn Theory of Economic Destruction

(p. A15) . . . , consider two theories of economic destruction, which can be labeled the domino theory and the popcorn theory. Everyone knows the domino theory; it is the analogy that is commonly used to denote contagion. If one domino falls, it will topple the others, and conversely, if the first domino remains upright, the others will not fall. It is this logic that underlies most bailout strategies.

The popcorn theory emphasizes a different mechanism. When popcorn is made (the old fashioned way), oil and corn kernels are placed in the bottom of a pan, heat is applied and the kernels pop. Were the first kernel to pop removed from the pan, there would be no noticeable difference. The other kernels would pop anyway because of the heat. The fundamental structural cause is the heat, not the fact that one kernel popped, triggering others to follow.

Many who believe that bailouts will solve Europe's problems cite the Sept. 15, 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers as evidence of what allowing one domino to fall can do to an economy. This is a misreading of the historical record. Our financial crisis was mostly a popcorn phenomenon.

. . .

But our financial crisis was caused by factors that affected the entire system, just as all corn kernels pop when they are warmed by the same flame. This lesson is important because interpreting our crisis as primarily a contagion event leads to the wrong strategies for dealing with potential disasters. After Lehman, Europeans seem to be so taken with worries of contagion that they are failing to emphasize remedies that actually have a chance of making things better. In their case, and in ours, the solution is primarily a reduction in the bloated size of government expenditures that come about by making promises that cannot be kept.

For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD P. LAZEAR. "OPINION; The Euro Crisis: Doubting the 'Domino' Effect; Preventing a Greek default will not reverse the lackluster growth that has plagued the other vulnerable countries for many years now." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., OCTOBER 31, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

December 17, 2011

Haltiwanger Paper Says New Firms Create More Jobs than Old Firms

(p. A2) A recent study called into question whether size should matter at all when comparing businesses and their contribution to job creation.

The paper--co-authored by University of Maryland economist John Haltiwanger and two Census Bureau economists--confirmed that small businesses create more net new jobs, per employee, than do bigger businesses.

But the effect vanishes once each company's age is taken into account. It is young businesses that outperform old ones, according to the paper. Size isn't the important factor.

If you control for age, "you wipe out that effect" of small businesses creating a disproportionate share of net new jobs, says Prof. Haltiwanger. "There's no systematic relationship. If anything it goes the opposite way of conventional wisdom."

For the full commentary, see:

CARL BIALIK. "THE NUMBERS GUY; Sizing Up the Small-Business Jobs Machine." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 15, 2011): A2.

The Haltiwanger paper referred to in the passage above is:

Haltiwanger, John C., Ron S. Jarmin, and Javier Miranda. "Who Creates Jobs? Small Vs. Large Vs. Young." NBER Working Paper #16300, August 2010.

December 11, 2011

Jobs, Hope and Cash

(p. A15) 'Ten years ago, Steve Jobs was alive, Bob Hope was alive, Johnny Cash was alive. Now we're outta jobs, outta hope and outta cash." I heard that from a TSA agent in New York the other day, as he eyed me for explosives. We laughed, but there was a poignant edge.

Part of the outpouring over Steve Jobs last week was that he was a huge symbol of what seems a lost world of American dynamism. The inventor in his garage changes the world. We'll not only make the new machine powerful and fast, we'll make it so beautiful it will make you cry. Like you're looking at the future, like you're looking at a baby in its crib.

For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "DECLARATIONS; This Is No Time for Moderation; America can't trim and tweak its way back to economic dynamism." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 15, 2011): A15.

December 4, 2011

In Greece's Bloated Bureaucracy "It's All about Who You Know"

GreekGovernmentWorkerProtest2011-11-10.jpg "Police officers, firefighters and coast guard officers protested austerity measures in Athens on Monday." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A5) ATHENS -- Stories of eye-popping waste and abuse of power among Greece's bureaucrats are legion, including officials who hire their wives, and managers who submit $38,000 bills for office curtains.

The work force in Greece's Parliament is so bloated, according to a local press investigation, that some employees do not even bother to come to work because there are not enough places for all of them to sit.

. . .

Some experts believe that Greece could reap significant savings by reducing its bureaucracy, which employs one out of five workers in the country and by some estimates could be trimmed by as much as a third without materially affecting services. But though salaries have been cut, the government has yet to lay off anyone.

The main reason is also one of the very reasons that Greece got into trouble in the first place: The government is in many ways an army of patronage appointments built up over decades. When election time rolls around, state workers become campaign workers, and their reach is enormous. There are so many of them that almost every family has one.

. . .

Whether the right workers will be laid off remains an open question. "A lot of people in the government are terrified," Mr. Hlepas said. "They don't think any of those people over in Parliament are going to go. They think the ones that do the work will get cut."

Thomas Tsamatsoulis, 41, who works for the Greek equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he found himself on an early list headed for the reserve pool, though he had been sent to the United States for electronics training and now has a skill that is rare in his agency. At the same time, Mr. Tsamatsoulis said, the agency, which has just two airplanes, has more than 15 pilots.

"You want to believe the government will do this right," he said. "But it is very difficult. It's not how it has worked in the past. It's all about who you know."

Greece's bureaucracy has been growing steadily since democracy was reinstated in 1974, with each new administration adding its supporters to the payroll -- and wages rising steeply in the past decade, experts say.

"There was really a party going on," said Yannis Stournaras, an economist and the director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Athens. "The government kept adding bonuses and benefits and pensions. At election time there was a boom cycle as they handed out jobs."

"Now they need to cut," he added. "But they have already lost precious time."

Stories of excesses abound. Mr. Papandreou told Parliament that one of his ministers found a predecessor's $38,000 bill for curtains when the Socialists returned to power in 2009. Mr. Mossialos said he found that his own ministry, for media and communication, was spending $750,000 a year for office space for just 11 people.

But some experts question whether the culture of bloat and favoritism will ever be conquered.

For the full story, see:

SUZANNE DALEY. "Bureaucracy in Greece Defies Efforts to Cut It." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., October 18, 2011): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 17, 2011.)

November 30, 2011

Venezuelans Flee Chávez's Socialism

VenezuelanHomicide2011-11-10.jpg"Street crime, such as a man's killing in Caracas last year, is high." Note the big-brother-sized image of Chávez surveying what his socialism has wrought. Source of quoted part of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

Those who favor socialism should observe Venezuela carefully and ponder whether they like what they see.

(p. A13) Gerardo Urdaneta moved to Houston from Venezuela for a job in 1998, the same year Hugo Chávez was first elected president. Mr. Urdaneta, an energy-shipping specialist, planned for a temporary stop and wouldn't even buy a house.

Thirteen years later, Mr. Chávez is still in power, Mr. Urdaneta is still here. He has been joined by thousands of other Venezuelans, and Houston shops now stock native delicacies like Pampero aged rum and guayanés cheese.

"There are Venezuelans everywhere," Mr. Urdaneta, 50 years old, said. "Before we were passing through. That's not the case anymore."

Waves of white-collar Venezuelans have fled the country's high crime rates, soaring inflation and expanding statist controls, for destinations ranging from Canada to Qatar. The top U.S. destinations are Miami, a traditional shopping mecca for Venezuelans, and Houston, which has long-standing energy ties to Venezuela, a major oil exporter.

There were some 215,000 Venezuelans in the U.S. in 2010, up from about 91,500 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of Venezuelans living in Spain has quintupled in the same period to more than 40,000, and the number of Venezuelan-born Spaniards has more than doubled to 90,000.

For the full story, see:

ÁNGEL GONZÁLEZ and EZEQUIEL MINAYA. "Venezuelan Diaspora Booms Under Chávez." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., October 17, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the following phrase, at the end of the quoted portion above, is in the online, but not the print, version of the article: "and the number of Venezuelan-born Spaniards has more than doubled to 90,000."

ZulianStafanoHoustonChocolateShop2011-11-10.jpg "Venezuelan exile Stefano Zullian owns a Houston chocolate shop." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

VenezuelanHomicideEmigrationGraph2011-11-10.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

November 1, 2011

My Jobs Haiku "Most Popular"

Yesterday (10/31/11) the Kauffman Foundation issued a press release reporting the results of their fourth-quarter survey of "top economics bloggers." The URL for the press release is:

The last few lines of the press release are summarized below:

In their fourth-quarter survey of "top economics bloggers" the Kauffman Foundation asked the panel of bloggers "to describe the U.S. economy in haiku. Nearly 20 haiku were submitted and subsequently voted on by more than 500 public readers. The most popular was by Professor Art Diamond ("

jobs and Jobs are gone
need more Jobs to get more jobs
innovate to grow

October 31, 2011

More on Jobs Haiku

My Jobs haiku has received some discussion in the blogosphere.

It is reproduced, along with haikus submitted by other economics bloggers, in an entry of the blog of the Economist magazine:

I especially like a comment to the Economist blog entry:


Oct 26th 2011 7:59 GMT

What a creative way to describe the economy. It is so interesting to see how everyone interprets the economy through poem. I personally like the "jobs and Jobs" one. I think it describes our economy, and gives a snapshot of a major moment in our history.


Nov 2nd 2011 1:41 GMT

It is interesting to see people's opinions about the economy being put into haikus. My favorite out of these is the haiku that refers to the fact that we have lost Steve Jobs and many jobs for US citizens. And in order to regain these jobs we are going to need more people to contribute in ways Steve Jobs has.

(Note: I added kbuch5's comment on 11/7/11.)

CNBC correspondent Jane Wells describes my haiku as "poetic" on her blog:

October 20, 2011

Fewer Entrepreneurial Startups Leads to Fewer New Jobs


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Start-ups fuel job growth disproportionately since by definition they are starting and growing, adding employees, says the Kauffman Foundation, which researches and advocates for entrepreneurship.

Though there was start-up activity during and after the recession, driven partly by unemployed individuals putting out a shingle, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the total number of "births" of new businesses declined sharply from previous years. What's more, the number of people employed by new businesses that are less than a year old--a common definition of a start-up--also declined. That trend started a decade ago.

In a recent report on entrepreneurship, the BLS said the number of new businesses less than a year old that existed in the year ending March 2010 "was lower than any other year" since its research began in 1994. The downdraft started with the recession.

"More people who were self-employed failed and left self-employment than people who entered," says Scott Shane, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University who wrote a study on entrepreneurship and the recession for the Cleveland Fed. "The net effect is negative, not positive, largely because downturns hurt those in business and those thinking of entering business."

For the full story, see:

JOHN BUSSEY. "THE BUSINESS; Shrinking in a Bad Economy: America's Entrepreneur Class." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., AUGUST 12, 2011): B1 & B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The BLS report mentioned above can be found at:

The Scott Shane commentary mentioned above can be found at:


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

October 19, 2011

Jobs Haiku

jobs and Jobs are gone
need more Jobs to get more jobs
innovate to grow

Arthur Diamond

In his Q4 survey of influential economics bloggers, Tim Kane of the Kauffman Foundation whimsically requested that we create a haiku that speaks to the state of the economy. I sent him my haiku, above, on Sunday, October 16, 2011.

(Do not worry---I have no plans to retire and devote myself to writing poetry.)

September 24, 2011

Chinese Boom Financed by Government Debt and "Clever Accounting"

EmptyLotForWuhanTower2011-08-08.jpg "An empty lot in Wuhan, China, where developers intend to build a tower taller than the Empire State Building in New York." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) . . . the Wuhan Metro is only one piece of a $120 billion municipal master plan that includes two new airport terminals, a new financial district, a cultural district and a riverfront promenade with an office tower half again as high as the Empire State Building.

. . .

The plans for Wuhan, a provincial capital about 425 miles west of Shanghai, might seem extravagant. But they are not unusual. Dozens of other Chinese cities are racing to complete infrastructure projects just as expensive and ambitious, or more (p. A8) so, as they play their roles in this nation's celebrated economic miracle.

In the last few years, cities' efforts have helped government infrastructure and real estate spending surpass foreign trade as the biggest contributor to China's growth. Subways and skyscrapers, in other words, are replacing exports of furniture and iPhones as the symbols of this nation's prowess.

But there are growing signs that China's long-running economic boom could be undermined by these building binges, which are financed through heavy borrowing by local governments and clever accounting that masks the true size of the debt.

The danger, experts say, is that China's municipal governments could already be sitting on huge mountains of hidden debt -- a lurking liability that threatens to stunt the nation's economic growth for years or even decades to come. Just last week China's national auditor, who reports to the cabinet, warned of the perils of local government borrowing. And on Tuesday the Beijing office of Moody's Investors Service issued a report saying the national auditor might have understated Chinese banks' actual risks from loans to local governments.

Because Chinese growth has been one of the few steady engines in the global economy in recent years, any significant slowdown in this country would have international repercussions.

For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "Building Boom in China Stirs Fears of Debt Overload." The New York Times (Thurs., July 7, 2011): C8.

(Note: online version of the article is dated July 6, 2011 and has the title "Building Boom in China Stirs Fears of Debt Overload.")

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 9, 2011

Occupational Licensing Reduces Job Creation

(p. A15) Only one in 20 workers needed the government's permission to pursue their chosen occupation in the 1950s, notes University of Minnesota Prof. Morris Kleiner. Today that figure is nearly one in three.

. . .

The breadth of jobs is remarkable. Travel and tourist guides, funeral attendants, home-entertainment installers, florists, makeup artists, even interpreters for the deaf are all regulated by various states. Want to work as an alarm installer? In 35 states, you will need to earn the government's permission. Are you skilled in handling animals? You will need more than that skill in the 20 states that require a license for animal training.

There's usually more to these licenses than filling out some paperwork and paying a small fee. Most come with government-dictated educational requirements, examinations, minimum age and grade levels, and other hurdles.

. . .

Instead of looking to the federal government to create jobs, state legislatures could have a real and immediate effect on unemployment in their states by showing how less truly is more. They can remove the barriers to job creation that their predecessors erected and enjoy the job-generating drive of their states' aspiring entrepreneurs.

For the full commentary, see:

CHIP MELLOR And DICK CARPENTER. "Want Jobs? Cut Local Regulations." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 28, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

August 28, 2011

Strong Economic Growth Benefits Workers

(p. A13) Workers do well only when the economy grows at a healthy and consistent pace. The biggest threat to long-term economic growth is government growth of the magnitude that characterized the past two years and that is forecast for our future.

Our current problems are not a result of acts of nature. They stem from policy choices that dramatically increased the size of the government. In the past two years, the federal budget has grown by a whopping 16%.

. . .

. . . , the price of the stimulus is what appears to be a permanent increase in the size of government that will continue to slow economic growth. Most economists believe that high debt and high taxes each contributes to slow economic growth, which hurts workers both in the short and long run.

For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD P. LAZEAR. "OPINION; How Big Government Hurts the Average Joe; Job growth is very closely linked to GDP growth. If the economy is not growing, then jobs aren't being added." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., August 5, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

August 24, 2011

Krugman Says Economic Policy of Past Two Years "Isn't Working"

(p. A21) . . . we already know what isn't working: the economic policy of the past two years -- and the millions of Americans who should have jobs, but don't.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL KRUGMAN. "The Wrong Worries." The New York Times (Fri., August 5, 2011): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated August 4, 2011.)

August 23, 2011

"A Colossal Investment Project, Born of the State, Steeped in Corruption"

CandlesChinaHighSpeedTrainCrash2011-08-06.jpg"Online critics have scornfully contrasted the difference between government rhetoric about the promise of high-speed rail and the reality of the troubled network. Local residents mourned victims of the train crash in Wenzhou on July 26." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) China's high-speed rail system is an apt metaphor for the country's hurtling economy over the past decade: a colossal investment project, born of the state, steeped in corruption, built for maximum velocity, and imposed paternalistically on a public that is at once amazed and skeptical. The rail system has married foreign technology with national ambition in a network billed as the biggest and most advanced in the world, in a country whose per capita income ranks below that of Jamaica.

For the full commentary, see:

JASON DEAN And JEREMY PAGE. "Trouble on the China Express; The wreck of a high-speed train has enraged the Chinese public and focused attention on the corruption and corner-cutting behind the country's breakneck economic growth." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 30, 2011): C1-C2.

August 16, 2011

Chinese Government High-Speed Trains Are Financial "Black Holes"

(p. A11) BEIJING-A high-speed train from Beijing is scheduled to glide into Shanghai's Hongqiao railway station on Thursday after its inaugural run, an event meant to showcase China's technological prowess but one that lately has become part of a national debate about the pitfalls of megainvestment projects.

. . .

Detractors focus on corruption and safety problems that have lately tarnished the project's image. Pricey tickets, they say, underscore China's already huge rich-poor gap--and doom the trains to run half-empty, straining the national budget for years to come.

. . .

"Physically, they are good assets," says Ding Yuan, an accounting professor at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. "Financially, they are all black holes."

More broadly, the high-speed rail problems underscore the shortcomings of a growth strategy that depends ever more heavily on investment in projects whose economic payoffs are uncertain.

. . .

Railways Minister Liu Zhijun proselytized for high-speed rail, telling leaders from Hubei province in January that they needed to "seize the rare opportunity to accelerate the development of the railway," according to a Railways Ministry report.

. . .

Government spending on rail projects ballooned from 155 billion yuan in 2006 ($24 billion) to a budgeted 745 billion yuan ($115 billion) in 2011, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. The ministry's debt ballooned to about 5% of GDP in the first quarter of 2011 from about 2% in 2007.

The project's flaws became painfully clear in February, when Mr. Liu was fired amid allegations that he embezzled around $30 million. Although government investigators didn't cite criticisms of the railway project, Mr. Liu's successor, Sheng Guangzu, has scaled back plans to focus on projects already under construction, rather than expansion. Railway consultants say work has been suspended on new lines, including Hubei projects the fired minister was pushing.

For the full story, see:

BRIAN SPEGELE and BOB DAVIS. "High-Speed Train Links Beijing, Shanghai; Cornerstone of China's Rail Expansion Illustrates Megaprojects' Speed Bumps." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JUNE 29, 2011): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

August 15, 2011

Krugman's Ultimate Keynesian Solution to Economic Crisis: Pretend Space Aliens Are Invading

I was watching economists Kenneth Rogoff and Paul Krugman being interviewed by Fareed Xakaria on the CNN show "Fareed Zakaria GPS" in the late morning on Sunday, August 14, 2011. I started laughing when I heard Krugman suggest that a perfectly acceptable Keynesian solution to the economic crisis would be for scientists to pretend that space aliens were invading earth. (We then would pull together and get everyone employed.)

What we actually need is less government deception and less government intervention, so that entrepreneurs can go back to creating new products, new businesses, and new jobs.

Here is a transcript of the relevant part of the interview:

Ken Rogoff: Infrastructure spending, if it were well-spent, that's great. I'm all for that. I'd borrow for that, assuming we're not paying Boston Big Dig kind of prices for the infrastructure.

Fareed Zakaria: But even if you were, wouldn't John Maynard Keynes say that if you could employ people to dig a ditch and then fill it up again, that's fine, they're being productively employed, they'll pay taxes, so maybe Boston's Big Dig was just fine after all.

Paul Krugman: Think about World War II, right? That was actually negative social product spending, and yet it brought us out.

I mean, probably because you want to put these things together, if we say, "Look, we could use some inflation." Ken and I are both saying that, which is, of course, anathema to a lot of people in Washington but is, in fact, what basic logic says.

It's very hard to get inflation in a depressed economy. But if you had a program of government spending plus an expansionary policy by the Fed, you could get that. So, if you think about using all of these things together, you could accomplish a great deal.

If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren't any aliens, we'd be better -

Ken Rogoff: And we need Orson Welles, is what you're saying.

Paul Krugman: No, there was a Twilight Zone episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time...we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus.

Source of embedded clip and transcipt: "GPS this Sunday: Krugman calls for space aliens to fix U.S. economy?" posted August 12, 2011, 2:09 PM; aired Sunday, August 14, 2011. URL:

(Note: bold in original; the ellipsis in the final paragraph is in the original CNN transcript. Here is a transcipt of the final paragraph without the ellipsis: "KRUGMAN: No, there was a "Twilight Zone" episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time, we don't need it, we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus." The source of this transcript is the News Busters blog at: )

(Note: Commenting on the CNN blog entry, "Wild Bill" suggested that the source for Krugman's policy advice was not an episode in the "Twilight Zone" series, as Krugman had said, but the "Architects of Fear" episode that aired in 1963 on the "Outer Limits" series. In spite of this error, "Wild Bill" maintains that the "dude is still a flippin' genius.")

August 12, 2011

Chinese Local Governments Hold Bad Infrastructure Debt

(p. C14) There is no such thing as a free stimulus.

At first sight, China's response to the financial crisis looked cheap. A fiscal deficit totaling 3.1% of gross domestic product in 2009 and 2.6% in 2010 compares with 12.7% and 10.6% in the U.S. The reality is that it was considerably more expensive than that.

China's response to the crisis came primarily from bank loans rather than central government debt. With many of those loans now threatening to turn bad, the cost may still end up on the government's balance sheet.

The heart of the problem is debt taken on by local government financing vehicles in the course of two years of huge infrastructure investment. These are entities created and backed by local governments to get around legal constraints on their borrowing. No one knows how much debt they have.

For the full story, see:

TOM ORLIK. "Post-Stimulus: Who Pays for China's Bad Loans?" The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., June 23, 2011): C14.

August 9, 2011

Fannie Mae Execs "Resorted to Ad Hominem Attacks" When They Vilified the "Economic Pencil Brains"


Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. C6) Although the financial crisis of 2008 has left a long trail of casualties, one group has benefited from the cataclysm: financial journalists. Several have already published books shedding light on the unprecedented events that caused investment banks to fail, global stock markets to plummet and borrowers to lose their homes. "Reckless Endangerment," by Gretchen Morgenson, assistant business and financial editor and a columnist at The New York Times, and the financial analyst Joshua Rosner, is a worthy addition to the genre.

. . .

The book begins in 1994 with President Bill Clinton's kicking off a public-private partnership to extend homeownership to more Americans. . . .

. . .

. . . the institution to which the authors devote the most ink is Fannie Mae, the government-supported enterprise created in 1938 to make home loans more accessible. And the person they hold most accountable is someone whose role in the "mortgage maelstrom" has until now "escaped scrutiny": James A. Johnson, Fannie Mae's chief executive from 1991 to 1998. Mr. Johnson was the "anonymous architect of the public-private homeownership drive that almost destroyed the economy in 2008," the authors assert. "He was especially adept at manipulating lawmakers, eviscerating regulators and leaving taxpayers with the bill."

The description of Mr. Johnson's role is damning -- and although the account lacks his perspective, it is thoroughly supported through scores of interviews with academics, government officials and industry executives, some of whom are granted anonymity. While Mr. Johnson didn't respond to interview requests over five months, according to the authors, they overcome this obstacle with impressive use of public records and secondary sources, carefully attributed in the text or described in a two-page "Notes on Sources."

. . .

A particular strength of this book is the number of doubters the authors unearthed: the unsung government analysts, public lawyers and private researchers who dared to question policy decisions and stand up to the formidable "housers," as the true believers in government subsidies for home ownership are called.

The reader has a sickening sense of missed opportunity as these prophets are ignored or, worse, vilified, by those in a position to halt the mania. When a Congressional Budget Office researcher in 1995 reveals the multibillion-dollar extent of the government's subsidy to Fannie Mae and its brother institution, Freddie Mac (and that one-third of these benefits never reached borrowers), he suggests that "Congress may want to revisit the special relationship." Unable to assail the merits of his analysis, outraged Fannie Mae executives resorted to ad hominem attacks, calling budget office officials "digit-heads" and "economic pencil brains."

For the full review, see:

PAM LUECKE. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Nation Goes on Its Merry Way to Ruin." The New York Times (Tues., June 28, 2011): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review was dated June 27, 2011.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

Book being reviewed:

Morgenson, Gretchen, and Joshua Rosner. Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. New York: Times Books, 2011.

August 8, 2011

Much of U.S. Job Gains Are in Texas

(p. 1A) While the nation's job growth has limped along since the economic recovery began two years ago, the Lone Star State is enlarging payrolls in Texas-size fashion.

From June 2009 to June 2011 the state added 262,000 jobs, or half the USA's 524,000 payroll gains, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even by a more conservative estimate that omits states with net job losses, Texas' advances make up 30% of the 1 million additions in the 34 states with net growth.

For the full story, see:

Paul Davidson. "Need a Job? Move to Texas." USA Today (Tues., JULY 20, 2011): 1A.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Texas bucks national unemployment trend.")

August 4, 2011

Robert Lucas Sees Lower Growth Due to Too Much Regulation and Taxes

(p. A15) Robert Lucas, the 1995 Nobel laureate in economics, has spent his career thinking about why economies grow, and in particular about the effect of policy making on growth. From his office at the University of Chicago, Prof. Lucas has been wondering, like the rest of us, why, if the recession officially ended in the first half of 2009, there hasn't been more growth in the U.S. economy. He's also been wondering why this delayed recovery resembles the long non-recovery years of the 1930s. And he has been thinking about the U.S. and Europe.

In May, Bob Lucas pulled his thoughts together and delivered them as the Milliman Lecture at the University of Washington, an exercise he described to me this week as "intelligent speculation."

Here is the lecture's provocative final thought: "Is it possible that by imitating European policies on labor markets, welfare and taxes, the U.S. has chosen a new, lower GDP trend? If so, it may be that the weak recovery we have had so far is all the recovery we will get."

. . .

"If we're going to move to a European welfare state," says Prof. Lucas, "we're going to have to pay a European price." And that price could be a permanently lower level of GDP per person. The U.S.'s amazing 100-year ride would slow.

Among the many things any such drop in GDP will siphon away is America's relentless productive vitality. "So much new happens in the United States," Prof. Lucas says. But will it still?

For the full commentary, see:

DANIEL HENNINGER. "The Disappearing Recovery; What if the weak recovery is all the recovery we are going to get?" The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JULY 14, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of article had the date JULY 13, 2011.)

June 29, 2011

"There Is More Uncertainty, and Everybody Is Afraid"

Robert Shiller is often a shrewd diagnostician, but less often a wise therapist. For instance he is right in thinking that uncertainty is part of our problem, but wrong in his usual view that more government spending is the solution.

A better way to reduce uncertainty is for the government to act more predictably, following some reasonable rules. I heard such a view articulately defended in a lunch speech at the American Economic Association meetings in January by Stanford economist John Taylor. His speech has been polished and published in National Affairs (see citation way below).

Here are some interesting observations by Shiller (via Bewley):

(p, 7) Factors of production like wheat or trucks or pumps don't have morale issues. Human beings do.

How these issues affect the labor market is a major focus of the research of Professor Bewley, who is a colleague of mine at Yale. He has developed an idiosyncratic approach, interviewing hundreds of corporate managers at length about the driving forces for their actions. The managers consistently told him that they are concerned about the emotional state of their core employees. They said that their companies' continued success depends on the positive feelings and loyalty of these workers -- and lamented the hard choices that would need to be made in a severe downturn.

. . .

Lower-level managers won't ask for scarce resources . . . , because those items look like luxuries to fellow employees, who worry that there won't be enough in the company budget for them to keep their jobs.

One top manager told Professor Bewley that he had to compensate for the reticence of lower-level managers, who won't ask for anything. "I tell them to put in a few dreams for equipment they would like, because if they don't try, they'll never get what they want," this manager said.

Of course, while that reticence may preserve jobs in one's own company, it works against job growth elsewhere. A result is a loss of vigor in the aggregate economy, and the sapping of the very kind of creativity that might spur a recovery.

Professor Bewley shared with me a passage from an interview in July with a manager of a large manufacturing company. "There is more uncertainty, and everybody is afraid," this manager told him. "Do your job. Keep employed. Don't come up with a new idea." In his own company, the manager said, "Everybody is doing the same thing."

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. SHILLER. "ECONOMIC VIEW; The Survival of the Safest." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 3, 2010): 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated October 2, 2010.)

Here is the Taylor reference:

Taylor, John B. "The Cycle of Rules and Discretion in Economic Policy." National Affairs, no. 7 (Spring 2011): 55-65.

June 25, 2011

Chinese College Graduates Are Underemployed "Ant Tribe" in Big Cities

(p. A1) BEIJING -- Liu Yang, a coal miner's daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. "Beijing isn't like this in the movies," she said.

Often the first from their families to finish even high school, ambitious graduates like Ms. Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country's labor-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced (p. A12) 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

"College essentially provided them with nothing," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China's education system. "For many young graduates, it's all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."

. . .

Chinese sociologists have come up with a new term for educated young people who move in search of work like Ms. Liu: the ant tribe. It is a reference to their immense numbers -- at least 100,000 in Beijing alone -- and to the fact that they often settle into crowded neighborhoods, toiling for wages that would give even low-paid factory workers pause.

"Like ants, they gather in colonies, sometimes underground in basements, and work long and hard," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

. . .

A fellow Datong University graduate, Yuan Lei, threw the first wet blanket over the exuberance of Ms. Liu, Mr. Li and three friends not long after their July arrival in Beijing. Mr. Yuan had arrived several months earlier for an internship but was still jobless.

"If you're not the son of an official or you don't come from money, life is going to be bitter," he told them over bowls of 90-cent noodles, their first meal in the capital.

. . .

In the end, Mr. Li and his friends settled for sales jobs with an instant noodle company. The starting salary, a low $180 a month, turned out to be partly contingent on meeting ambitious sales figures. Wearing purple golf shirts with the words "Lao Yun Pickled Vegetable Beef Noodles," they worked 12-hour days, returning home after dark to a meal of instant noodles.

. . .

Mr. Li worried aloud whether he would be able to marry his high school sweetheart, who had accompanied him here, if he could not earn enough money to buy a home. Such concerns are rampant among young Chinese men, who have been squeezed by skyrocketing real estate prices and a culture that demands that a groom provide an apartment for his bride. "I'm giving myself two years," he said, his voice trailing off.

By November, the pressure had taken its toll on two of the others, including the irrepressible Liu Yang. After quitting the noodle company and finding no other job, she gave up and returned home.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW JACOBS. "China's Army of Graduates Is Struggling." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., December 12, 2010): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated December 11, 2010 and has the title "China's Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs.")

June 6, 2011

Chinese Government Created Real Estate Bubble in a Dozen Ghost Towns Like Kangbashi Area of Ordos

KangbashiRealEstateBubble2011-06-02.jpg"As China's roaring economy fuels a wild construction boom around the country, critics cite places like Kangbashi as proof of a speculative real estate bubble they warn will eventually burst." Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of caption: online version of the NYT slideshow that accompanied the online article quoted and cited below.

The October 19, 2010 New York Times front page story (quoted below) on the Ordos ghost town in China, was finally picked up by the TV media on May 30 in a nice NBC Today Show report.

It should be clear that the Chinese real estate bubble will burst, just as real estate bubbles eventually burst in places like Japan and the United States. What is not clear is what the effects will be on the Chinese and world economies.

(p. A1) Ordos proper has 1.5 million residents. But the tomorrowland version of Ordos -- built from scratch on a huge plot of empty land 15 miles south of the old city -- is all but deserted.

Broad boulevards are unimpeded by traffic in the new district, called Kangbashi New Area. Office buildings stand vacant. Pedestrians are in short supply. And weeds are beginning to sprout up in luxury villa developments that are devoid of residents.

. . .

(p. A4) As China's roaring economy fuels a wild construction boom around the country, critics cite places like Kangbashi as proof of a speculative real estate bubble they warn will eventually pop -- sending shock waves through the banking system of a country that for the last two years has been the prime engine of global growth.

. . .

Analysts estimate there could be as many as a dozen other Chinese cities just like Ordos, with sprawling ghost town annexes. In the southern city of Kunming, for example, a nearly 40-square-mile area called Chenggong has raised alarms because of similarly deserted roads, high-rises and government offices. And in Tianjin, in the northeast, the city spent lavishly on a huge district festooned with golf courses, hot springs and thousands of villas that are still empty five years after completion.

. . .

In 2004, with Ordos tax coffers bulging with coal money, city officials drew up a bold expansion plan to create Kangbashi, a 30-minute drive south of the old city center on land adjacent to one of the region's few reservoirs. . . .

In the ensuing building spree, home buyers could not get enough of Kangbashi and its residential developments with names like Exquisite Silk Village, Kanghe Elysees and Imperial Academic Gardens.

Some buyers were like Zhang Ting, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who is a rare actual resident of Kangbashi, having moved to Ordos this year on an entrepreneurial impulse.

"I bought two places in Kangbashi, one for my own use and one as an investment," said Mr. Zhang, who paid about $125,000 for his 2,000-square-foot investment apartment. "I bought it because housing prices will definitely go up in such a new town. There is no reason to doubt it. The government has already moved in."

Asked whether he worried about the lack of other residents, Mr. Zhang shrugged off the question.

"I know people say it's an empty city, but I don't find any inconveniences living by myself," said Mr. Zhang, who borrowed to finance his purchases. . . .

For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "A City Born of China's Boom, Still Unpeopled." The New York Times (Weds., October 19, 2010): A1 & A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated October 19, 2010 and has the title "Chinese City Has Many Buildings, but Few People.")


Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

May 31, 2011

China's Speculative Real Estate Bubble

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

In a front page article on October 20, 2010, the New York Times reported on how the Chinese government encouraged a real estate investment binge that has resulted in a growing number of empty, speculatively built ghost cities. Now the video media has picked up the story in the well-done story linked to above and cited below.

Williams, Ian, reporter. "The Roads Not Taken: Visiting China's Ghost Cities." Broadcast on the Today Show, Sunday morning, May 30, 2011.

May 1, 2011

Reduce Spending for Stronger Economy

GovernmentSpendingGraph2011-04-25.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) To the extent that government spending crowds out job-creating private investment, it can actually worsen unemployment. Indeed, extensive government efforts to stimulate the economy and reduce joblessness by spending more have failed to reduce joblessness.

Above all, the federal government needs a credible and transparent budget strategy. It's time for a game-changer--a budget action that will stop the recent discretionary spending binge before it gets entrenched in government agencies.

. . .

We can see such a sensible budget strategy starting to emerge. The first step of the strategy is largely being addressed by the House budget plan for 2011, or HR1. Though voted down in its entirety by the Senate, it is now being split up into "continuing" resolutions that add up to the same spending levels.

For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER, GEORGE P. SHULTZ AND JOHN B. TAYLOR. "OPINION; Time for a Budget Game-Changer; Assurance that current tax levels will remain in place would provide an immediate stimulus. House Republican budget planners are on the right track." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., APRIL 4, 2011): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 30, 2011

In Greece It Is Illegal for Brewers to Produce Tea

PolitopooulosDemetriGreekEntrepreneur2011-03-09.jpg "Demetri Politopoulos at his microbrewery in northern Greece. He says Greek leaders need to do more to make the country an easier place to do business." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) DEMETRI POLITOPOULOS says he has suffered countless indignities in his 12-year battle to build a microbrewery and wrest a sliver of the Greek beer market from the Dutch colossus, Heineken.

His tires have been slashed and his products vandalized by unknown parties, he says, and his brewery has received threatening phone calls. And he says he has had to endure regular taunts -- you left Manhattan to start up a beer factory in northern Greece? -- not to mention the pain of losing 5.3 million euros.

Bad as all that has been, nothing prepared him for this reality: He would be breaking the law if he tried to fulfill his latest -- and, he thinks, greatest -- entrepreneurial dream. It is to have his brewery produce and export bottles of a Snapple-like beverage made from herbal tea, which he is cultivating in the mountains that surround this lush pocket of the country.

An obscure edict requires that brewers in Greece produce beer -- and nothing else. Mr. Politopoulos has spent the better part of the last year trying fruitlessly to persuade the Greek government to strike it. "It's probably a law that goes back to King Otto," said Mr. Politopoulos with a grim chuckle, referring to the Bavarian-born king of Greece who introduced beer to the country around 1850.

Sitting in his office, Mr. Politopoulos took a long pull from a glass of his premium Vergina wheat beer and said it was absurd that he had to lobby Greek politicians to repeal a 19th-century law so that he could deliver the exports that Greece urgently needed. And, he said, his predicament was even worse than that: it was emblematic of the web of restrictions, monopolies and other distortions that have made many Greek companies uncompetitive, and pushed the country close to bankruptcy.

For the full story, see:

LANDON THOMAS Jr. "What's Broken in Greece? Ask an Entrepreneur." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., January 30, 2011): 1 & 5.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 29, 2011.)

March 23, 2011

Estonia Re-Elects "Government that Continued to Embrace Laissez-Faire Capitalism"

(p. A5) MOSCOW -- Early results in Estonia's parliamentary election on Sunday showed the ruling coalition headed for a victory, in a remarkable show of support for a government that has imposed harsh austerity measures to lift the country out of recession.

. . .

The vote reflects approval for a government that continued to embrace laissez-faire capitalism during the painful months after the global downturn. After Estonia's economy shrank nearly 15 percent, the state reduced its budget by the equivalent of 9 percent of gross domestic product. Demand fell steeply, and unemployment crept up, early in 2010, to 19.8 percent.

But in contrast to their neighbors in Latvia, where economic troubles led to riots and the government's collapse, Estonians stoically absorbed the suffering. These sacrifices allowed Estonia to join the euro zone in January, a move its leaders hailed as a sign that the country was on its way to achieving Western European standards of living. Meanwhile, the economy has been projected to grow by 4 percent this year, and unemployment has dropped to around 10 percent, according to the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund.

For the full story, see:

ELLEN BARRY. "After Cuts, Voters Back Ruling Bloc in Estonia." The New York Times (Mon., March 7, 2011): A5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated March 6, 2011.)

March 9, 2011

Warren Buffett Says "the American System" Unleashes "Human Potential"

(p. 16) Mr. Buffett said Berkshire last year spent more than $5 billion on property and equipment in the United States - more than 90 percent of the company's total expenditure - and that the overwhelming part of the company's future investment will be at home.

"The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential - a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War - remains alive and effective," he wrote.

"Now, as in 1776, 1861, 1932 and 1941, America's best days lie ahead."

For the full story, see:

PETER LATTMAN. "Buffett Plans to Buy Local, Investing Mostly in the U.S." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 27, 2011): 16.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 26, 2011 and has the title "As Berkshire Improves, Buffett Sings Praises of U.S.")

March 5, 2011

Caballero Worries about the Relevance of Mainstream Macro Modeling

In the past, I have found some of MIT economist Ricardo Caballero's research useful because he takes Schumpeter's process of creative destruction seriously.

In a recent paper, he joins a growing number of mainstream economists who worry that the recent and continuing economic crisis has implications for the methodology of economics:

In this paper I argue that the current core of macroeconomics--by which I mainly mean the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium approach--has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one. This is dangerous for both methodological and policy reasons. On the methodology front, macroeconomic research has been in "fine-tuning" mode within the local-maximum of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium world, when we should be in "broad-exploration" mode. We are too far from absolute truth to be so specialized and to make the kind of confident quantitative claims that often emerge from the core. On the policy front, this confused precision creates the illusion that a minor adjustment in the standard policy framework will prevent future crises, and by doing so it leaves us overly exposed to the new and unexpected.


Caballero, Ricardo J. "Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome." NBER Working Paper # w16429, October 2010.

The paper has been published as:

Caballero, Ricardo J. "Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 85-102.

March 2, 2011

Occupational Licensing Adds Billions a Year to Cost of Services


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) . . . economists--and workers shut out of fields by educational requirements or difficult exams--say licensing mostly serves as a form of protectionism, allowing veterans of the trade to box out competitors who might undercut them on price or offer new services.

"Occupations prefer to be li-(p. A16)censed because they can restrict competition and obtain higher wages," said Morris Kleiner, a labor professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you go to any statehouse, you'll see a line of occupations out the door wanting to be licensed."

While some states have long required licensing for workers who handle food or touch others--caterers and hair stylists, for example--economists say such regulation is spreading to more states for more industries. The most recent study, from 2008, found 23% of U.S. workers were required to obtain state licenses, up from just 5% in 1950, according to data from Mr. Kleiner. In the mid-1980s, about 800 professions were licensed in at least one state. Today, at least 1,100 are, according to the Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation, a trade group for regulatory bodies. Among the professions licensed by one or more states: florists, interior designers, private detectives, hearing-aid fitters, conveyor-belt operators and retailers of frozen desserts.

. . .

Mr. Kleiner, of the University of Minnesota, looked at census data covering several occupations that are regulated in some states but not others, including librarians, nutritionists and respiratory therapists. He found that employment growth in those professions was about 20% greater, on average, in the unregulated states between 1990 and 2000.

Licensing can also drive up costs to consumers. Licensed workers earn, on average, 15% more than their unlicensed counterparts in other states--a premium that may be reflected in their prices, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and conducted by Mr. Kleiner and Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University.

Mr. Kleiner estimates that across the U.S. economy, occupational licensing adds at least $116 billion a year to the cost of services, which amounts to about 1% of total consumer spending. In a look at dentistry, Mr. Kleiner found that the average price of dental services rose 11% when a state made it more difficult to get a dental license.

For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE SIMON. "A License to Shampoo: Jobs Needing State Approval Rise." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., February 7, 2011): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

JobsNeedingStateLicenseTable2011-02-27cropped.jpg"Some of the jobs that require licensing in one or more states." Source of caption and table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

February 28, 2011

Kappos Says Private Company Would Have Run Patent Office Better

KapposDavidPatent2011-02-27.jpg "David Kappos of the Patent Office, with an Edison bulb." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) "There is no company I know of that would have permitted its information technology to get into the state we're in," David J. Kappos, who 18 months ago became director of the Patent and Trademark Office and undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property, said in a recent interview. "If it had, the C.E.O. would have been fired, the board would have been thrown out, and you would have had shareholder lawsuits."

Once patent applications are in the system, they sit -- for years. The patent office's pipeline is so clogged it takes two years for an inventor to get an initial ruling, and an additional year or more before a patent is finally issued.

The delays and inefficiencies are more than a nuisance for inventors. Patentable ideas are the basis for many start-up companies and small businesses. Venture capitalists often require start-ups to have a patent before offering financing. That means that patent delays cost jobs, slow the economy and threaten the ability of American companies to compete with foreign businesses.

For the full story, see:

EDWARD WYATT. "U.S. Sets 21st-Century Goal: Building a Better Patent Office." The New York Times (Mon., February 21, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 20, 2011.)

February 18, 2011

Bloggers See Bad Conditions for Entrepreneurs


The chart above and the one below are from the recently-released results of the First Quarter 2011 influential blogger survey conducted by the Kauffman Foundation. (Tim Kane gave permission to put the charts on my blog.) is one of the blogs included in the survey.

The results above show a perception that conditions are currently tough for entrepreneurs. The chart below displays one of the main reasons: the current economy is perceived as uncertain and fragile. There are many reasons for the uncertainty, but one of them is surely that the bloggers have doubts about the depth of support in government for the institutions and policies upon which entrepreneurship depends (like private property, restrained regulations, and low taxes).

For a full PDF report on the 2011 Q1 survey results, see:


January 21, 2011

Those Who Paid Attention to Risk, Did Better in Crisis

DownsideRiskCROcentralityGraph2010-1.jpgSource of graph: screen capture from p. 43 of NBER paper referenced below.

At the American Economic Association meetings in Denver from January 6-9, I attended several sessions dealing the causes and cures of the economic crisis of the last few years.

One issue that came up more than once was whether, and to what extent, various decision makers were blameworthy in what happened. Was this a crisis that well-trained, hard-working and prudent managers, regulators and legislators should have seen coming? Or was it a once in 100 year storm that nobody should be expected to have foreseen?

One compelling bit of evidence was presented in a talk on January 8th by Charles Calomiris in which he presented a graph from a 2010 NBER paper by Ellul and Yerramilli. The graph, shown above, indicates that firms that took risk seriously, as proxied by their giving an important pre-crisis role to a Chief Risk Officer (CRO), tended to suffer less downside volatility during the crisis.


Ellul, Andrew, and Vijay Yerramilli. "Stronger Risk Controls, Lower Risk: Evidence from U.S. Bank Holding Companies." NBER Working Paper # 16178, July 2010.

December 24, 2010

A Late Bronze Age "Cornucopian Example of Multiculturism"

BronzeAgeContainer2010-12-20.jpg"Influences from Egypt and Mediterranean Asia appear to merge in this container, from around 1390 to 1352 B.C." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The cultural flowering (see above and below) brought about by Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, is highly compatible with arguments made in Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction, which argues that capitalism promotes the important kind of diversity that within cultures increases creativity and options for individual choice.

It would be interesting and useful to know more about the causes and effects of the dark age mentioned below--the one that started around 1200 BC. An earlier entry mentioned archeological evidence of a small family group near Katilimata on Crete who attempted to hunker down to defend themselves and their property from the invaders from the sea mentioned below.

Sometimes the Phoenicians are given credit for the trade, and Paul Johnson in his recent Heroes book (p. 4), identifies the evil invaders who killed the trade as being the Philistines.

(p. C28) For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey. Discovered by a sponge diver in 1984 and considered the oldest surviving example of a seagoing ship, it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans.

Although the ship's home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets.

Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship's crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird.

More precious and enigmatic is a standing bronze figure of a woman, probably a goddess, her head and face still covered with the sheet gold that may once have encased her whole body in a radiant epidermis. The exhibition catalog suggests that she might be a talismanic charm intended to protect the ship from harm.

Harm came anyway, as it did to much of the Mediterranean world, around 1200 B.C. with the arrival of mysterious, sea-based invaders, who conquered most of the great maritime cities, interrupting trade and easy cultural exchange, and bringing on a dark age, a depression. The depression -- or was it severe recession? -- didn't last forever. The passion for acquisition, exchange and accumulation survived it, as it always does.

This passion is, of course, our own. It is one reason that we can, if we try, identify with the diverse people who, thousands of years ago, made the objects in this show. The globalist, all-in-it-together world model they invented is another reason. Their dark age could be one too.

For the full review, see:

HOLLAND COTTER. "Art Review; 'Beyond Babylon'; Global Exchange, Early Version." The New York Times (Fri., November 21, 2008): C23 & C28.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 20, 2008.)

The Cowen book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

The Paul Johnson book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Johnson, Paul M. Heroes. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

December 20, 2010

Government "Gave People the Crazy Juice"

BoettkePete2010-12-19.jpg "Peter J. Boettke of George Mason University is the emerging standardbearer for a revived Austrian school of economics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Peter J. Boettke, shuffling around in a maroon velour track suit or faux-leather rubber shoes he calls "dress Crocs," hardly seems like the type to lead a revolution.

But the 50-year-old professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia is emerging as the intellectual standard-bearer for the Austrian school of economics that opposes government intervention in markets and decries federal spending to prop up demand during times of crisis. Mr. Boettke, whose latest research explores people's ability to self-regulate, also is minting a new generation of disciples who are spreading the Austrian approach throughout academia, where it had long been left for dead.

To these free-market economists, government intrusion ultimately sows the seeds of the next crisis. It hampers what one famous Austrian, Joseph Schumpeter, called the process of "creative destruction."

. . .

(p. B3) It wasn't a lack of government oversight that led to the crisis, as some economists argue, but too much of it, Mr. Boettke says. Specifically, low interest rates and policies that subsidized homeownership "gave people the crazy juice," he says.

For the full story, see:

KELLY EVANS. "Spreading Hayek, Spurning Keynes; Professor Leads an Austrian Revival." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., AUGUST 28, 2010): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 7, 2010

Harvard Economists Find that Spending Cuts Lead to Expansions and Tax Increases Lead to Recessions

(p. A19) Economic history shows that even large adjustments in fiscal policy, if based on well-targeted spending cuts, have often led to expansions, not recessions. Fiscal adjustments based on higher taxes, on the other hand, have generally been recessionary.

My colleague Silvia Ardagna and I recently co-authored a paper examining this pattern, as have many studies over the past 20 years. Our paper looks at the 107 large fiscal adjustments--defined as a cyclically adjusted deficit reduction of at least 1.5% in one year--that took place in 21 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries between 1970 and 2007.

. . .

Our results were striking: Over nearly 40 years, expansionary adjustments were based mostly on spending cuts, while recessionary adjustments were based mostly on tax increases. And these results would have been even stronger had our definition of an expansionary period been more lenient (extending, for example, to the top 50% of the OECD). In addition, adjustments based on spending cuts were accompanied by longer-lasting reductions in ratios of debt to GDP.

. . .

The evidence from the last 40 years suggests that spending increases meant to stimulate the economy and tax increases meant to reduce deficits are unlikely to achieve their goals. The opposite combination might.

For the full commentary, see:

ALBERTO ALESINA. "Tax Cuts vs. 'Stimulus': The Evidence Is In; A review of over 200 fiscal adjustments in 21 countries shows that spending discipline and tax cuts are the best ways to spur economic growth." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., November 23, 2010): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

A version of the Alesina and Ardagna paper that is downloadable online is:

Alesina, Alberto, and Silvia Ardagna. "Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending." 2009.

The published version of the Alesina and Ardagna paper is:

Alesina, Alberto, and Silvia Ardagna. "Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending." In Tax Policy and the Economy, edited by Jeffrey R. Brown. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 35-68.

December 3, 2010

If the Feds Want an Effective Stimulus, They Should Spend to Reduce the Patent Backlog

In my seminar on the Economics of Technology on Tuesday night (11/30/10), Gauri presented some interesting information on intellectual property. At one point she summarized that the lag in processing patents is about three years, but it takes, on average, only about 18 hours to process a patent once the processing has begun.

Later in the seminar, we talked about a brief article by Amar Bhidé on whether large economic stimulus programs have worked in the past, and will work in the present. Bhidé was skeptical, and I am too.

But it occurred to me that one modest economic stimulus expenditure might help. Why not make the highest stimulus spending priority to hire and train enough patent examiners to reduce the patent lag from three years to, say, three weeks?

The Bhidé article mentioned above is:

Bhidé, Amar. "Don't Believe the Stimulus Scaremongers." Wall Street Journal, (Tues., February 17, 2009): A15.

October 31, 2010

"Small-Business Marketplace at a Standstill"

WetzelDavidHardware2010-10-23.jpg"David Wetzel tried for two years to sell his New Jersey hardware store." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Small-business owners banking on a big payoff when they sell their establishments may have to settle for a lot less than planned.

A combination of tight credit, skittish buyers and business owners unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices--factors similarly affecting home sellers--has left the small-business marketplace at a standstill.

. . .

(p. B4) "Owners still think their businesses are worth what they used to be," says Thomas Coffey, a partner in Malvern, Pa., with B2BCFO, a provider of outsourced chief financial officers to small businesses. In reality, many "small companies just aren't earning what they used to earn," he says.

For the full story, see:

SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. "Businesses Put Up for Sale Smack Into Harsh Reality." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCTOBER 14, 2010): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 28, 2010

Home Depot Co-Founder Asks Obama to Stop Blocking Startups

Below I quote from the comments that Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone addressed to President Obama:

(p. A21) A little more than 30 years ago, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Pat Farrah and I got together and founded The Home Depot. Our dream was to create (memo to DNC activists: that's build, not take or coerce) a new kind of home-improvement center catering to do-it-yourselfers. The concept was to have a wide assortment, a high level of service, and the lowest pricing possible.

We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.

If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it's a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase--never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.

Meantime, you seem obsessed with repealing tax cuts for "millionaires and billionaires." Contrary to what you might assume, I didn't start with any advantages and neither did most of the successful people I know. I am the grandson of immigrants who came to this country seeking basic economic and personal liberty. My parents worked tirelessly to build on that opportunity. My first job was as a day laborer on the construction of the Long Island Expressway more than 50 years ago. The wealth that was created by my investments wasn't put into a giant swimming pool as so many elected demagogues seem to imagine. Instead it benefitted our employees, their families and our community at large.

For the full commentary, see:

KEN LANGONE. "Stop Bashing Business, Mr. President; If we tried to start The Home Depot today, it's a stone cold certainty that it would never have gotten off the ground." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 15, 2010): A21.

October 26, 2010

Stimulus Money Sent to the Jailed and the Dead

(p. A8) The Social Security Administration sent about 89,000 stimulus payments of $250 each to dead and incarcerated people--but almost half of them were returned, a new inspector-general's report found.

. . .

. . . 17,000 payments went to recipients who were in prison at the time the payment was made in May 2009. However, not all of those payments were necessarily against the letter of the law. While lawmakers intended to prevent payments to people in prison, the law included only a provision prohibiting payments to people incarcerated in the three months before the plan was passed--from November 2008 through January 2009.

. . .

. . . : The SSA says that the stimulus package didn't include a provision allowing it to try to retrieve funds that were mistakenly sent out, so it can't try to retrieve the rest of the money. Money transferred electronically may be sitting untouched in bank accounts of dead people.

The combined total of the mistaken payments is $22.3 million. About $12 million hasn't been returned.

For the full story, see:

LOUISE RADNOFSKY. "Stimulus Checks Sent to Dead, Incarcerated." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 8, 2010): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated OCTOBER 7, 2010.)

September 29, 2010

Myron Scholes on Sticking to His Ideas, Losing $4 Billion in Four Months, and Rejecting Taleb's Advice


Myron Scholes. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 22) The writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb contends that instead of giving advice on managing risk, you "should be in a retirement home doing sudoku."
If someone says to you, "Go to an old-folks' home," that's kind of ridiculous, because a lot of old people are doing terrific things for society. I never tried sudoku. Maybe he spends his time doing sudoku.

Some economists believe that mathematical models like yours lulled banks into a false sense of security, and I am wondering if you have revised your ideas as a consequence.
I haven't changed my ideas. A bank needs models to measure risk. The problem, however, is that any one bank can measure its risk, but it also has to know what the risk taken by other banks in the system happens to be at any particular moment.

. . .

After leaving academia, you helped found Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that lost $4 billion in four months and became a symbol of '90s-style financial failure. .
Obviously, you prefer not to have lost money for investors.

For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for Myron Scholes; Crash Course." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., May 17, 2009): 22.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original versions, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 14, 2009.)

September 28, 2010

FDR's Taxes Deepened the Great Depression

Professor Ohanian is a UCLA economist well-known for his research on the Great Depression. Below I quote a few of his recent observations (with co-author Cooley):

(p. A17) In 1937, after several years of partial recovery from the Great Depression, the U.S. economy fell into a sharp recession. The episode has become a lightning rod in the ongoing debate about whether the economy needs further increases in government spending to keep employment from declining even more.

. . .

The economy did not tank in 1937 because government spending declined. Increases in tax rates, particularly capital income tax rates, and the expansion of unions, were most likely responsible. Unfortunately, these same factors pose a similar threat today.

. . .

. . . in 1936, the Roosevelt administration pushed through a tax on corporate profits that were not distributed to shareholders. The sliding scale tax began at 7% if a company retained 1% of its net income, and went to 27% if a company retained 70% of net income. This tax significantly raised the cost of investment, as most investment is financed with a corporation's own retained earnings.

The tax rate on dividends also rose to 15.98% in 1932 from 10.14% in 1929, and then doubled again by 1936. Research conducted last year by Ellen McGratten of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis suggests that these increases in capital income taxation can account for much of the 26% decline in business fixed investment that occurred in 1937-1938.

For the full commentary, see:

THOMAS F. COOLEY AND LEE E. OHANIAN. "Gates and Buffett Take the Pledge; Wealthy businessmen often feel obligated to 'give back.' Who says they've taken anything?" The Wall Street Journal (Fri., AUGUST 20, 2010): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

That McGratten paper is:

McGrattan, Ellen R. "Capital Taxation During the U.S. Great Depression." Working Paper 670, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, April 2009.

September 16, 2010

Tax Hike Would Hurt Entrepreneurs

(p. A17) When Congress returns from its summer recess, members will face a pivotal decision about the expiring Bush tax cuts. President Barack Obama has called for their permanent extension for singles with incomes below $200,000 and married couples with incomes below $250,000, but has proposed that most of the tax cuts for households with higher incomes be allowed to expire.

. . .

The fact that there are millions of people in the lower tax brackets with small amounts of business income may be interesting for some purposes, but it is irrelevant for the assessment of the economic impact of the tax hikes.

The numbers are clear. According to IRS data, fully 48% of the net income of sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations reported on tax returns went to households with incomes above $200,000 in 2007.

. . .

Economic research supports a large impact. A pair of papers by economists Robert Carroll, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Harvey Rosen and Mark Rider that were published in 1998 and 2000 by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed tax return data and uncovered high responsiveness of sole proprietors' business activity to tax rates. Their estimates imply that increasing the top rate to 40.8% from 35% (an official rate of 39.6% plus another 1.2 percentage points from the restoration of a stealth provision that phases out deductions), as in Mr. Obama's plan, would reduce gross receipts by more than 7% for sole proprietors subject to the higher rate.

These results imply a similar effect on proprietors' investment expenditures. A paper published by R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and William M. Gentry of Williams College in the American Economic Review in 2000 also found that increasing progressivity of the tax code discourages entrepreneurs from starting new businesses.

For the full commentary, see:

KEVIN A. HASSETT and ALAN D. VIARD. "The Small Business Tax Hike and the 97% Fallacy; The president's plan to raise top marginal rates is holding back the very people who should be leading the economic recovery." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., SEPTEMBER 3, 2010): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

One of the papers by Carroll et al, is:

Carroll, Robert, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mark Rider, and Harvey S. Rosen. "Income Taxes and Entrepreneurs' Use of Labor." Journal of Labor Economics 18, no. 2 (April 2000): 324-51.

The Hubbard paper is:

Gentry, William M., and R. Glenn Hubbard. "Tax Policy and Entrepreneurial Entry." The American Economic Review 90, no. 2 (May 2000): 283-87.

September 4, 2010

Post-War Freedom, Not FDR's New Deal or War, Ended Great Depression

(p. A17) Roosevelt died before the war ended and before he could implement his New Deal revival. His successor, Harry Truman, in a 16,000 word message on Sept. 6, 1945, urged Congress to enact FDR's ideas as the best way to achieve full employment after the war.

Congress--both chambers with Democratic majorities--responded by just saying "no." No to the whole New Deal revival: no federal program for health care, no full-employment act, only limited federal housing, and no increase in minimum wage or Social Security benefits.

Instead, Congress reduced taxes. Income tax rates were cut across the board. FDR's top marginal rate, 94% on all income over $200,000, was cut to 86.45%. The lowest rate was cut to 19% from 23%, and with a change in the amount of income exempt from taxation an estimated 12 million Americans were eliminated from the tax rolls entirely.

. . .

Congress substituted the tonic of freedom for FDR's New Deal revival and the American economy recovered well. Unemployment, which had been in double digits throughout the 1930s, was only 3.9% in 1946 and, except for a couple of short recessions, remained in that range for the next decade.

The Great Depression was over, no thanks to FDR. Yet the myth of his New Deal lives on. With the current effort by President Obama to emulate some of FDR's programs to get us out of the recent deep recession, this myth should be laid to rest.

For the full commentary, see:

The economy took off after the postwar Congress cut taxes." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., APRIL 12, 2010): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 2, 2010

"Disrespectful to Take Money from One Man's Pocket and Put It in Another's"

WestsideCommunityCenterColoradoSprings2010-08-30.jpg"A March fair to raise private funding for community centers, held at Westside Community Center, was sparsely attended." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.--Like many American cities, this one is strapped for cash. Tax collections here have fallen so far that the city has turned off one-third of its 24,512 street lights.

But unlike many cities, this one is full of people who are eager for more government cutbacks.

The town council has been bombarded with emails telling it to close community centers. Letters to the local newspaper call for shrinking the police department and putting the city-owned utility up for sale. A commission is studying whether to sell the municipal hospital. Another, made up of local businessmen, will opine on whether to slash the salaries and benefits of city employees.

"Let's start cutting stupid programs that cost taxpayers a pot of money," says Tim Austin, a 48-year-old former home builder now looking for a new line of work. "It's so bullying and disrespectful to take money from one man's pocket and put it in another's."

For the full story, see:

LESLIE EATON. "Strapped City Cuts and Cuts and Cuts." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 13, 2010): A1 & A16.

August 19, 2010

Employment Further Below Trend than Any Time in Half Century


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) The number of nonfarm private jobs has been growing steadily since the 1950s. That number reached a peak at the end of 2007. Between 1958 and 2007, the number of U.S. jobs grew to 115.4 million from 43.5 million--about 2% per year on average. The steady upward trend reflects the long-run growth of the economy and increased participation in the labor force.

The nearby chart compares employment and that trend. It shows the percentage difference between employment and the trend line generated from monthly employment figures over the past 50 years (July 1960 through June 2010).

What we see is astounding. For almost 25 years--between 1984 and late 2008--the level of employment never fell to more than 3% below the trend line. Over that period, total employment grew by more than 36 million.

Employment fell briefly to about 6% below the trend during two previous recessions: in 1975 and again in 1982-1983. During those periods, the unemployment-rate peaks were 9% (in 1974) and 10.8% (in 1982). The unemployment rate in 2009 peaked at 10.1%.

By 2010, however, employment had fallen to about 10% below the trend, far below any previous level in the last half-century.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL GODEK. "Jobless Numbers Are Worse Than You Think; The situation is much more dire now than it was during the 1980s." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JULY 23, 2010): A15.

August 11, 2010

Documenting Dangers of Growing Public Debt (and of Replacing History with Math)

RogoffReinhart2010-08-04.jpg "Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart at Ms. Reinhart's Washington home. They started their book around 2003, years before the economy began to crumble." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) Like a pair of financial sleuths, Ms. Reinhart and her collaborator from Harvard, Kenneth S. Rogoff, have spent years investigating wreckage scattered across documents from nearly a millennium of economic crises and collapses. They have wandered the basements of rare-book libraries, riffled through monks' yellowed journals and begged central banks worldwide for centuries-old debt records. And they have manually entered their findings, digit by digit, into one of the biggest spreadsheets you've ever seen.

Their handiwork is contained in their recent best seller, "This Time Is Different," a quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions. It is a panoramic opus, both geographically and temporally, covering crises from 66 countries over the last 800 years.

The book, and Ms. Reinhart's and Mr. Rogoff's own professional journeys as economists, zero in on some of the broader shortcomings of their trade -- thrown into harsh relief by economists' widespread failure to anticipate or address the financial crisis that began in 2007.

"The mainstream of academic research in macroeconomics puts theoretical coherence and elegance first, and investigating the data second," says Mr. Rogoff. For that reason, he says, much of the profession's celebrated work "was not terribly useful in either predicting the financial crisis, or in assessing how it would it play out once it happened."

"People almost pride themselves on not paying attention to current events," he says.

. . .

(p. 6) Although their book is studiously nonideological, and is more focused on patterns than on policy recommendations, it has become fodder for the highly charged debate over the recent growth in government debt.

To bolster their calls for tightened government spending, budget hawks have cited the book's warnings about the perils of escalating public and private debt. Left-leaning analysts have been quick to take issue with that argument, saying that fiscal austerity perpetuates joblessness, and have been attacking economists associated with it.

. . .

The economics profession generally began turning away from empirical work in the early 1970s. Around that time, economists fell in love with theoretical constructs, a shift that has no single explanation. Some analysts say it may reflect economists' desire to be seen as scientists who describe and discover universal laws of nature.

"Economists have physics envy," says Richard Sylla, a financial historian at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He argues that Paul Samuelson, the Nobel laureate whom many credit with endowing economists with a mathematical tool kit, "showed that a lot of physical theories and concepts had economic analogs."

Since that time, he says, "economists like to think that there is some physical, stable state of the world if they get the model right." But, he adds, "there is really no such thing as a stable state for the economy."

Others suggest that incentives for young economists to publish in journals and gain tenure predispose them to pursue technical wizardry over deep empirical research and to choose narrow slices of topics. Historians, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on more comprehensive subjects -- that is, the material for books -- that reflect a deeply experienced, broadly informed sense of judgment.

"They say historians peak in their 50s, once they've accumulated enough knowledge and wisdom to know what to look for," says Mr. Rogoff. "By contrast, economists seem to peak much earlier. It's hard to find an important paper written by an economist after 40."

For the full story, see:

CATHERINE RAMPELL. "They Did Their Homework (800 Years of It)." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., July 4, 2010): 1 & 6.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 2, 2010.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

The reference for the book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.


Source of book image:

July 22, 2010

"We're Spending at a Rate that's Just Unsustainable"

George Shultz, former Dean of the University of Chicago Business School, former Secretary of the Treasury, and former Secretary of State. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 12) What do you make of the direction the Republican Party has taken since you served in Washington? Isn't the Tea Party a corruption of the values you stood for?
From what I understand of it, it is a reaction, which I share, to the fact that our government seems to have gotten out of control. We're spending at a rate that's just unsustainable.

That's a legacy of the Bush era, I guess.
Everybody is conveniently blaming everything on Bush, but he's not responsible for what's happened in the last year.

You'll be 90 in December. How are you?
I'm terrific. Feeling great. I'm vertical, not horizontal. That's a big thing.

For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for George Shultz; The Statesman." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., July 4, 2010): 12.

(Note: bolding of interviewer questions was in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated June 28, 2010.)

July 17, 2010

Big Government Slows Economic Growth

(p. A15) Americans are debating whether to substantially expand the size of their government. As Swedish economists who live in the developed world's largest welfare state, we urge our friends in the New World to look carefully before they leap.

Fifty years ago, Sweden and America spent about the same on their government, a bit under 30% of GDP. This is no longer true. In the years leading up to Sweden's financial crisis in the early 1990s, government spending went as high as 60% of GDP. In America it barely budged, increasing only to about 33%.

While America was maintaining its standing as one of the world's wealthiest nations, Sweden's standing fell. In 1970, Sweden was the fourth richest country in the world on a per capita basis. By 1993, it had fallen to 17th.

This led us to ask whether Sweden's dramatic increase in the size of government contributed to its sluggish growth. Our research shows that it did.

We surveyed the existing literature looking at the trade-offs between government size and economic growth throughout the world. While results vary, the most recent research, by Diego Romero-Avila in the European Journal of Political Economy (2008) and by Andreas Bergh and Martin Karlsson in Public Choice (2010) find a negative correlation between government size and economic growth in rich countries.

The weight of the evidence demonstrates that when government spending increases by 10 percentage points of GDP, the annual growth rate drops by 0.5 to 1 percentage point. This may not sound like much, but over 30 years this would result in the loss of trillions of dollars each year in an economy as large as America's.

For the full commentary, see

ANDREAS BERGH AND MAGNUS HENREKSON. "Lessons From the Swedish Welfare State; New research shows bigger government means slower growth. Our country is a prime example." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 12, 2010): A15.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated JULY 10, 2010.)

June 18, 2010

Mob Museum Financed from Local, State and Federal Tax Dollars

LasVegasOldFedCourthouse2010-05-19.jpg"The $42 million museum has been financed through a series of state, federal and local grants. It is set to open next March." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) The idea for the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement was seeded when the city bought the 1933 federal courthouse and post office from the federal government for $1 in 2002, with the strict understanding that the building -- one of the oldest in Southern Nevada -- be used for cultural purposes.

For much of the middle of the last century, organized crime ruled the Strip, developing and managing an array of casinos, skimming their way to success. Federal prosecutors put an end to their reign in the 1980s. The city determined its historical relationship to organized crime -- and the role the courthouse played in it -- made the site a perfect fit.

. . .

The $42 million project has been financed through a series of state, federal and local grants, and the work has progressed a bit glacially as money has trickled in.

The project, once listed as one that could stimulate this city's embattled economy, was attacked by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, when city officials suggested that it might qualify for federal stimulus money.

For the full story, see:

JENNIFER STEINHAUER. "'2 Mob Museums in Las Vegas, Ready to Go to the Mattresses." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., April 25, 2010): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 24, 2010 and has the title "Vegas Mob Museums, Set to Go to the Mattresses.")

June 11, 2010

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Are Still a "Burgeoning Money Pit" for Taxpayers

(p. 1) If you blinked, you might have missed the ugly first-quarter report . . . from Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giant that, along with its sister Fannie Mae, soldiers on as one of the financial world's biggest wards of the state.

Freddie -- already propped up with $52 billion in taxpayer funds used to rescue the company from its own mistakes -- recorded a loss of $6.7 billion and said it would require an additional $10.6 billion from taxpayers to shore up its financial position.

The news caused nary a ripple in the placid Washington scene. Perhaps that's because many lawmakers, especially those who once assured us that Fannie and Freddie would never cost taxpayers a dime, hope that their constituents don't notice the burgeoning money pit these mortgage monsters represent. Some $130 billion in federal money had already been larded on both companies before Freddie's latest request.

But taxpayers should examine Freddie's first-quarter numbers not only because the losses are our responsibility. Since they also include details on Freddie's delinquent mortgages, the company's sales of foreclosed properties and losses on those sales, the results provide a telling snapshot of the current state of the housing market.

That picture isn't pretty. Serious delinquencies in Freddie's single-family conventional loan portfolio -- those more than 90 days late -- came in at 4.13 percent, up from 2.41 percent for the period a year earlier. Delinquencies in the company's Alt-A book, one step up from subprime loans, totaled 12.84 percent, while delinquencies on interest-only mortgages were 18.5 percent. Delinquencies on its small portfolio of op-(p. 2)tion-adjustable rate loans totaled 19.8 percent.

The company's inventory of foreclosed properties rose from 29,145 units at the end of March 2009 to almost 54,000 units this year. Perhaps most troubling, Freddie's nonperforming assets almost doubled, rising to $115 billion from $62 billion.

For the full commentary, see:

Gretchen Morgenson. "Fair Game; Ignoring the Elephant in the Bailout." The New York Times, SundayBusiness (Sun., May 9, 2010): 1-2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated May 7, 2010.)

June 3, 2010

"The Intellectual Energy is No Longer with the Economists Who Construct Abstract and Elaborate Models"

(p. A23) In The Wall Street Journal, Russ Roberts of George Mason University wondered why economics is even considered a science. Real sciences make progress. But in economics, old thinkers cycle in and out of fashion. In real sciences, evidence solves problems. Roberts asked his colleagues if they could think of any econometric study so well done that it had definitively settled a dispute. Nobody could think of one.

"The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists," Roberts wrote.

In a column called "A Crisis of Understanding," Robert J. Shiller of Yale pointed out that the best explanation of the crisis isn't even a work of economic analysis. It's a history book -- "This Time is Different" by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff -- that is almost entirely devoid of theory.

One gets the sense, at least from the outside, that the intellectual energy is no longer with the economists who construct abstract and elaborate models. Instead, the field seems to be moving in a humanist direction. Many economists are now trying to absorb lessons learned by psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID BROOKS. "The Return of History." The New York Times (Fri., March 26, 2010): A23.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was dated March 25, 2010.")

May 20, 2010

"I Cannot Consent to Buy Votes with the People's Money"

(p. 91) . . . Thomas Gore, . . . was first elected to the Senate in 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state. Gore had a populist streak in him, but he always recognized the protections to individual liberty that came from limited government. In the 1930s, therefore, he strongly opposed the federal government going into the relief business. Interestingly, Gore was made totally blind by two childhood accidents. He still managed to become a lawyer, and as a senator, he had to have family members or staff assistants read bills, books, and newspapers to him. Yet he claimed to see clearly through the political chicanery that would occur if the federal government entered the relief business. No depression, Gore argued, "can be ended by gifts, gratuities, doles, and alms handed out by the Federal Treasury and extorted from taxpayers that are bleeding at every pore." On the issue of relief, especially, Gore argued that state and city officials "have immediate contact" with hardship cases and can best "superintend the dispensation of charity." Soon after the ERA brought federal relief into existence, Gore said, "The day on which we began to make these loans by the Federal Government to States, counties, and cities was a more evil day in the history of the Republic than the day on which the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter."

In 1935, Gore helped lead the charge in Congress against funding the WPA with $4.8 billion. After he spoke against the bill, thousands of people in southeast Oklahoma held a mass meeting to denounce Gore. They sent him a telegram demanding that he cast his vote for the WPA and, by implication, start bringing more fed-(p. 92)eral dollars into Oklahoma. Gore responded with a telegram of his own. Your action, he wrote, "shows how the dole spoils the soul. Your telegram intimates that your votes are for sale. Much as I value votes I am not in the market. I cannot consent to buy votes with the people's money. I owe a debt to the taxpayer as well as to the unemployed." Shortly after dictating these words, the blind Senator was led to the Senate floor to cast a lonely vote against the WPA.


Folsom, Burton W., Jr. New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America. New York: Threshold Editions, 2008.

(Note: ellipses added.)

May 17, 2010

CNN Says Omaha Economy is Strong Because Citizens "Living Within Their Means"

"Why Omaha, Nebraska, is seeing a small business boom and boasts of having one of the lowest unemployment rates." Source of caption and video:

Several days ago, CNN Money ran a very nice clip focusing on why Omaha's economy has fared better than the economies of many other U.S. cities. The piece was mainly brief fluff, though pleasant, complementary fluff.

But the one message of substance was that Nebraskans, and usually Nebraska governments, work harder at not spending more than we take in.

(The reporter for the piece is CNN Money's Poppy Harlow. Posted by CNN on May 6, 2010. Run time: 02:09.)

May 2, 2010

Higher Unemployment Benefits May Result in Higher Unemployment Rates

The size and structure of the "safety net" is a subject of hot debate. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom suggested that higher benefits would lead to slower labor market adjustments.

There may have been multiple causes for the high unemployment rate in the U.K. in the 1920s and 1930s. But it is highly plausible that higher unemployment benefits would have made the unemployed more selective in which jobs they would accept, and hence would have contributed to higher rates of unemployment and higher average duration of unemployment.

(p. 7B) The ultimate evidence . . . is from the 1920s, when the Labour Party came to power in the U.K. for the first time. As scholars Daniel K. Benjamin and Levis Kochin pointed out in a Journal of Political Economy paper, the moment was one in which "unemployment benefits were on a more generous scale relative to wages than ever before or since."

The result was the mother of all jobless recoveries. For almost two decades, from 1921 to 1938, U.K. unemployment averaged 14 percent and never got below 9.5 percent.

For the full story, see:

Amity Shlaes. "Help can hurt job hunters." Omaha World-Herald (Friday April 16, 2010): 7B.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

April 25, 2010

Folsom Shows How FDR Lied, Bought Votes and Deepened the Depression


Source of book image:

FDR has never been one of my heroes. But in the last few years, I have read two books that have revealed him to have been much worse than I expected. In earlier posts, I have praised Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man.

Here I praise Burt Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal?

Folsom documents how the economic policies of Roosevelt lengthened and deepened the Great Depression.

But what I think I will remember most about the book, is the example after example of how FDR lied to both friend and foe; and the example after example of how FDR used government spending programs to buy votes.

I found this book very unpleasant. Rather than listen to another chapter in the car, I sometimes found myself playing music.

But we need to read this book. We need to know what really happened, so we can guard against it happening again.

In the next few weeks, I will quote a few of the more memorable and significant passages in Folsom's book.

Book discussed:

Folsom, Burton W., Jr. New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America. New York: Threshold Editions, 2008.

April 15, 2010

Taxpayers Taking a Haircut as States "Scramble" to Find Something New to Tax

HaircutTaxpayer2010-04-05.jpg"A LITTLE OFF THE TOP; Michigan residents may have to pay a 5.5 percent tax for haircuts. States across the nation are considering similar taxes on services to solve their budget problems." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) In the scramble to find something, anything, to generate more revenue, states are considering new taxes on virtually everything: garbage pickup, dating services, bowling night, haircuts, even clowns.

"It's hard enough doing what we do," grumbled John Luke, a plumber in the Philadelphia suburbs. His services would, for the first time, come with an added tax if the governor has his way.

Opponents of imposing taxes on services like funerals, legal advice, helicopter rides and dry cleaning argue that this push comes as businesses are barely clinging to life and can ill afford to see customers further put off by new taxes. This is especially true, they say, in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where some of the most sweeping proposals are being considered this spring.

But this is also a period of economic gloom for states. Pension funds are in the red, federal stimulus help will soon vanish, and revenues from traditional sources like income and property taxes are slumping ever lower, with few elected officials willing to risk voter wrath by raising them.

. . .

(p. 20) But from coast to coast, desperate governments are looking to tap into new revenue streams.

In Nebraska, a lawmaker has introduced a bill to tax armored car services, farm equipment repairs, shoe shines, taxidermy, reflexology and scooter repairs. In Kentucky, Jim Wayne, a state representative, and some fellow Democrats are proposing taxing high-end services: golf greens fees, limousine and hot-air-balloon rides, and private landscaping.

In June, voters in Maine will decide whether to accept a state overhaul of its tax system that would newly tax services like tailor alterations, blimp rides, and entertainment provided by clowns, comedians and jugglers.

For the full story, see:

MONICA DAVEY. "States Seeking Cash Hope to Expand Taxes to Services." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., ed: March 28, 2010): 1 & 20.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated March 27, 2010, and has the title "States Seeking Cash Hope to Expand Taxes to Services.")

ServicesTaxedGraph2010-04-05.jpg Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

April 12, 2010

Speculators Absorb Risk Others Do Not Want to Bear and They Make Prices More Accurate

(p. A19) Speculators earn a profit by absorbing risk that others don't want. Without speculators, investors would find it difficult to quickly hedge or sell their positions.

Speculators also provide us with information about the fundamental values of investments. When the fundamentals appear favorable, they buy. Otherwise, they sell. If their forecasts are correct, they profit. This causes prices to more accurately forecast an investment's value, spreading useful information.

For the full commentary, see:

DARRELL DUFFIE. "In Defense of Financial Speculation; It is not the same thing as market manipulation." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., FEBRUARY 24, 2010): A19.

April 11, 2010

Quants Confused Mathematical Models and Reality


Source of book image:

(p. 7) The virtually exclusive use of mathematical models, Mr. Patterson says, was what separated the younger cohorts of quants from their Wall Street forebears. Unlike Warren Buffett or Peter Lynch, the quants did not focus on so-called market fundamentals like what goods or services a particular company actually produced. Seldom if ever did they act on old-fashioned gut instinct. Instead, they focused on factors like how cheap a stock was relative to the rest of the market or how quickly its price had risen or fallen.

Therein was the quants' flaw, according to Mr. Patterson. Pioneers like Mr. Thorp understood that while the math world and the financial world have much in common, they aren't always in sync. The quant traders' model emphasized the most likely moves a stock or bond price could make. It largely ignored the possibility of big jolts caused by human factors, especially investor panics.

"The model soon became so ubiquitous that, hall-of-mirrors-like, it became difficult to tell the difference between the model and the market itself," Mr. Patterson declares.

Move ahead to August 2007 and beyond, when markets swooned on doubts about subprime mortgages. Stocks that the model predicted were bound to go up went sharply down, and vice versa. Events that were supposed to happen only once in 10,000 years happened three days in a row.

For the full review, see:

HARRY HURT III. "Off the Shelf; In Practice, Stock Formulas Weren't Perfect." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., February 21, 2010): 7

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 20, 2010.)

The reference to Patterson's book, is:

Patterson, Scott. The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It. New York: Crown Business, 2010.

April 8, 2010

If We Want More Jobs, We Need More (Steve) Jobs

(p. A19) Mr. Obama and his advisers need to grasp this essential fact: Entrepreneurs are not just a cute little subsector of the American economy. They are the whole game. They will give us tomorrow's Apples and the multiplier effect of small businesses and exciting new jobs that go with them. Entrepreneurs are necessary to keep our large multinationals on their toes. It's no coincidence that the entrepreneurial flowering of the 1970s forced a managerial revolution in large companies during the 1980s and 1990s. Without Steve Jobs, there would have been no Lou Gerstner to reinvent IBM in the '90s. Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs make everyone better.

For the full story, see:

RICH KARLGAARD. "Apple to the Rescue?" The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JANUARY 28, 2010): A19.

March 27, 2010

An "Entrepreneur's Visa" to Let the Future Sergey Brin In

(p. A19) . . . , there is one way to create a lot more jobs without spending federal money. Let's import them. More precisely, let's import the people who create them: entrepreneurs.

A bipartisan bill that would begin to do just that was introduced on Feb. 24 by Sens. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R., Ind.). Their "Startup Visa Act" would create a new, two-year visa for immigrant entrepreneurs whose firms attract at least $250,000 in financing from American angel investors or venture capital firms.

. . .

Here's a way to improve on the Kerry-Lugar plan. Create a true "job creator's visa," one tied directly and only to job creation by new immigrant entrepreneurs. The visa could be a temporary one for immigrants already here on another visa who establish a business. It could then be extended if the firm hires at least one American non-family resident. The visa should become permanent once the enterprise crosses a certain job threshold (such as five or 10 workers). But it would not be tied to financing.

. . .

Google was founded by Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant, and American Larry Page by borrowing funds from their own credit cards. Why on earth would we want to create an entrepreneurs' visa that couldn't let in the future Sergey Brin?

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT E. LITAN. "Visas for the Next Sergey Brin; To create more jobs, let's import more employers." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., MARCH 8, 2010): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated MARCH 7, 2010.)

March 26, 2010

United States Exports "High-Value-Added Services that Support Well-Paying Jobs"

ServiceImportsExportsGraph2010-03-16.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A23) Exports of American services have jumped by 84 percent since 2000, while the growth rate among goods was 66 percent. America trails both China and Germany in sales of goods abroad, but ranks No. 1 in global services by a wide margin. And while trade deficits in goods have been enormous -- $840 billion in 2008 -- the country runs a large and growing surplus in services: we exported $144 billion more in services than we imported, dwarfing the surpluses of $75 billion in 2000 and $58 billion in 1992.

Equally important, Commerce Department data show that the United States is a top-notch competitor in many of the high-value-added services that support well-paying jobs.

. . .

. . . , will Washington offer tax breaks or other export incentives? While businesses may clamor for them, these would be a setback for freer trade -- after all, for years it has been America that has been hectoring other countries to end their subsidies to exporters. Will Washington try to pick winners in the global marketplace, like green energy? More often than not, this kind of industrial policy wastes money, fosters inefficiency and creates few permanent jobs.

For the full story, see:

W. MICHAEL COX. "An Order of Prosperity, to Go." The New York Times (Weds., February 17, 2010): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 14, 2010

Unlikely Tea Party Leader Protests the "Porkulus"

CarenderKeliTeaPartyLeader2010-03-01.jpg "Keli Carender resists the idea of a Tea Party leader -- "there are a thousand leaders," she says. But she has become a leader, and a celebrity. Ms. Carender at a recent rally in Olympia, Wash." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) SEATTLE -- Keli Carender has a pierced nose, performs improv on weekends and lives here in a neighborhood with more Mexican grocers than coffeehouses. You might mistake her for the kind of young person whose vote powered President Obama to the White House. You probably would not think of her as a Tea Party type.

But leaders of the Tea Party movement credit her with being the first.

A year ago, frustrated that every time she called her senators to urge them to vote against the $787 billion stimulus bill their mailboxes were full, and tired of wearing out the ear of her Obama-voting fiancé, Ms. Carender decided to hold a protest against what she called the "porkulus."

. . .

(p. 19) The daughter of Democrats who became disaffected in the Clinton years, Ms. Carender, 30, began paying attention to politics during the 2008 campaign, but none of the candidates appealed to her. She had studied math at Western Washington University before earning a teaching certificate at Oxford -- she teaches basic math to adult learners -- and began reading more on economics, particularly the writings of Thomas Sowell, the libertarian economist, and National Review.

Reading about the stimulus, she said, "it didn't make any sense to me to be spending all this money when we don't have it."

"It seems more logical to me that we create an atmosphere where private industry can start to grow again and create jobs," she said.

For the full story, see:

KATE ZERNIKE. "Early Arrival at the Tea Party: A Young and Unlikely Activist." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 26, 2010): 1 & 19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 27, 2010 and has the title "Unlikely Activist Who Got to the Tea Party Early.")

March 8, 2010

Federal Government Spending Soars


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) This has been an unforgettable year in the history of American spending.

It began with an eye-popping $800 billion stimulus bill that came from nowhere and went to nowhere. Done with that, the Washington Democrats turned to President Obama's health-care reform, which looked big at first, but turned out to be bigger. A well-publicized June estimate of the Senate bill's cost by the Congressional Budget Office put the 10-year price tag at $1.6 trillion. So $800 billion, then a trillion.

Dollar signs rocketed into the sky all year: hundreds of billions on various TARP salvage projects, much drawn from some magic stash held by the Federal Reserve. The Obama cap-and-trade bill was going to use an auction to siphon $3.3 trillion from various states to Washington over 40 years. Oh, almost forgot--an FY 2011 $3.8 trillion budget.

For the full commentary, see:

DANIEL HENNINGER. "It's the Spending, America ." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 18, 2010): A17.

March 6, 2010

"Silicon Valley's Economy is Sputtering"

SiliconValleyEmptyOfficeBuilding2010-02-28.jpg "An unoccupied office building in San Jose, Calif., in December. Many tech firms are hiring engineers abroad to do their work." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) SAN FRANCISCO -- Silicon Valley's economy is sputtering and risks permanently stalling, according to an annual report by a group of researchers in the region.

Part of the toll on Silicon Valley has resulted from the recession. The region, the center of the global technology industry, lost 90,000 jobs from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. Unemployment is higher than national levels and the worst in the region since 2005, when technology companies were still recovering from the dot-com implosion.

The drop in the number of midlevel jobs -- the engineers who drive much of the Valley's growth -- has been sharpest. And when companies do hire, they are cautiously hiring independent contractors instead of regular employees, and are hiring abroad, according to the "2010 Index of Silicon Valley" report, which was produced by the Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, two local nonprofit groups.

Other economic indicators are also gloomy, the report found.

"We show no evidence that the recovery has arrived," said Russell Hancock, chief executive of Joint Venture.

For the full story, see:

CLAIRE CAIN MILLER. "Report Warns Silicon Valley Could Lose Its Edge." The New York Times (Thurs., February 11, 2010): B3.

Note: The online version of the article is dated February 10, 2010, and has the title "Report Warns Silicon Valley Could Lose Its Edge.")

February 28, 2010

Chamber's Donohue Promotes Free Enterprise


Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohoe. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) The White House's war on the Chamber has come just as the group is launching a new $100 million campaign promoting free enterprise.

"We want to encourage and promote and educate and get a bunch of enthusiasm behind . . . the free enterprise system with free capital markets and free trade and the ability to fail and fall right on your ass and get up and do it again!" he says.

The belief in that system, Mr. Donohue says, has been eroded by the recession and subsequent criticism of the free market. "The purpose of this is to get out of the doldrums! Quit sulking and worrying." He hopes the campaign will remind Americans that "We created 20 million jobs in the '90s, we can do it again. We don't have to do it exactly like that--Adam Smith didn't have a BlackBerry--but we ought to pay attention to what made it work."

For the full interview, see:

KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL. "OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Tom Donohue; Business Fights Back; His organization under attack by the White House, the president of the Chamber of Commerce stands by his defense of free enterprise." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 24, 2009): A13.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date October 23, 2009.)

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

February 22, 2010

Dubai's Economic Future Depends on Its Institutions

DubaiViewFromTallestBuilding2010-01-25.jpg "A man took in the view of Dubai from the 124th floor of the newly opened, $1.5 billion Burj Khalifa, a rocket-shaped building that soars 2,717 feet." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A7) CAIRO -- In the heady days of the Dubai gold rush, when real estate sold and resold even before a shovel hit the ground, the ambitious emirate was hailed as the model of Middle Eastern modernity, a boomtown that built an effective, efficient and accessible form of government.

Then the crash came and revealed how paper-thin that image was, political and financial analysts said. That realization, not just in Dubai but also in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, has cast a harsh light on an opaque, top-down decision-making process, not just in business but in matters of crime and punishment as well, political and financial analysts said.

The financial crisis and now two criminal cases that have generated critical headlines in other countries have demonstrated that the emirates remain an absolute monarchy, where institutions are far less important than royalty and where the law is particularly capricious -- applied differently based on social standing, religion and nationality, political experts and human rights advocates said.

"I think what we learned here the last four months is that the government, at least on a political level, is still very undeveloped," said a financial analyst based in Dubai who asked not to be identified to avoid compromising his ability to work in the emirates. "It's very difficult to read or interpret or understand what is going on. The institutions have not shaped up to people's expectations."

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL SLACKMAN. "Dubai Memo; Entrenched Monarchy Thwarts Aspirations for Modernity." The New York Times (Fri., January 22, 2010): A7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 21, 2010.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)

DubaiOfficesForRentSign2010-01-25.jpg "Workers repaired a phone line next to an office building in Dubai's Internet City. Even after a bailout, Dubai remains heavily burdened by debt." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 21, 2010

Chinese Subsidies Create Unprofitable Overcapacity and Risk of Crisis

(p. 5) . . . subsidies, . . . , have spurred excess capacity and created a dangerous political dynamic in which these investments have to be propped up at all cost.

China has been building factories and production capacity in virtually every sector of its economy, but it's not clear that the latest round of investments will be profitable anytime soon. Automobiles, steel, semiconductors, cement, aluminum and real estate all show signs of too much capacity. In Shanghai, the central business district appears to have high vacancy rates, yet building continues.

. . .

Over all, there is a lack of transparency. China's statistics on its gross domestic product are based more on recorded production activity than on what is actually sold. Chinese fiscal and credit policies are geared toward jobs and political stability, and thus the authorities shy away from revealing which projects are most troubled or should be canceled.

Put all of this together and there is a very real possibility of trouble.

For the full commentary, see:

TYLER COWEN. "Economic View; Dangers of an Overheated China." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., November 29, 2009 ): 5.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 28, 2009.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)

February 18, 2010

Socialist Chavez's Thugs Destroy Venezuelans' Economic Freedom

VenezuelanNationalGuardPriceInspection2010-01-24.jpg "A member of the National Guard stands guard during a inspection of prices at a store in La Guaira outside Caracas Jan. 12." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) CARACAS -- President Hugo Chávez's decision to devalue Venezuela's currency in order to shore up government finances could backfire on the populist leader if the move leads to substantially higher prices and extends an economic downturn.

Just days after Mr. Chávez cut the value of the "strong bolivar" currency, some businesses were marking up prices. Shoppers jammed stores to stock up on goods before the increases took hold.

Amelia Soto, a 52-year-old housewife waited in line at a Caracas drugstore to buy 23 tubes of toothpaste. "Everywhere I hear that prices are going to skyrocket so I want to buy as much as I can now," she said.

Airlines have doubled fares; government officials said they were looking into reports that large retail chains were also increasing prices.

. . .

The price increases are setting the stage for confrontations with authorities following Mr. Chávez's orders to shut down retailers that raise prices.

. . .

The higher prices for consumer goods represent a huge liability for a country facing 27% inflation, one of the highest levels in the world.

For the full story, see:

DARCY CROWE and DAN MOLINSKI. "Prices in Venezuela Surge After Devaluation." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JANUARY 13, 2010): A8.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Venezuelans Rush to Shop as Stores Increase Prices.")

(Note: ellipses added.)

February 9, 2010

Venture Capitalists Invested 37% Less in Start-Ups in 2009

(p. B5) Venture capitalists, whose money provides fuel to technology start-ups, last year invested the lowest amount in such companies since 1997, according to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association released on Friday.

. . .

In 2009, venture capitalists invested $17.7 billion in 2,795 start-ups -- 37 percent less cash and 30 percent fewer deals than in 2008. Internet companies, which have excited investors for more than a decade, took a big hit as investment declined 39 percent.

For the full story, see:

CLAIRE CAIN MILLER. "Venture Capital Was Tight for Tech Start-Ups in '09." The New York Times (Fri., January 22, 2010): B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

February 6, 2010

Chinese Economic Crisis Predicted by Investor Who Predicted Enron Collapse

ChanosJamesHedgeFund2010-01-23.jpg "James Chanos made his hedge fund fortune predicting problems at companies and shorting their stock." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Chanos' views discussed below are plausible and worth taking seriously. Earlier and overlapping worries about the sustainability of China's boom were expressed in a credible and scary book by David Smick called The World is Curved.

In addition to some of the concerns expressed by Chanos, Smick also emphasizes that China's restrictions on the internet will dampen the ability of its entrepreneurs to succeed. That view seems prescient given China's growing attempts to censor the internet and to hack Google.

(p. B1) SHANGHAI -- James S. Chanos built one of the largest fortunes on Wall Street by foreseeing the collapse of Enron and other highflying companies whose stories were too good to be true.

Now Mr. Chanos, a wealthy hedge fund investor, is working to bust the myth of the biggest conglomerate of all: China Inc.

As most of the world bets on China to help lift the global economy out of recession, Mr. Chanos is warning that China's hyperstimulated economy is headed for a crash, rather than the sustained boom that most economists predict. Its surging real estate sector, buoyed by a flood of speculative capital, looks like "Dubai times 1,000 -- or worse," he frets. He even suspects that Beijing is cooking its books, faking, among other things, its eye-popping growth rates of more than 8 percent.

"Bubbles are best identified by credit excesses, not valuation excesses," he said in a recent appearance on CNBC. "And there's no bigger credit excess than in China." He is planning a speech later this month at the University of Oxford to drive home his point.

. . .

(p. B4) . . . he is tagging along with the bears, who see mounting evidence that China's stimulus package and aggressive bank lending are creating artificial demand, raising the risk of a wave of nonperforming loans.

"In China, he seems to see the excesses, to the third and fourth power, that he's been tilting against all these decades," said Jim Grant, a longtime friend and the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, who is also bearish on China. "He homes in on the excesses of the markets and profits from them. That's been his stock and trade."

Mr. Chanos declined to be interviewed, citing his continuing research on China. But he has already been spreading the view that the China miracle is blinding investors to the risk that the country is producing far too much.

"The Chinese," he warned in an interview in November with, "are in danger of producing huge quantities of goods and products that they will be unable to sell."

For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "Shorting China: the Man Who Predicted Enron's Fall Sees a Bigger Collapse Ahead." The New York Times (Fri., January 8, 2010): B1 & B5.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Contrarian Investor Sees Economic Crash in China" and is dated January 7, 2010.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

The reference to the Smick book is:

Smick, David M. The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy. New York: Portfolio Hardcover, 2008.


"Now Mr. Chanos is betting against China, and is promoting his view that the China miracle has blinded investors to the risks in that economy." Source of caption and poster: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 1, 2010

Art Diamond Identified as One of "the Country's Most Prolific and Influential Economics Bloggers"

KauffmanBloggerSurveyChart2010-02-01.gifSource of graph:

The Kauffman Foundation recently invited me to participate in a quarterly survey on economic policy that they are compiling from among bloggers who they have identified as among "the country's most prolific and influential economics bloggers." I agreed to participate.

Apparently tomorrow (2/2/10) they will release the results of the first survey.

Below I have quoted most of a press release that they emailed out today.

(The Kauffman Foundation is one of the leading non-profit organizations supporting research on entrepreneurship.)

Top Economics Bloggers Grade U.S. Institutions that Influence Economy in New Kauffman Survey

Watch for complete results tomorrow of the first
'Kauffman Economic Outlook:
A Quarterly Survey of Leading Economics Bloggers'

The country's most prolific and influential economics bloggers grade the institutions and organizations that impact the economy in a new Kauffman Foundation survey. On an A to F grading scale, the nation's top economics bloggers give the highest marks to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and General Accountability Office (GAO), as well as to the "U.S. business community." Central banks such as the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank got passing grades by most, with few A's and many F's. Similarly, the World Bank had mixed marks. The worst marks went to Wall Street firms (31 percent F's) and the U.S. Congress (51 percent F's).

Learn more about what these insightful analysts think about U.S. economic performance, policy, institutions, and the deficit in the first "Kauffman Economic Outlook: A Quarterly Survey of Economics Bloggers," which will debut tomorrow, Feb. 2, 2010, at

The survey was conducted in mid-January 2010 by soliciting input from bloggers ranked among the top 200 economics bloggers according to Palgrave's Ten core questions and seven topical questions were designed in coordination with a distinguished board of advisors.

Web version of press release:

January 16, 2010

Recession Is Prolonged By Doubts on Obama Policies

(p. A17) Several pieces of evidence point to extreme caution by businesses and households. A regular survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) shows that recent capital expenditures and near-term plans for new capital investments remain stuck at 35-year lows. The same survey reveals that only 7% of small businesses see the next few months as a good time to expand. Only 8% of small businesses report job openings, as compared to 14%-24% in 2008, depending on month, and 19%-26% in 2007.

The weak economy is far and away the most prevalent reason given for why the next few months is "not a good time" to expand, but "political climate" is the next most frequently cited reason, well ahead of borrowing costs and financing availability. The authors of the NFIB December 2009 report on Small Business Economic Trends state: "the other major concern is the level of uncertainty being created by government, the usually [sic] source of uncertainty for the economy. The 'turbulence' created when Congress is in session is often debilitating, this year being one of the worst. . . . There is not much to look forward to here."

Government statistics tell a similar story. Business investment in the third quarter of 2009 is down 20% from the low levels a year earlier. Job openings are at the lowest level since the government began measuring the concept in 2000. The pace of new job creation by expanding businesses is slower than at any time in the past two decades and, though older data are not as reliable, likely slower than at any time in the past half-century. While layoffs and new claims for unemployment benefits have declined in recent months, job prospects for unemployed workers have continued to deteriorate. The exit rate from unemployment is lower now than any time on record, dating back to 1967.

According to the Michigan Survey of Consumers, 37% of households plan to postpone purchases because of uncertainty about jobs and income, a figure that has not budged since the second quarter of 2009, and one that remains higher than any previous year back to 1960.

These facts suggest that it was a serious economic mistake to press for a hasty, major transformation of the U.S. economy on the heels of the worst financial crisis in decades. A more effective approach would have been to concentrate first on fighting the recession and laying solid foundations for growth. They should have put plans to re-engineer the economy on the backburner, and kept them there until the economy emerged fully from the recession and returned to robust growth. By failing to adopt a measured approach to economic policy, Congress and the president may be slowing the economic recovery, and thereby prolonging the distress from the recession.

For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER, STEVEN J. DAVIS AND KEVIN M. MURPHY. "OPINION; Uncertainty and the Slow Recovery; A recession is a terrible time to make major changes in the economic rules of the game." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JANUARY 4, 2010): A17.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

December 15, 2009

Wall Street Bet that Feds Would "Paper Over Mistakes"

In the commentary quoted below, "LTCM" stands for the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund.

(p. A25) Because families without the real economic means to repay traditional 30-year mortgages were getting them, housing prices grew to artificially high levels.

This is where the real sin of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac comes into play. Both were created by Congress to make housing affordable to the middle class. But when they began guaranteeing subprime loans, they actually began pricing out the working class from the market until the banking business responded with ways to make repayment of mortgages allegedly easier through adjustable rates loans that start off with low payments. But these loans, fully sanctioned by the government, were a ticking time bomb, as we're all now so painfully aware.

A similar bomb exploded in 1998, when LTCM blew up. The policy response to the LTCM debacle is instructive; more than anything else it solidified Wall Street's belief that there were little if any real risks to risk-taking. With $5 billion under management, LTCM was deemed too big to fail because, with nearly every major firm copying its money losing trades, much of Wall Street might have failed with it.

That's what the policy makers told us anyway. On Wall Street there's general agreement that the implosion of LTCM would have tanked one of the biggest risk takers in the market, Lehman Brothers, a full decade before its historic bankruptcy filing. Officials at Merrill, including its then-CFO (and future CEO) Stan O'Neal, believed Merrill's risk-taking in esoteric bonds could have led to a similar implosion 10 years before its calamitous merger with Bank of America.

We'll never know if LTCM's demise would have tanked the financial system or simply tanked a couple of firms that bet wrong. But one thing is certain: A valuable lesson in risk-taking was lost. By 2007, the years of excessive risk-taking, aided and abetted by the belief that the government was ready to paper over mistakes, had taken their toll.

With so much easy money, with the government always ready to ease their pain, Wall Street developed new and even more innovative ways to make money through risk-taking.

For the full commentary, see:

CHARLES GASPARINO. "Three Decades of Subsidized Risk; There's a reason Dick Fuld didn't believe Lehman would be allowed to fail." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 6, 2009): A25.

December 13, 2009

Young Firms Create Two-Thirds of New Jobs

(p. A25) While a slight improvement over last month's numbers, today's employment update from the Bureau of Labor Statistics presents a dismal picture for American workers. As policy makers search for the best remedies to strengthen our economic performance, they can't afford to overlook new firms and young firms.

Unfortunately, in troubled economic times the language of recovery is too often tilted toward large, established companies or to "small businesses," a broad term that traditionally applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The conventional wisdom is that such businesses account for half of the labor force and are therefore the engine of future job creation.

That's not quite the case. The more precise factor is not the size of businesses, but rather their age. According to the Census Bureau, nearly all net job creation in the U.S. since 1980 occurred in firms less than five years old. A Kauffman Foundation report released yesterday shows that as recently as 2007, two-thirds of the jobs created were in such firms. Put more starkly, without new businesses, job creation in the American economy would have been negative for many years.

. . .

Entrepreneurs have a proven track record of job creation, especially in the early years of their firms. Eliminating or lowering the economic and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of their success will pave the way for sustained expansion after the government's current stimulus measures come to their inevitable end.

For the full commentary, see:

CARL SCHRAMM, ROBERT LITAN AND DANE STANGLER. "New Business, Not Small Business, Is What Creates Jobs; Nearly all net job creation since 1980 occurred in firms less than five years old." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 6, 2009): A25.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 12, 2009

Fat-Tailed Distributions Seldom Used "Because the Math Was So Unwieldy"


Source of cartoon: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) Last year, a typical investment portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds lost roughly a fifth of its value. Standard portfolio-construction tools assume that will happen only once every 111 years.

With once-in-a-century floods seemingly occurring every few years, financial-services firms ranging from J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to MSCI Inc.'s MSCI Barra are concocting new ways to protect investors from such steep losses. The shift comes from increasing recognition that conventional assumptions about market behavior are off the mark, substantially underestimating risk.

. . .

(p. C9) Many of Wall Street's new tools assume market returns fall along a "fat-tailed" distribution, where, say, last year's nearly 40% stock-market decline would be more common than previously thought.

Fat-tailed distributions are nothing new. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot recognized their relevance to finance in the 1960s. But they were never widely used in portfolio-building tools, partly because the math was so unwieldy.

For the full story, see:

ELEANOR LAISE. "Some Funds Stop Grading on the Curve." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 8, 2009): C1 & C9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 9, 2009

Stimulus Recipients "Have Strong Incentives to Inflate Their Reported Numbers"

(p. A19) After reporting GDP, the government released new numbers claiming that the stimulus programs have "created or saved" over a million jobs. These data were collected from responses by government agencies that received federal funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Agencies were required to report "an estimate of the number of jobs created and the number of jobs retained by the project or activity." This report is required of all recipients (generally private contractors) of agency funds.

Unfortunately, these data are not reliable indicators of job creation nor of the even vaguer notion of job retention. There are two major problems. The first and most obvious is reporting bias. Recipients have strong incentives to inflate their reported numbers. In a race for federal dollars, contractors may assume that the programs that show the most job creation may be favored by the government when it allocates additional stimulus funds.

No dishonesty on the part of recipients is implied or required. But when a hire conceivably can be classified as resulting from the stimulus money, recipients have every incentive to classify the hire as such. Classification as stimulus-induced is even more likely if a respondent must only say that, except for the money, an employee would have been fired. In this case, no hiring need occur at all.

. . .

Net labor market figures do exist. Administrations have always been held to the time-tested and well-understood monthly job numbers put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports the unemployment rate and the net job gain or loss for the economy as a whole. It is important to use reliable, accurate and well-understood numbers to determine the true causes of recovery. The unemployment rate, now at 9.8%, has continued to rise, and job losses have remained at high levels throughout the stimulus period. Few will be comforted by the good-news-only claim that the stimulus "created or saved" over one million jobs.

For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD P. LAZEAR. "Stimulus and the Jobless Recovery; Jobs 'created or saved' is meaningless. What matters is net job gain or loss, and that means the unemployment rate." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 2, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated Nov. 1st.)

November 22, 2009

World Trade Barriers Are Increasing

ProtectionistMeasuresBarGraph2009-10-28.gifThe small dark blue squares indicate the "number of nations that have imposed protectionist measures on each country" and the light blue squares indicate the "number of measures imposed on each category of goods." Source of quotations in caption and of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A5) BRUSSELS -- This weekend's U.S.-China trade skirmish is just the tip of a coming protectionist iceberg, according to a report released Monday by Global Trade Alert, a team of trade analysts backed by independent think tanks, the World Bank and the U.K. government.

A report by the World Trade Organization, backed by its 153 members and also released Monday, found "slippage" in promises to abstain from protectionism, but drew less dramatic conclusions.

Governments have planned 130 protectionist measures that have yet to be implemented, according to the GTA's research. These include state aid funds, higher tariffs, immigration restrictions and export subsidies.

. . .

According to the GTA report, the number of discriminatory trade laws outnumbers liberalizing trade laws by six to one. Governments are applying protectionist measures at the rate of 60 per quarter. More than 90% of goods traded in the world have been affected by some sort of protectionist measure.

For the full story, see:

JOHN W. MILLER. "Protectionist Measures Expected to Rise, Report Warns." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 15, 2009): A5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

November 5, 2009

European Central Bank (ECB) Warns that Cash-for-Clunkers "May Delay Necessary Structural Change"

(p. A9) Cash-for-clunkers programs have no lasting economic benefit and could even lead to a "substantial weakening" in euro-zone automobile sales next year, the European Central Bank said.

The findings, though far from original, amount to an official slap on the wrist to European governments including those of Germany, France and Spain that rolled out the popular programs to stoke demand in their auto sectors at the height of the financial crisis.

. . .

Such incentive measures should be applied "with caution," the ECB said, "as they may hamper the efficiency of the functioning of a free-market economy and may delay necessary structural change, thereby undermining overall income and employment prospects in the longer term."

For the full story, see:

BRIAN BLACKSTONE. "Clunker Plans Are Risky Route, Central Bank Says." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 16, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 29, 2009

Federal "Stimulus" Money Delays Omaha Road Work

Omaha132ndStreet2009-10-09.jpg "Work has been put on hold for this stretch of 132nd Street between Blondo Street and West Maple Road. Omaha officials say the stimulus funds will be worth the wait, but some nearby residents are upset about the slowdown." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

We live near the still-two-lane stretch of 132nd pictured above, and were happy to read in the Omaha World-Herald early last spring that the city would be finishing the widening of 132nd, by widening the above stretch during the summer of 2009. As the summer progressed and widening did not, we became more and more puzzled.

Well, after you read the passages quoted below, you will 'know the rest of the story' as Paul Harvey used to say:

(p. 1A) The federal stimulus program, which was designed to accelerate roads projects around the country, instead put the brakes on widening a major Omaha thoroughfare.

The chance to grab $3.5 million in stimulus funds was worth delaying a widening project along 132nd Street between West Maple Road and Blondo Street, Omaha officials decided.

Work was supposed to begin last summer. Now the project between the Champions and Eagle Run golf courses won't begin until next spring.

Preliminary work was begun in March, when utility lines were moved out of the way. Part of the street was closed for that work.

Area residents expected more crews to start work during the summer.

When nothing happened for months, a handful of residents in the nearby Sunridge neighborhood called the city. They com-(p. A2)plained that digging from the utility work was causing mud and rainwater to pool near the subdivision's entrances off 132nd Street.

Resident Mary Ellen Pollard was surprised to find out that the widening work had been put on hold because of the stimulus program.

"I thought that stimulus package was for projects that were ready to go," she said Monday. "If it was ready to go, why didn't they proceed with it? . . . The barricades are up. Let's go get it done."

Plans change, public works officials said.

Meeting federal stimulus guidelines for environmental studies on the 132nd Street project, plus other planning and documentation requirements, took several months, City Engineer Charlie Krajicek said.

"We expected to have some work going this year, but it just didn't work out," he said.

For the full story, see:

Tom Shaw. "Stimulus slows 132nd St. work." Omaha World-Herald (Tuesday October 6, 2009): 1A-2A.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Weds., October 7 and has the slightly expanded title: "Stimulus Watch: Program slows 132nd St. work.")

(Note: ellipsis in original.)


Source of map: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited above.

October 14, 2009

Gallup Finds Highest Doubts of Government in Decades

(p. A23) If you want to know why Americans are so fearful of a government takeover of the health-care system, take a look at the results of a new Gallup poll on government waste released Sept. 15. One question posed was: "Of every tax dollar that goes to Washington, D.C., how many cents of each dollar would you say is wasted?" Gallup found that the mean response was 50 cents. With Uncle Sam spending just shy of $4 trillion this year, that means the public believes that $2 trillion is wasted.

In a separate poll released on Monday, Gallup found that nearly twice as many Americans believe that there is "too much government regulation of business and industry" as believe there is "too little" (45% to 24%).

Perhaps most significantly, in both of these polls Gallup found that skepticism about government's effectiveness is the highest it's been in decades. "Perceptions of federal waste were significantly lower 30 years ago than today," say the Gallup researchers. Even when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with the help of the antigovernment revolt of that era, Americans believed only 40 cents of every dollar was wasted, according to Gallup.

. . .

Over the last decade, the federal government has become bloated and inefficient. Voters are on to the scam. Mr. Obama keeps calling federal spending an "investment," but Americans apparently feel this is the worst investment they've ever made. They've come to regard Washington as a $2 trillion Bridge to Nowhere. They are right.

For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN MOORE. "Our $2 Trillion Bridge to Nowhere; Americans believe Washington squanders half of every tax dollar." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 23, 2009): A23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 12, 2009

Tax Cuts Better Than Stimulus Spending for Raising GDP

(p. A23) The global recession and financial crisis have refocused attention on government stimulus packages. These packages typically emphasize spending, predicated on the view that the expenditure "multipliers" are greater than one--so that gross domestic product expands by more than government spending itself. Stimulus packages typically also feature tax reductions, designed partly to boost consumer demand (by raising disposable income) and partly to stimulate work effort, production and investment (by lowering rates).

The existing empirical evidence on the response of real gross domestic product to added government spending and tax changes is thin. In ongoing research, we use long-term U.S. macroeconomic data to contribute to the evidence. The results mostly favor tax rate reductions over increases in government spending as a means to increase GDP.

. . .

The bottom line is this: The available empirical evidence does not support the idea that spending multipliers typically exceed one, and thus spending stimulus programs will likely raise GDP by less than the increase in government spending. Defense-spending multipliers exceeding one likely apply only at very high unemployment rates, and nondefense multipliers are probably smaller. However, there is empirical support for the proposition that tax rate reductions will increase real GDP.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. BARRO AND CHARLES J. REDLICK. "Stimulus Spending Doesn't Work; Our new research shows no evidence of a Keynesian 'multiplier' effect. There is evidence that tax cuts boost growth." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCTOBER 1, 2009): A23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

A longer and much more detailed account of Barro and Redlick's recent research on this topic can be found in:

Barro, Robert J., and Charles J. Redlick. "Macroeconomic Effects from Government Purchases and Taxes." NBER Working Paper # w15369, Sept. 2009.

October 11, 2009

Dutch Were Too Busy Trading to Build a Church

NewAmsterdamPrint2009-09-26.jpg "Print of New Amsterdam by Joost Hartgers, 1626." Source of caption and image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) The financial collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession have had, not surprisingly, a major adverse impact on the economy of the country's financial center, New York City. There have been over 40,000 job losses in the financial community alone and both city and state budgets are deeply dependent on tax revenues from this one industry. There has been much talk that New York might take years to recover--if, indeed, it ever can.

But if one looks at the history of New York there is reason for much optimism. The city's whole raison d'être since its earliest days explains why.

The Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland first and foremost came to what would be the United States to find the freedom to worship God as they saw fit. The Dutch--who invented many aspects of modern capitalism and became immensely rich in the process--came to Manhattan to make money. And they didn't much care who else came to do the same. Indeed, they were so busy trading beaver pelts they didn't even get around to building a church for 17 years.

Twenty years after the Dutch arrived, the settlement at the end of Manhattan had only about a thousand inhabitants. But it was already so cosmopolitan that a French priest heard no fewer than 18 languages being spoken on its streets.

. . .

Deep within the heart of this vast metropolis--like the child within the adult--there is still to be found that little hustly-bustly, live-and-let-live, let's-make-a-deal Dutch village. And the creation of wealth is still the city's dearest love.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "Opinion; Don't Bet Against New York; The financial crisis has been devastating, but the city has reinvented itself many times before.." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 19, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 6, 2009

Economic Understanding of the Great Depression is Still "Fragmentary"

In the last few decades the accepted opinion among most economists was that the profession understood what caused the Great Depression sufficiently so that we could be confident that we know how to avoid another Great Depression in the future.

Now the accepted opinion is becoming less accepted. I quote below the last sentence of Harold Cole's review of a 2007 book that surveys current views of the Great Depression by distinguished economists:

(p. 418) I came away from the book struck by the fragmentary state of the science with respect to the Great Depression and the challenges that we still face in terms of developing a truly satisfactory quantitative theory of what happened.


Cole, Harold. "Review of Parker's "the Economics of the Great Depression"." Journal of Economic Literature 46, no. 2 (June 2008): 415-18.

The book under review is:

Parker, Randall E. The Economics of the Great Depression: A Twenty-First Century Look Back at the Economics of the Interwar Era. Cheltenham, U.K. and Northampton, Mass.: Elgar, 2007.

October 3, 2009

"Stimulus" Did Not Stimulate


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A23) The nearby chart reviews income and consumption through July, the latest month this data is available for the U.S. economy as a whole.

Consider first the part of the chart pertaining to the spring of this year and observe that disposable personal income (DPI)--the total amount of income people have left to spend after they pay taxes and receive transfers from the government--jumped. The increase is due to the transfer and rebate payments in the 2009 stimulus package. However, as the chart also shows, there was no noticeable impact on personal consumption expenditures. Because the boost to income is temporary, at best only a very small fraction was consumed.

This is exactly what one would expect from "permanent income" or "life-cycle" theories of consumption, which argue that temporary changes in income have little effect on consumption. These theories were developed by Milton Friedman and Franco Modigliani 50 years ago, and have been empirically tested many times. They are much more accurate than simple Keynesian theories of consumption, so the lack of an impact should not be surprising.

. . .

Incoming data will reveal more in coming months, but the data available so far tell us that the government transfers and rebates have not stimulated consumption at all, and that the resilience of the private sector following the fall 2008 panic--not the fiscal stimulus program--deserves the lion's share of the credit for the impressive growth improvement from the first to the second quarter. As the economic recovery takes hold, it is important to continue assessing the role played by the stimulus package and other factors. These assessments can be a valuable guide to future policy makers in designing effective policy responses to economic downturns.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN F. COGAN, JOHN B. TAYLOR AND VOLKER WIELAND. "The Stimulus Didn't Work; The data show government transfers and rebates have not increased consumption at all." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., SEPTEMBER 17, 2009): A23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 1, 2009

Free-Market German Aristocrat Receives Ovation for Opposing Bailout

(p. A7) BERLIN -- Could the heir apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel be a wealthy, handsome 37-year-old baron who loves rock 'n' roll?

The baron, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, vaulted to prominence this year when he took over the often dull job of economics minister in the midst of the financial crisis. His independent stand on a thorny economic matter earned him the respect of voters.

. . .

It was his independent streak that earned him the respect of voters, rather than just their curiosity. Mr. Guttenberg broke ranks with Mrs. Merkel over how to handle the troubled German automaker Opel. Mrs. Merkel supported a consortium led by Magna International, a Canadian auto parts maker, and Sberbank, a Russian bank. Mr. Guttenberg favored bankruptcy, and even offered to resign just months into his tenure.

He lost the battle, but gained credibility with voters -- an important commodity with a disenchanted electorate that has largely ignored the coming vote. At the big kickoff campaign rally in Düsseldorf for Mrs. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, Mr. Guttenberg was the only politician to receive a spontaneous ovation from the crowd of 9,000.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS KULISH and JUDY DEMPSEY. "Aristocrat's Rise Shakes German Doldrums." The New York Times (Weds., September 22, 2009): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 22, 2009

In Economic Policy, as in Medicine: "First, Do No Harm"

(p. A13) Consider someone rushed into an emergency room in severe cardiac distress. After starting acute life-support measures, doctors still apply the rule stated by Galen of Pergamum more than 1,800 years ago: primum non nocere, or "First, do no harm." Treatment interventions are selected carefully from a battery of technologies and potent drugs while recognizing that any one of them, or a combination, could hurt the patient if misapplied or given in the wrong dosage. Economic interventions require no less care.

. . .

Our economic doctors should permit America's uniquely effective immune system to take over as companies and financial institutions deleverage their balance sheets. With people and with capitalism, the tincture of time is often the best medicine.

For the full commentary, see:

MICHAEL MILKEN and JONATHAN SIMONS. "Illness as Economic Metaphor; The first rule, as always, is do no harm.." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 20, 2009): A13.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

September 14, 2009

Clunker-Like Subsidies May Mainly Affect Timing of Purchases

(p. A6) The next program to test the effect of government funds comes this fall. Consumers who buy high-efficiency appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dishwasher can receive rebates of up to $200 on certain products; no trade-ins would be required. The $300 million program was included in the $787 billion stimulus law.

As with the clunkers program, it's unclear whether the rebate program will offer anything more than a short-term economic boost.

"The people who will most like likely respond to this are the people who need appliances, and they were probably going to buy appliances anyway," said Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "If all you've done is move that from tomorrow to today, then the economy is going to lag even more tomorrow."

For the full story, see:

SUDEEP REDDY. "Dealers Get More Time to File for Clunker Rebates." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., AUGUST 25, 2009): A6.

September 13, 2009

Economists "Mistook Beauty, Clad in Impressive-Looking Mathematics, for Truth"

PlanglossianEconomistsCartoon2009-09-06.jpg Source of caricatures: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is no friend of the free market, and more importantly, his manner of dealing with opponents is a long way from gracious civility.

But he is not always completely wrong:

(p. 36) Few economists saw our current crisis coming, . . .

. . .

(p. 37) As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL KRUGMAN. "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., September 2, 2009): 36-43.

(Note: ellipses added.)

DissentingEconomistsCartoon2009-09-06.jpgThe economist on the left is probably intended to resemble Keynes, but he also bears some resemblance to Hayek. Source of caricatures: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

September 10, 2009

Let Venture Capitalists Invest Their Own Money in Entrepreneurs

(p. A17) Venture-capital funds deal solely with privately purchased equity securities in start-up companies, which are not traded in public markets. They have as their limited partners only people who meet the S.E.C.'s definition of a "qualified client" (meaning they possess a substantial amount of money to invest). These investors, who typically allocate a small percentage of their portfolios to venture capital, are familiar with risk, but it is long-term risk, stretching out 7 to 10 years. They put their faith not in publicly traded securities but in entrepreneurs, emerging technologies and new markets.

Because their business is contained within the ecosystem of limited partners, venture-capital funds and the companies in which they invest absorb all the risk: there can be no domino effect in the world financial system.

. . .

It would be a shame to impose any new limits now, when venture capital is the asset class that can best help build and nurture the companies that bring about growth and job creation. The figures are compelling. In 2008, venture-backed companies that went public in previous years accounted for 12.1 million jobs and $2.9 trillion in revenues for the United States Treasury.

The names of companies financed by venture capital are legendary: Cisco, Google, Facebook, Apple, Federal Express, Staples, Yahoo, Amazon, Genentech and on and on. The privately purchased equity securities that helped start these companies supported new technological and scientific ideas, all of which led to new jobs.

For the full commentary, see:

ALAN PATRICOF and ERIC DINALLO. "Stopping Start-Ups." The New York Times (Mon., August 31, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 6, 2009

Mafia Will Get Fed Stimulus Money

(p. A13) Everybody is looking for stimulus money.

From bridge builders to food stamp recipients, from roofers to subway riders, from teachers to housing project residents, people are eager to feel some part of a tidal wave of federal dollars in their lives.

The mob is eager, too.

Federal and state investigators who track organized crime believe that some members have geared up to take advantage of the swift and enormous cash influx -- if they have not already -- looking, as the old Sicilian expression goes, to wet their beaks.

Nimble, innovative and with a seemingly boundless appetite for the taxpayer's dollar, the mob's more sophisticated cadre has plundered municipal, state and federal coffers for generations.

. . .

(p. A14) The distinctiveness of the immediate challenge surrounding the stimulus money is owed in part to the bill's twin imperatives: Get a lot of money out and get it out as fast as possible. And it is compounded by the fact that law enforcement agencies like the F. B. I. and prosecutors' offices are hip deep in the competing priorities of counterterrorism and the explosion of corporate and mortgage fraud cases.

Making matters worse, the money is flowing into familiar territory for those with a history of feeding at the public trough. Two of the largest portions of the stimulus pie in the New York City area are going to sectors of the economy -- Medicaid and infrastructure projects -- where the mob and Eastern European crime groups have flourished for decades, perfecting old schemes and developing new ones.

And it is not just criminals who are causing concern. Several officials noted that in an area where close to two dozen state and city legislators have been indicted in recent years, the flow of stimulus funds through government agencies will provide ample opportunity for corrupt public employees.

. . .

. . . , the speed with which the program has been put in place, along with what many officials have called insufficient oversight, has left some in law enforcement with grave concerns.

"It's coming out without the internal controls in place," said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "It's like putting a bank robber in a toll booth."

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM. "Concern Is High That the Mob May Seek a Cut of the Stimulus Pie." The New York Times (Fri., August 31, 2009): A13-A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 4, 2009

"Churchillian Steadfastness" Versus "Sullen Paralysis and Futile Efforts"

(p. A15) . . . beyond amelioration and providing the judicial (or in the case of the FDIC, quasi-judicial) procedures for reorganization, there is little more that the government can do to accelerate the unwinding and renewal necessary to put the economy back on an even keel.

The process involves a sequence of negotiations and experiments that cannot be truncated by throwing in more resources. As Frederick Brooks wrote in his celebrated book on software development, "The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering": "When a task cannot be partitioned because of sequential constraints, the application of more effort has no effect on the schedule. The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned." "Brooks's Law" suggests that increasing the size of software teams may delay development.

The wide variety of problems and circumstances in an economic downturn precludes the effective use of a single solution. And the federal government doesn't have the capacity to determine adjustments on a case-by-case basis. The late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek taught that the "man on the spot" with the appropriate local knowledge was much more capable of making good investment decisions than a central planner.

. . .

Suppose that, when the financial crisis broke two years ago, our leaders had shown a Churchillian steadfastness and allowed the normal realignment to play out under a predictable judicial and regulatory regime. The prices of stocks, bank debt and houses would still have crumbled and unemployment risen. Although recovery wouldn't have been immediate, we'd at least have progress, instead of a sullen paralysis and futile efforts to turn the clock back.

More loans would have been renegotiated and foreclosed properties auctioned off. The FDIC would already be engaged in finding a good home for the loans and deposits of a megabank or two. That agency, now operating with about one-third the staff it had in the 1980s, could also have used some of the bailout money that helped pay for bonuses at AIG and its counterparties to recruit, train and retain more employees.

Best of all, more entrepreneurs and innovators, who capitalize on the opportunities to be found in the midst of turmoil, could have been building the foundations of a prosperous future.

For the full commentary, see:

Amar Bhidé. "You Can't Rush a Recovery; While small business struggles, Goldman Sachs was protected from its AIG mistakes." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., APRIL 9, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 1, 2009

BB&T Founder John Allison Speaks for Rand's Free Market Philosophy

AllisonJohn2009-08-14.jpg "John A. Allison IV, chairman of the banking company BB&T, is a devoted follower of Ayn Rand's antigovernment views." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) OVER much of the last four decades, John A. Allison IV built BB&T from a local bank in North Carolina into a regional powerhouse that has weathered the economic crisis far better than many of its troubled rivals -- largely by avoiding financial gimmickry.

And in his spare time, Mr. Allison travels the country making speeches about his bank's distinctive philosophy.

Speaking at a recent convention in Boston to a group of like-minded business people and students, Mr. Allison tells a story: A boy is playing in a sandbox, only to have his truck taken by another child. A fight ensues, and the boy's mother tells him to stop being selfish and to share.

"You learned in that sandbox at some really deep level that it's bad to be selfish," says Mr. Allison, adding that the mother has taught a horrible lesson. "To say man is bad because he is selfish is to say it's bad because he's alive."

If Mr. Allison's speech sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it's based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who celebrated the virtues of reason, self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism while maintaining that altruism is a destructive force. In Ms. Rand's world, nothing is more heroic -- and sexy -- than a hard-working businessman free to pursue his wealth. And nothing is worse than a pesky bureaucrat trying to restrict business and redistribute wealth.

Or, as Mr. Allison explained, "put balls and chains on good people, and bad things happen."

Ms. Rand, who died in 1982, has all sorts of admirers on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms and in the entertainment industry, including the hedge fund manager Clifford Asness, the former baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and the Whole Foods chief executive, John Mackey.

But Mr. Allison, who remains BB&T's chairman after retiring as chief executive in December, has emerged as perhaps the most vocal proponent of Ms. Rand's ideas and of the dangers of government meddling in the markets. For a dedicated Randian like him, the government's headlong rush to try to rescue and fix the economy is a horrifying re-(p. 6)alization of his worst fears.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW MARTIN. "Give Him Liberty, but Not a Bailout." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., August 2, 2009): 1 & 6.

(Note: the online title is the slightly different: "Give BB&T Liberty, but Not a Bailout.")

August 26, 2009

"How Do We Get on the Special Interests, Special Treatment Bandwagon?"

SodiumSilicatePouredIntoClunker2009-08-12.jpgUncreative destruction. "Jose Luis Garcia pours sodium silicate into a junkyard car engine to render it inoperable at a lot in Sun Valley, Calif., on Tuesday. The process destroys the car's engine in a matter of minutes." Source of photo and part of caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) WASHINGTON -- Who doesn't like the government's "cash for clunkers" program? Your mechanic, for one.

Owners of automotive repair shops say the program to help invigorate sales of new cars is succeeding at their expense.

Bill Wiygul, whose family owns four repair shops in Virginia, said he has already had five or six customers decide against repairs. A man who sits on the board of Mr. Wiygul's bank traded in his car rather than repair it. "He'd been a customer at our Reston store since it opened," Mr. Wiygul said.

The clunkers program, formally known as the Car Allowance Rebate System, offers subsidies of as much as $4,500 to consumers who trade in older vehicles and buy new, more fuel-efficient models. The program was initially given $1 billion. That money was spent in one week.

The Senate reached a deal to extend the clunkers program Wednesday night, agreeing to vote on a measure Thursday that would add $2 billion to the program, the Associated Press reported.

The House approve a $2 billion extension last week.

For Mr. Wiygul and other mechanics, until now the recession has brought them more customers as people fixed cars rather than go into debt for new ones. He has hired five people and is expanding one of the shops.

Auto dealers who offer the rebates on new cars in exchange for clunkers must agree to "kill" the old models by disabling the engines and shipping the dead vehicle to a junkyard.

The loss of such potential work -- as many as 250,000 vehicles will be destroyed in the program's first round -- prompted Mr. Wiygul to question the federal program's focus on dealers and big business at the expense of the little guy.

"How do we get on the special interests, special treatment bandwagon? How much is it going to cost me and to whom shall I send the check?" he said. "Who picks the winners in this game 'cause obviously the game is fixed."

For the full commentary, see:

GARY FIELDS. "Clunkers Plan Deflates Mechanics." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., AUGUST 6, 2009): A4.

August 24, 2009

Huge Increase in Money Supply Increases Odds of Inflation

MoneySupplyGraph2009-08-12.gifSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) . . . , starting in early September 2008, the Bernanke Fed did an abrupt about-face and radically increased the monetary base -- which is comprised of currency in circulation, member bank reserves held at the Fed, and vault cash -- by a little less than $1 trillion. The Fed controls the monetary base 100% and does so by purchasing and selling assets in the open market. By such a radical move, the Fed signaled a 180-degree shift in its focus from an anti-inflation position to an anti-deflation position.

The percentage increase in the monetary base is the largest increase in the past 50 years by a factor of 10 (see chart nearby). It is so far outside the realm of our prior experiential base that historical comparisons are rendered difficult if not meaningless. The currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base -- which prior to the expansion had comprised 95% of the monetary base -- has risen by a little less than 10%, while bank reserves have increased almost 20-fold. Now the currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base is a smidgen less than 50% of the monetary base. Yikes!

. . .

With an increased trust in the overall banking system, the panic demand for money has begun to and should continue to recede. The dramatic drop in output and employment in the U.S. economy will also reduce the demand for money. Reduced demand for money combined with rapid growth in money is a surefire recipe for inflation and higher interest rates. The higher interest rates themselves will also further reduce the demand for money, thereby exacerbating inflationary pressures. It's a catch-22.

It's difficult to estimate the magnitude of the inflationary and interest-rate consequences of the Fed's actions because, frankly, we haven't ever seen anything like this in the U.S. To date what's happened is potentially far more inflationary than were the monetary policies of the 1970s, when the prime interest rate peaked at 21.5% and inflation peaked in the low double digits. Gold prices went from $35 per ounce to $850 per ounce, and the dollar collapsed on the foreign exchanges. It wasn't a pretty picture.

For the full commentary, see:

ARTHUR B. LAFFER. "Get Ready for Inflation and Higher Interest Rates; The unprecedented expansion of the money supply could make the '70s look benign." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., June 10, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

August 7, 2009

"The Single Most Important Question for the Future of America Is How We Treat Our Entrepreneurs"

(p. 13) The single most important question for the future of America is how we treat our entrepreneurs. If we smear, harass, overtax, and overregulate them, our liberal politicians will be shocked and horrified to discover how swiftly the physical tokens of the means of production collapse into so much corroded wire, eroding concrete, scrap metal, and jungle rot.


Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.

August 4, 2009

"It Is No Time to Concede"


Gary Becker. Source of caricature: online version of the WSJ interview quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) "What can we do that would be beneficial? [One thing] is lower corporate taxes and businesses taxes and maybe taxes in general. Particularly, you want to lower the tax on capital so you raise the after-tax return to investing and get more investing going on."

. . .

What Mr. Becker has seen over a career spanning more than five decades is that free markets are good for human progress. And at a time when increasing government intervention in the economy is all the rage, he insists that economic liberals must not withdraw from the debate simply because their cause, for now, appears quixotic.

As a young academic in 1956, Mr. Becker wrote an important paper against conscription. He was discouraged from publishing it because, at the time, the popular view was that the military draft could never be abolished. Of course it was, and looking back, he says, "that taught me a lesson." Today as Washington appears unstoppable in its quest for more power and lovers of liberty are accused of tilting at windmills, he says it is no time to concede.

For the full interview, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Now Is No Time to Give Up on Markets." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 21, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Gary Becker_2009_07_10.jpg Gary Becker. Source of photo:

July 15, 2009

Milton Friedman's Legacy Was the "Remarkable Progress of Mankind"

(p. W13) With each passing week that the assault against global capitalism continues in Washington, I become more nostalgic for one missing voice: Milton Friedman's. No one could slice and dice the sophistry of government market interventions better than Milton, who died at the age of 94 in 2006. Imagine what the great economist would have to say about the U.S. Treasury owning and operating several car brands or managing the health-care industry. "Why not?" I can almost hear him ask cheerfully. "After all, they've done such a wonderful job delivering the mail."

. . .

I've been thinking a lot lately of one of my last conversations with Milton, who warned that "even though socialism is a discredited economic model and capitalism is raising living standards to new heights, the left intellectuals continue to push for bigger government everywhere I look." He predicted that people would be seduced by collectivist ideas again.

. . .

A few scholars are now properly celebrating the Friedman legacy. Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economics professor, has just published a tribute to Friedman in the Journal of Economic Literature. He describes the period 1980-2005 as "The Age of Milton Friedman," an era that "witnessed remarkable progress of mankind. As the world embraced free market policies, living standards rose sharply while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined."

For the full commentary, see:

Moore, Stephen. "Missing Milton: Who Will Speak for Free Markets?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 29, 2009): W13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The full reference to the article by Shleifer, is:

Shleifer, Andrei. "The Age of Milton Friedman." Journal of Economic Literature 47, no. 1 (March 2009): 123-35.

July 11, 2009

Drug Innovation Funding Slashed in Economic Crisis


Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Big pharmaceutical companies have spent billions of dollars to buy other drug giants lately, leaving behind small biotech companies that can no longer find investors.

The biotech industry had thrived as a new-drug incubator for big pharma companies, which poured money into acquisitions and partnerships to build up their biotech-drug product line. Some of that is still happening, but most sources of investment funding have dried up in recent months.

Since November, 10 biotechs have declared bankruptcy, says Ellen Dadisman, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Meanwhile, 120 of the 360 publicly traded biotechs have less than six months of cash left, compared with just 12 companies in that position a year ago, according to Burrill & Co., a venture-capital concern in San Francisco that follows the industry.

For the full story, see:

KEITH J. WINSTEIN. "Cash Dries Up for Biotech Drug Firms." Wall Street Journal (Mon., MARCH 16, 2009): B1.

July 9, 2009

Government Regulators Again Suppress Entrepreneurial Innovation

FeetNibblingFish2009-06-20.jpgSource of photo:

(p. A1) Until Mr. Ho brought his skin-eating fish here from China last year, no salon in the U.S. had been publicly known to employ a live animal in the exfoliation of feet. The novelty factor was such that Mr. Ho became a minor celebrity. On "Good Morning America" in July, Diane Sawyer placed her feet in a tank supplied by Mr. Ho and compared the fish nibbles to "tiny little delicate kisses."

Since then, cosmetology regulators have taken a less flattering view, insisting fish pedicures are unsanitary. At least 14 states, including Texas and Florida, have outlawed them. Virginia doesn't see a problem. Ohio permitted fish pedicures after a review, and other states haven't yet made up their minds. The world of foot care, meanwhile, has been plunged into a piscine uproar. Salon owners who (p. A12) bought fish and tanks before the bans were imposed in their states are fuming.

The issue: cosmetology regulations generally mandate that tools need to be discarded or sanitized after each use. But epidermis-eating fish are too expensive to throw away. "And there's no way to sanitize them unless you bake them for 20 minutes at 350 degrees," says Lynda Elliott, an official with the New Hampshire Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics. The board outlawed fish pedicures in November.

In Ohio, ophthalmologist Marilyn Huheey, who sits on the Ohio State Board of Cosmetology, decided to try it out for herself in a Columbus salon last fall. After watching the fish lazily munch on her skin, she recommended approval to the board. "It seemed to me it was very sanitary, not sterile of course," Dr. Huheey says. "Sanitation is what we've got to live with in this world, not sterility."

. . .

State bans have disrupted Mr. Ho's plans to build a nationwide franchise network. Currently, he has four active franchises, in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Missouri. But others have terminated franchise agreements. In Calhoun, Ga., Tran Lam, owner of Sky Nails, says she paid Mr. Ho $17,500 in exchange for fish and custom-made pedicure tanks. A few weeks later, in October, the Georgia Board of Cosmetology deemed fish pedicures illegal. "I'm very mad," says Ms. Lam. "I lost a lot of money and the economy is so bad."

For the full story, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Ban on Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Nail Salons on the Hook; Mr. Ho's Import From China Caught On, But Some State Pedicure Inspectors Object." Wall Street Journal (Mon., MARCH 23, 2009): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 7, 2009

Medoff Swimming Naked

BedoffBernieSwimmingWithoutSuit.jpgBernie Medoff, and friends, swimming naked. Source of caricature: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The article quoted and cited below, is most notable for the wonderful illustration of the famous Warren Buffett quote on how hard times reveal who has been prudent and who has not been prudent.

(p. 19) Though we may be caring less, we're hearing a lot more about Ponzi schemes lately, perhaps because the scams tend to fall apart when markets drop. As Warren Buffett so memorably put it, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Lost in Bernie Madoff's Shadow." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., April 11, 2009): 19 & 24.

July 5, 2009

The Middle Ages Were Poor Ages (and, Yes, Dark Ages Too)


Source of book image:

(p. A19) . . . some excellent books for general readers in the past few years, notably Brian Ward- Perkins's "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" (2005), have shown how devastating was the economic and human cost paid between 450 and 900. It is still unfashionable to speak of the Dark Ages (there was continuing cultural life), but these were certainly the Poor Ages, in which protection for the weak and vulnerable, from roaming killers and even from the weather, was much more precarious than it had been under Roman rule.

For the full review, see:

SCOTT PATTERSON. "Bookshelf; The Emperor Left Town." Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 21, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the book mainly under review by Patterson, is NOT the book featured in this blog entry.)

The reference for the Ward-Perkins book, is:

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

June 28, 2009

"Don't Kill the Goose"

(p. A11) I think there are two major but not fully formed or fully articulated fears among thinking Americans right now, and the deliberate obscurity of official language only intensifies those fears.

The first is that Mr. Obama's government, in all its flurry of activism, may kill the goose that laid the golden egg. This is as dreadful and obvious a cliché as they come, but too bad, it's what people fear. They see the spending plans and tax plans, the regulation and reform hunger, the energy proposals and health-care ambitions, and they--we--wonder if the men and women doing all this, working in their separate and discrete areas, are being overseen by anyone saying, "By the way, don't kill the goose."

The goose of course is the big, messy, spirited, inspiring, and sometimes in some respects damaging but on the whole brilliant and productive wealth-generator known as the free-market capitalist system. People do want things cleaned up and needed regulations instituted, and they don't mind at all if the very wealthy are more heavily taxed, but they greatly fear a goose killing. Economic freedom in all its chaos and disorder has kept us rich for 200 years, and allowed us as a nation to be generous and strong at home and in the world. But the goose can be killed--by carelessness, hostility, incrementalism, paralysis, and by no one saying, "Don't kill the goose."

For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "What's Elevated, Health-Care Provider? Economy of language would be good for the economy." Wall Street Journal (Sat., MAY 15, 2009): A11.

June 26, 2009

There's Still Space in Diamond's Fall Seminar on the Economics of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha


June 14, 2009

"Whoever Was Prudent, Is Always the One Who Has to Pick Up the Pieces"

(p. A3) "We like a nice, gentle, upward slope," said Donald E. Goetz, the president of DeMotte State Bank, an 11-branch operation in the northwest part of Indiana.

"This kind of growth, like you see in the stock market" -- Mr. Goetz ran his hand through the air, tracing the shape of a mountain range -- "that doesn't interest us."

. . .

Mr. Goetz, who was wearing a tie and a short-sleeve shirt, started as a teller at DeMotte right after he graduated from college in 1976, and he's been president since 1988. He is a stolid guy who, when asked what he does for fun, offered two words: "Yard work."

He sounds somewhat aggrieved. His bank, which opened in 1917, didn't make any subprime loans, nor did it take any bailout money. Even when bank stocks were soaring, not one of his 246 shareholders needled him to earn more than the 3 to 4 percent dividend that DeMotte has generated for years.

. . .

"We had three or four people panic," he said. "A couple of them said, 'It's not the bank. We just don't trust the government.' And I told them, 'If the government fails, the money you're taking out of this bank won't be worth anything.' "

Mr. Goetz, like a lot of his competitors, is livid about the mortgage shenanigans born of the securitization craze. But he thinks his public relations problem had many authors.

"The media, Congress, the president, everyone just keeps saying 'the banks, the banks, the banks,' like we're all the same thing," he said. "Well, we're not all the same thing."

. . .

At DeMotte, Mr. Goetz is bracing for a steep increase in a crucial overhead cost: the bill from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is basically an insurance fund underwritten by banks.

Last year, DeMotte paid $42,000 into the fund. This year, because of failures in other parts of the country and particularly among national banks, that sum will rise to $500,000 or more.

"Isn't that the American way?" he says, folding his arms. "Whoever is left standing, whoever was prudent, is always the one who has to pick up the pieces."

For the full story, see:

DAVID SEGAL. "We're Dull, Small Banks Say, and Have Profit to Show for It." The New York Times (Tues., May 12, 2009): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 9, 2009

Taiwan Government's Industrial Policy Ruins Economy

ExportsPlungeEastAsia2009-05-31.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) Taiwan, where for years the government encouraged information technology companies with tax breaks, cheap land, loans and more, is probably the most endangered of the small Asian economies. The result of that government largess is an economy extremely dependent on a single industrial sector that has been devastated by plunging worldwide sales of electronics. "Half of the industries just got a bad cold, they probably can recover quickly -- the other 50 percent, they've got, not cancer, but close," said Preston W. Chen, a chemicals tycoon who is also the chairman of Taiwan's Chinese National Federation of Industries.

For the full article, see:

KEITH BRADSHER. "Memo From Singapore - East Asia's Small Edens of Trade Wilt as Need for Exports Dries Up." The New York Times (Thurs., March 5, 2009): A8.

May 28, 2009

High State Taxes "Repel Jobs and Businesses"


Source of cartoon: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) . . . the evidence that we discovered in our new study for the American Legislative Exchange Council, "Rich States, Poor States," published in March, shows that Americans are more sensitive to high taxes than ever before. The tax differential between low-tax and high-tax states is widening, meaning that a relocation from high-tax California or Ohio, to no-income tax Texas or Tennessee, is all the more financially profitable both in terms of lower tax bills and more job opportunities.

Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts.

Did the greater prosperity in low-tax states happen by chance? Is it coincidence that the two highest tax-rate states in the nation, California and New York, have the biggest fiscal holes to repair? No. Dozens of academic studies -- old and new -- have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses.

. . .

. . . , Barry W. Poulson of the University of Colorado last year examined many factors that explain why some states grew richer than others from 1964 to 2004 and found "a significant negative impact of higher marginal tax rates on state economic growth." In other words, soaking the rich doesn't work. To the contrary, middle-class workers end up taking the hit.

For the full commentary, see:

ARTHUR LAFFER and STEPHEN MOORE. "Soak the Rich, Lose the Rich Americans know how to use the moving van to escape high taxes." Wall Street Journal (Mon., MAY 18, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

May 27, 2009

"Dynamism Has Been Leached From Our System," But Not from Our Brains or Our Hearts

Sometimes one of Peggy Noonan's columns reminds us that she was once one of Ronald Reagan's best speech writers:

(p. A11) I heard a man named Nathan Myhrvold speak of a thing called Microsoft. I saw a young man named Steve Jobs prowl a New York stage and unveil a computer that then we thought tiny and today we'd call huge. A man named Steve Wozniak became a household god as my son reported his visionary ways. It was a time so full of genius and dynamism that it went beyond words like "breakthrough" and summoned words like "revolution." If you were paying attention, if you understood you were witnessing something great, the invention of a new age, the computer age, it caught at your throat. It was like hearing great music. People literally said what had been said in the age of Thomas Edison: "What will they think of next?" What a buoyant era.

. . .

And for a moment, as I sent and received my first airborne Wi-Fi emails, I was back there. And I was moved because I realized how much I missed it, how much we all do, that "There are no walls" feeling. "Think different." "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.' " That was 25 years ago. The world was on fire.

It has cooled. And the essential problem with the crash we're in is no one can imagine quite feeling that way again. People can remember it, but they can't quite resummon it.

. . .

I end with a hunch that is not an unhappy one. Dynamism has been leached from our system for now, but not from the human brain or heart. Just as our political regeneration will happen locally, in counties and states that learn how to control themselves and demonstrate how to govern effectively in a time of limits, so will our economic regeneration. That will begin in someone's garage, somebody's kitchen, as it did in the case of Messrs. Jobs and Wozniak. The comeback will be from the ground up and will start with innovation. No one trusts big anymore. In the future everything will be local. That's where the magic will be. And no amount of pessimism will stop it once it starts.

For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "Remembering the Dawn of the Age of Abundance; Times are hard, but dynamism isn't dead." Wall Street Journal (Sat., Feb. 21, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

May 13, 2009

How Democratic Presidents Save Us

Andrew Jackson was the first in a long line of populist Democratic presidents:

(p. 24) He relished the roles of protector and savior. Just after dusk on a cold March day in 1791, when Jackson was practicing law on the circuit around Jonesborough, Tennessee, he and his friend John Overton were traveling with a small group through dangerous territory. Reaching the banks of the Emory River in the mountains, the lawyers spotted a potentially hostile Indian party. "The light of their fires showed that they were numerous," Overton recalled to Henry Lee, and "that they were painted and equipped for war." Under Jackson's leadership (Overton credited him with a "saving spirit and elastic mind"), the travelers scrambled into the hills on horseback, riding roughly parallel to the river--which they had to cross to make it home. Pursued by the Indians, Jackson, Overton, and two others pressed on through the night, coming to a place where the water looked smooth enough to allow a hastily constructed raft and the horses to make it to the other side. Jackson look charge of the raft piled high with saddles and clothes. Overton would follow with the horses.

There was immediate trouble. The waters were not as smooth as they had appeared; a powerful undercurrent swept the boat--and Jackson-- downstream, toward a steep waterfall. "Overton and his companion instantly cried out and implored Jackson to pull back," Lee wrote. But he either not being so sensible of the danger, or being unwilling to yield to it, (p. 25) continued to push vigorously forward." Jackson struggled with his oars; disaster was at hand. He and the saddles could he lost, and the Indians were still on their trail. "Finding himself just on the brink of the awful precipice," Lee recounted, Jackson extended his oar to Overton, who "laid hold of it and pulled the raft ashore, just as it was entering the suck of the torrent." Catching their breath on the bank of the river, Overton and Jackson looked at each other.

"You were within an ace, Sir, of being dashed to pieces," Overton told him. Jackson waved him off, replying, "A miss is as good as a mile; it only shows how close I can graze danger. But we have no time to lose--follow me and I'll save you yet." They eluded the Indians, arriving home exhausted but safe.


Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House, 2008.

(Note: the semi-colons in the above passage were hard to distinguish, in the online version, from colons. I judged them to be semi-colons from context, but I could be wrong.)

May 10, 2009

Philanthro-Capitalism Is Inefficient, and Betrays Shareholders


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) One of the more interesting ideas found in this somewhat rambling book contends that "philanthropic" business activity is in fact at odds with what is best about capitalism itself and thus counterproductive.

Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and former Treasury secretary, states the difficulty succinctly: "It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too." He offers as an example Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-created corporations that were supposed to achieve a social goal -- affordable housing -- while operating as businesses. They did neither well, eventually leaving their catastrophic debts for taxpayers to pay.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner, along with other contributors, notes that companies often suffer losses when they set out to address a social problem. If they could really make a profit by doing good works, the argument goes, they would no doubt already be hard at it. But if they do good works at the expense of profit, they will become less efficient, making themselves more vulnerable to competitors. Economist Steven Landsburg suggests that companies sacrificing profit to accomplish philanthropic goals end up betraying their shareholders, who rightly expect the best return on investment. Sometimes acting philanthropically will result in an indirect business benefit, such as improving worker skills. In that case, philanthro-capitalism might be in a company's interest -- but Judge Posner and others of like mind suspect that such instances are rare.

Their skepticism echoes Milton Friedman's objections to "corporate social responsibility," expressed in a 1970 article that is usefully reprinted in the book's appendix.

For the full review, see:

LESLIE LENKOWSKY. "Bookshelf; The Do-Good Marketplace; Reducing poverty, improving lives - maybe 'philanthro-capitalism' is just another name for capitalism." Wall Street Journal (Fri., JANUARY 2, 2009): A13.

The book under review is:

Kinsley, Michael, and Conor Clarke, eds. Creative Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.

May 4, 2009

Do Recessions Sometimes Encourage Creative Destruction?

DesktopPCbroken2009-02-15.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) The dot-com bust earlier in the decade dragged down high-fliers like Sun Microsystems and America Online but set the stage for a new generation of Web powerhouses like Google and other innovative Internet software companies like, founded on disrupting the status quo.

The recession of the early 1990s sent I.B.M., then the dominant force in technology, into a five-year tailspin. But it also propelled Microsoft and Compaq, later acquired by Hewlett-Packard, and Dell to the forefront of computing.

Indeed, Silicon Valley may be one of the few places where businesses are still aware of the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist who wrote about business cycles during the first half of the last century. He said the lifeblood of capitalism was "creative destruction." Companies rising and falling would unleash innovation and in (p. B4) the end make the economy stronger.

Recessions "can cause people to think more about the effective use of their assets," said Craig R. Barrett, the retiring chairman of Intel, who has seen 10 such downturns in his long career. "In the good times, you can get a bit careless or not focused as much on efficiency. In bad times, you're forced to see if there is a technology" that will help.

So who's up, who's down and who's out this time around? Microsoft's valuable Windows franchise appears vulnerable after two decades of dominance. Revenue for the company's Windows operating system fell for the first time in history in the last quarter of 2008. The popularity of Linux, a free operating system installed on many netbooks instead of Windows, forced Microsoft to lower the prices on its operating system to compete.

Intel's high-power processors are also under assault: revenue tumbled by 23 percent last quarter, marking the steepest decline since 1985.

Meanwhile, more experimental but lower-cost technologies like netbooks, Internet-based software services (called cloud computing) and virtualization, which lets companies run more software on each physical server, are on the rise.

For the full story, see:

BRAD STONE and ASHLEE VANCE. "$200 Laptops Break a Business Model." The New York Times (Mon., January 25, 2009): B1 & B4.

April 15, 2009

Schramm Sees the Donor as the Only Real Stakeholder of a Foundation


Carl Schramm. Source of image: online version of the WSJ interview article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) . . . who are the real stakeholders in foundations? Mr. Schramm can think of only one: the donor. "At Kauffman I think the trustees and I are very, very clear: We work for Mr. Kauffman," says Mr. Schramm, acknowledging that his boss passed away in 1993. Kauffman not only left extensive writings but also videotape of himself describing how he wanted the foundation to operate. Mr. Schramm says that one board member told him he was hired because he was the only candidate who had read Kauffman's book.

. . .

. . . within a year of taking over, Mr. Schramm began a serious overhaul of the foundation. He laid off about half of its 150-person staff and cut off funding to some of its biggest grantees, many in Kansas City. There was a public outcry from local nonprofits and from some former members of the board. One told the New York Times that "Carl doesn't seem to understand that there isn't an 'I' in team." It reached the point where Missouri's then attorney general, Jeremiah Nixon, launched an extensive investigation. He determined that Mr. Schramm had not led the foundation astray. What ultimately saved his job, says Mr. Schramm, were the detailed writings that Kauffman left before his death.

"What happened was not atypical in foundations. Often around 10 years after the death of the donor there's a moment of truth." People who were close to the donor will say, "Yes, he said that but he didn't mean that." Mr. Schramm concludes: "If there was one piece of advice I'd give to someone who was starting a foundation it is this: Think very, very hard of the long term and write down what you want your foundation to look like in 30 years or 40 years."

Despite the fact that the foundation's endowment has fallen by $722 million since the end of 2007, Mr. Schramm sees this as Kauffman's "moment." While "no one hopes for a recession," it's during economic crises that entrepreneurs "challenge companies that have gotten big and lazy." The downturn, he says, will even challenge Kauffman to "think about how we can do our work better, like every business." In fact, Mr. Schramm adds, "The only people immune from thinking hard in moments like this are in government."

For the full interview, see:

NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY. "Opinion; THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Carl Schramm; Giving Capitalism Its Due." Wall Street Journal (Sat., APRIL 4, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

April 13, 2009

French Labor Holds Management Hostage---Literally

PolutnikNicolasFrenchHostage2009-04-10.jpg "French Caterpillar executive Nicolas Polutnik, center, with workers after his release Wednesday." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) PARIS -- Of the 22,000 workers Caterpillar Inc. plans to lay off this year, the French ones have perhaps the most radical tactic for negotiating their severance deals.

In an aggressive, and peculiarly French, negotiating strategy, they held their managers hostage. The workers detained the director of their plant and four other managers for about 24 hours this week. Workers released them only after the company agreed to resume talks with unions and a government mediator on how to improve compensation for workers who are being laid off.

. . .

Jérôme Pélisse, a sociologist, surveyed 3,000 companies in 2004 and found that 18 of them had experienced an executive detention in the prior three years.

For the full story, see:

DAVID GAUTHIER-VILLARS and LEILA ABBOUD. "In France, the Bosses Can Become Hostages." Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 3, 2009): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

April 11, 2009

FDR's "Mucking About in the Economy Crowded Out Private Investment"


"Men lining up for free dinner in New York in the early days of the Great Depression." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) In this interpretation Roosevelt is a well-meaning but misguided dupe who not only prolonged the Depression but also exacerbated it.

. . .

Amity Shlaes, a syndicated columnist who works at the Council on Foreign Relations, helped ignite this latest revisionist spurt with her 2007 book, "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression."

"The deepest problem was the intervention, the lack of faith in the marketplace," she wrote, lumping Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt together as overzealous government meddlers.

. . .

(p. C7) Nonetheless, they argue that most of his mucking about in the economy crowded out private investment and antagonized the business world, and thus delayed recovery.

Unemployment remained high throughout the decade until World War II, Ms. Shlaes told conference attendees, because the uncertainty created by Roosevelt's continual tinkering paralyzed private investors.

When the federal government keeps changing the rules, it's like having Darth Vader in control, John H. Cochrane, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said during a panel. "I have changed the deal," he intoned like Vader, the "Star Wars" villain. "Pray I don't change it any further."

. . .

"No episode in American history has been so misinterpreted as the Great Depression," declared Richard K. Vedder, an economist at Ohio University. By artificially keeping prices and wages high, he argued, both Hoover and Roosevelt prevented the economy from adjusting, which is why unemployment remained in double digits until the United States entered the war.

Anna Schwartz, who collaborated with Milton Friedman on a classic study of the Depression, and the Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas Jr. argued that the idea of stimulating the economy with federal spending is a fairy tale. Government spending just crowds out private investment, they asserted; the money supply is the only thing that matters.

. . .

At the final panel, a questioner asked at what point on the 1930s timeline is the United States right now.

. . .

To Ms. Shlaes, the best analogy is 1937 -- "the depression within the Depression" -- when the unemployment rate shot back up to the middle and high teens after falling. "The economy wanted to recover," she said, but the government's interventions ended up paralyzing the business world.

. . .

Mr. Vedder playfully offered another analogy: the recession of 1920. Why was that slump, over and done with by 1922, so much shorter than the following decade's? Well, for starters, he said, President Woodrow Wilson suffered an incapacitating stroke at the end of 1919, while his successor, Warren G. Harding, universally considered one of the worst presidents in American history, preferred drinking, playing poker and golf, and womanizing, to governing. "So nothing happened," Mr. Vedder said.

Of course Mr. Vedder does not wish ill health -- or obliviousness -- on any chief executive. Still, in his view, when you're talking about government intervention in the economy, doing nothing is about the best you can hope for from any president.

For the full story, see:

PATRICIA COHEN. "New Deal Revisionism: Theories Collide." The New York Times (Sat., April 3, 2009): C1 & C7

(Note: ellipses added.)

The full reference on on Shlaes' excellent book, is:

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

April 9, 2009

How Ayn Rand Matters Today

(p. A7) Ayn Rand died more than a quarter of a century ago, yet her name appears regularly in discussions of our current economic turmoil. Pundits including Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli urge listeners to read her books, and her magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged," is selling at a faster rate today than at any time during its 51-year history.

. . .

Rand . . . noted that only an ethic of rational selfishness can justify the pursuit of profit that is the basis of capitalism -- and that so long as self-interest is tainted by moral suspicion, the profit motive will continue to take the rap for every imaginable (or imagined) social ill and economic disaster. Just look how our present crisis has been attributed to the free market instead of government intervention -- and how proposed solutions inevitably involve yet more government intervention to rein in the pursuit of self-interest.

Rand offered us a way out -- to fight for a morality of rational self-interest, and for capitalism, the system which is its expression. And that is the source of her relevance today.

For the full commentary, see:

YARON BROOK. "Is Rand Relevant?" Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 14, 2009): A7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

April 1, 2009

No Fooling: Government Plants Dead Trees

(p. A25) Years ago, when I was a reporter, I remember getting a call from a woman in the Bronx who was screaming: "They're over on Moshulu Parkway planting dead trees!"

A city work crew was, sure enough, digging holes along the side of the street and carefully sticking in brown and dried-up pieces of foliage. The men claimed the trees had simply lost their leaves for the winter -- an explanation somewhat undermined by the fact that they were evergreens.

I'm telling you this because on Tuesday I was talking with a high-ranking Obama administration official about the stimulus plan. "There will be a dead tree planted, figuratively speaking," he said somberly. "That will happen."

For the full commentary, see:

GAIL COLLINS. "The Dead Tree Theory." The New York Times (Thurs., February 25, 2009): A25.

(Note: the online version is dated Feb. 26, and has some substantial differences from the midwest print edition version I have, though there are only minor differences in the brief passages quoted above, which agree with my print copy.)

March 29, 2009

Vaclav Klaus: The Czech Republic's Free Market Crusader

KlausVaclav2009-02-15.jpg "President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic is known for his economic liberalism." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A6) To supporters, Mr. Klaus is a brave, lone crusader, a defender of liberty, the only European leader in the mold of the formidable Margaret Thatcher. (Aides say Mr. Klaus has a photo of the former British prime minister in his office near his desk.)

. . .

As a former finance minister and prime minister, he is credited with presiding over the peaceful 1993 split of Czechoslovakia into two states and helping to transform the Czech Republic into one of the former Soviet bloc's most successful economies.

But his ideas about governance are out of step with many of the European Union nations that his country will lead starting Jan. 1.

While even many of the world's most ardent free marketeers acknowledged the need for the recent coordinated bailout of European banks, Mr. Klaus lambasted it as irresponsible protectionism. He blamed too much -- rather than too little -- regulation for the crisis.

A fervent critic of the environmental movement, he has called global warming a dangerous "myth," arguing that the fight against climate change threatens economic growth.

. . .

Those who know Mr. Klaus say his economic liberalism is an outgrowth of his upbringing. Born in 1941, he obtained an economics degree in 1963 and was deeply influenced by free market economists like Milton Friedman.

Mr. Klaus's son and namesake, Vaclav, recalled in an interview that when he was 13, his father told him to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to better understand Communism's oppressiveness.

"If you lived under communism, then you are very sensitive to forces that try to control or limit human liberty," he said in an interview.

For the full story, see:

DAN BILEFSKY. "A Fiery Czech Is Poised to Be the Face of Europe." The New York Times (Tues., November 25, 2008): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 28, 2009

"Government Interventions Only Prolonged the Crisis"

The comments of Maart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia, are worth considering:

(p.A13) It is said that the only thing that people learn from history is that people learn nothing from history. Looking at how the world is handling the current economic crisis, this aphorism appears sadly true.

World leaders have forgotten how the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 developed into a world-wide depression. It happened not thanks to market failures but as a result of mistakes made by governments which tried to protect their national economies and markets. The market was not allowed to make its corrections. Government interventions only prolonged the crisis.

We may hope that, even as we see several bad signs of neo-interventionist attitude, all the mistakes of the 1930s will not be repeated. But it is clear that the tide has turned again. Capitalism has been declared dead, Marx is honored, and the invisible hand of the market is blamed for all failures. This is not fair. Actually it is not markets that have failed but governments, which did not fulfill their role of the "visible hand" -- creating and guaranteeing market rules. Weak regulation of the banking sector and extensive lending, encouraged by governments, are examples of this failure.

For the full commentary, see:

MART LAAR. "Economic Freedom Is Still the Best Policy." Wall Street Journal (Fri., FEBRUARY 13, 2009): A13.

March 24, 2009

FDR's 1935 Revival Prediction Proved False

(p. C1) Despite the reputation of the New Deal, deep government interventions are unpredictable and sometimes harmful, reminds Amity Shlaes, who wrote a popular history of the Depression, "The Forgotten Man."

Ms. Shlaes points to the period of 1936 and 1937, when the Federal Reserve used New Deal laws to tighten reserve requirements on the nation's banks. The goal was to make the banks stronger, but the result was that banks tightened still further. That cut off credit to the economy at a sensitive period. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than a third between August 1937 and January 1938. Unemployment surged. It was the "depression within the Depression."

It wasn't the revival that FDR had predicted back in 1935, when he boasted: "Never since my inauguration in March 1933, have I felt so unmistakably the atmosphere of recovery."

. . .

"When you're in the expert business, after a while you realize there are no experts," says Richard Sylla, New York University's Henry Kaufman Professor of The History of Financial Institutions and Markets.

The important thing to know, it seems, is how little we know.

For the full commentary, see:

DENNIS K. BERMAN. "THE GAME; Tomorrow's Recession Recovery Is Today's History Lesson." Wall Street Journal (Tues., MARCH 3, 2009): C1.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The reference to the excellent Shlaes book, is:

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

March 22, 2009

"Venturesome" Consumers May Help Save the Day

Bhidé makes thought-provoking comments about the role of the entrepreneurial or "venturesome" consumer in the process of innovation. The point is the mirror image on one made by Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy when he emphasized that consumer resistance to innovation is one of the obstacles that entrepreneurs in earlier periods had to overcome. (The decline of such consumer resistance was one of the reasons that Schumpeter speculated that the entrepreneur might become obsolete.)

I would like to see Bhidé's evidence on his claim that technology rapidly advanced during the Great Depression. The claim seems at odds with Amity Shlaes' claim that New Deal policies often discouraged entrepreneurship.

(p. A15) Consumers get no respect -- we value thrift and deplore the spending that supposedly undermines the investment necessary for our long-run prosperity. In fact, the venturesomeness of consumers has nourished unimaginable advances in our standard of living and created invaluable human capital that is often ignored.

Economists regard the innovations that sustain long-run prosperity as a gift to consumers. Stanford University and Hoover Institution economist Paul Romer wrote in the "Concise Encyclopedia of Economics" in 2007: "In 1985, I paid a thousand dollars per million transistors for memory in my computer. In 2005, I paid less than ten dollars per million, and yet I did nothing to deserve or help pay for this windfall."

In fact, Mr. Romer and innumerable consumers of transistor-based products such as personal computers have played a critical, "venturesome" role in generating their windfalls.

. . .

History suggests that Americans don't shirk from venturesome consumption in hard times. The personal computer took off in the dark days of the early 1980s. I paid more than a fourth of my annual income to buy an IBM XT then -- as did millions of others. Similarly, in spite of the Great Depression, the rapid increase in the use of new technologies made the 1930s a period of exceptional productivity growth. Today, sales of Apple's iPhone continue to expand at double-digit rates. Low-income groups (in the $25,000 to $49,999 income segment) are showing the most rapid growth, with resourceful buyers using the latest models as their primary device for accessing the Internet.

Recessions will come and go, but unless we completely mess things up, we can count on our venturesome consumers to keep prosperity on its long, upward arc.

For the full commentary, see:

Amar Bhidé. "Consumers Can Still Spot Value in a Crisis." Wall Street Journal (Thurs., MARCH 11, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 20, 2009

Pro-Obama Economist Krugman Predicts Higher Taxes on Middle Class

(p. A23) . . . even if fundamental health care reform brings costs under control, I at least find it hard to see how the federal government can meet its long-term obligations without some tax increases on the middle class. Whatever politicians may say now, there's probably a value-added tax in our future.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL KRUGMAN. "Climate of Change." The New York Times (Fri., February 27, 2009): A23.

March 19, 2009

Globalization Helps U.S. During Financial Crisis

ExportsAsShareLocalGDP2006Graph.jpg Source of the graphic: screen capture from the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Much of the world may be struggling with the economic downturn, but life has been getting better in Columbus, Ind., Kingsport, Tenn., and Waterloo, Iowa.

These out-of-the-way places have become trade hot spots as U.S. exports, fueled by the dollar's fall, continue to provide a rare spark in an otherwise gloomy economy.

While many economists expect a recent snapback in the value of the dollar and a spreading global slowdown to soften that growth, exports have become a key to greater local prosperity more than at any time in decades.

. . .

(p. A16) Export-driven growth marks a dramatic shift in an economy that has relied heavily on consumer spending. That has slowed in recent months as Americans, nervous about job losses, teetering banks, falling home values, and rising gasoline and food prices, have tightened spending. Against that background, exports have emerged as a powerful motor.

Over the past year, real-goods exports have risen $115 billion, or 12%, and are up across every major category. They now make up nearly 13.5% of gross domestic product, the highest percentage since World War II. Critics often grumble that the U.S. exports masses of scrap steel and other waste materials to recyclers in China and elsewhere, which is true, but exports of manufactured goods, commodities and services are also growing. Consumer products, from sporting goods to art supplies, have risen 12%, and even autos, which are languishing on showroom floors in the U.S., saw a 4% bump up in exports.

Service exports -- which include media, entertainment, financial services, computer software and foreign tourism in the U.S. -- have grown strongly right along with the larger goods side of the trade ledger. Through the second quarter of 2008, real-service exports are up nearly 10% over the past year.

It's a badly needed tonic for the beleaguered U.S. economy.

For the full story, see:

TIMOTHY AEPPEL. "Exports Bolster Local Economies." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., SEPTEMBER 11, 2008): A1 & A16.

(Note: the title of the article on the web is: "Exports Prop Up Local Economies.")

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 18, 2009

Entrepreneurs Are Key to Ending Economic Crisis

(p. A15) The passage of the $787 billion stimulus bill has so far failed to stimulate anything but greater market pessimism. This suggests to us that the strategy behind the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act is wrong -- and worse, that the weapons it is using to fight the recession are obsolete.

Just as generals are notorious for fighting the last war, Congress and the White House seem intent on fixing an economy of hidebound and obsolete companies and industries, while ignoring the innovative ones rising before us and those waiting to be born.

Missing from this legislation is anything more than token support for the long-proven source of most new jobs and new growth in America: entrepreneurs. These are the people who gave us everything -- from Wal-Mart to iPhones, from microprocessors to Twitter -- that is still strong in our economy. Without entrepreneurs, we will never get out of our current predicament.

For the full commentary, see:

TOM HAYES and MICHAEL S. MALONE. "Entrepreneurs Can Lead Us Out of the Crisis What Are the Odds of a Depression?" Wall Street Journal (Tues., FEBRUARY 24, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 17, 2009

Pay and Profits at Finance Firms Became "Divorced from Actual Economic Activity"

FinanceIndustryPayAndProfitsGraph.jpg Source of graphs: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 3) Nonetheless, a significant portion of the finance boom also seems to have been unrelated to economic performance and thus unsustainable. Benjamin M. Friedman, author of "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," recalled that when he worked at Morgan Stanley in the early 1970s, the firm's annual reports were filled with photographs of factories and other tangible businesses. More recently, Wall Street's annual reports tend to highlight not the businesses that firms were advising so much as finance for the sake of finance, showing upward-sloping graphs and photographs of traders.

"I have the sense that in many of these firms," Mr. Friedman said, "the activity has become further and further divorced from actual economic activity."

Which might serve as a summary of how the current crisis came to pass. Wall Street traders began to believe that the values they had assigned to all sorts of assets were rational because, well, they had assigned them.

For the full story, see:

PETER S. GOODMAN. "Debt Sweat; Printing Money and Its Price." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., December 28, 2008): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Benjamin Friedman's book is:

Friedman, Benjamin M. The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. New York: Knopf, 2005.

March 16, 2009

Barro Estimates 20% Chance of Depression

Robert Barro is a Harvard economist who specializes in issues of macroeconomics and economic growth.

(p. A15) The U.S. macroeconomy has been so tame for so long that it's impossible to get an accurate reading about depression odds just from the U.S. data. My approach uses long-term data for many countries and takes into account the historical linkages between depressions and stock-market crashes. (The research is described in "Stock-Market Crashes and Depressions," a working paper Jose Ursua and I wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research last month.)

The bottom line is that there is ample reason to worry about slipping into a depression. There is a roughly one-in-five chance that U.S. GDP and consumption will fall by 10% or more, something not seen since the early 1930s.

. . .

In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in the U.S., represent a serious threat. The odds are roughly one-in-five that the current recession will snowball into the macroeconomic decline of 10% or more that is the hallmark of a depression.

The bright side of a 20% depression probability is the 80% chance of avoiding a depression. The U.S. had stock-market crashes in 2000-02 (by 42%) and 1973-74 (49%) and, in each case, experienced only mild recessions. Hence, if we are lucky, the current downturn will also be moderate, though likely worse than the other U.S. post-World War II recessions, including 1982.

. . .

Given our situation, it is right that radical government policies should be considered if they promise to lower the probability and likely size of a depression. However, many governmental actions -- including several pursued by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression -- can make things worse.

I wish I could be confident that the array of U.S. policies already in place and those likely forthcoming will be helpful. But I think it more likely that the economy will eventually recover despite these policies, rather than because of them.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. BARRO. "What Are the Odds of a Depression?" Wall Street Journal (Weds., MARCH 4, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Barro's co-authored textbook on economic growth is:

Barro, Robert J., and Xavier Sala-i-Martin. Economic Growth. 2nd ed: The MIT Press, 2003.

March 15, 2009

The Bailouts Are Like Giving Bottles of Scotch to Drunkards

MoneyPrintingPress.jpg Printing press for $20 bills. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) "We got into this mess to a considerable extent by overborrowing," said Martin N. Baily, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Now, we're saying, 'Well, O.K., let's just borrow a bunch more, and that will help us get out of this mess.' It's like a drunk who says, 'Give me a bottle of Scotch, and then I'll be O.K. and I won't have to drink anymore.' Eventually, we have to get off this binge of borrowing."

"This is a dangerous situation," says Mr. Baily, essentially arguing that the drunk must be kept in Scotch a while longer, lest he burn down the neighborhood in the midst of a crisis. "The risks of things actually getting worse and us going into a really severe recession are high. We need to get more money out there now."

. . .

The most frequently voiced worry about the bailouts is that the Fed, by sending so much money sloshing through the system, risks generating a bad case of rising prices later on. That puts the onus on the Fed to reverse course and crimp economic activity by lifting interest rates and selling assets back to banks once growth resumes.

But finding the appropriate point to act tends to be more art than science. The Fed might move too early and send the economy back into a tailspin. It might wait too long and let too much money generate inflation.

"It's a tricky business," says Allan H. Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, and a former economic adviser to President Reagan. "There's no math model that tells us when to do it or how."

For the full story, see:

PETER S. GOODMAN. "Debt Sweat; Printing Money and Its Price." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., December 28, 2008): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 14, 2009

Bailouts Reduce Resources Left for Entrepreneurs

Columbia University Professor Amar Bhidé has authored two important books on entrepreneurship. Some of his thoughts on the current economic crisis follow:

(p. A15) Our ignorance of what causes economic ailments -- and how to treat them -- is profound. Downturns and financial crises are not regular occurrences, and because economies are always evolving, they tend to be idiosyncratic, singular events.

After decades of diligent research, scholars still argue about what caused the Great Depression -- excessive consumption, investment, stock-market speculation and borrowing in the Roaring '20s, Smoot-Hawley protectionism, or excessively tight monetary policy? Nor do we know how we got out of it: Some credit the New Deal while others say that that FDR's policies prolonged the Depression.

. . .

Large increases in public spending usurp precious resources from supporting the innovations necessary for our long-term prosperity. Everyone isn't a pessimist in hard times: The optimism of many entrepreneurs and consumers fueled the takeoff of personal computers during the deep recession of the early 1980s. Amazon has just launched the Kindle 2; its (equally pricey) predecessor sold out last November amid the Wall Street meltdown. But competing with expanded public spending makes it harder for innovations like the personal computer and the Kindle to secure the resources they need.

Hastily enacted programs jeopardize crucial beliefs in the value of productive enterprise. Americans are unusually idealistic and optimistic. We believe that we can all get ahead through innovations because the game isn't stacked in favor of the powerful. This belief encourages the pursuit of initiatives that contribute to the common good rather than the pursuit of favors and rents. It also discourages the politics of envy. We are less prone to begrudge our neighbors' fortune if we think it was fairly earned and that it has not come at our expense -- indeed, that we too have derived some benefit.

To sustain these beliefs, Americans must see their government play the role of an even-handed referee rather than be a dispenser of rewards or even a judge of economic merit or contribution. The panicky response to the financial crisis, where openness and due process have been sacrificed to speed, has unfortunately undermined our faith. Bailing out AIG while letting Lehman fail -- behind closed doors -- has raised suspicions of cronyism. The Fed has refused to reveal to whom it has lent trillions. Outrage at the perceived use of TARP funds to pay bonuses is widespread.

For the full commentary, see:

Amar Bhidé. "Don't Believe the Stimulus Scaremongers." Wall Street Journal (Tues., FEBRUARY 17, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Bhidé's two books on entrepreneurship are:

Bhidé, Amar. The Origin and Evolution of New Business. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Bhidé, Amar. The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

March 13, 2009

Distinguished Macroeconomist Irving Fisher Lost a Lot in the 1929 Crash

Irving Fisher is widely viewed as one of the handful ot top United States economists of the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, he focused on topics that today are considered part of macroeconomics. His not forecasting the economic downturn can be given different interpretations. Some, such as Taleb, would attribute it in part to fundamental uncertainty. Until recently, many economists would have said that Fisher still had a lot to learn, but we are now know more than him.

That may be true, but we still have a lot to learn.

(p. 5) IRRATIONAL exuberance? As the nation entered recession in the summer of 1929, there were still plenty of economists, business leaders and politicians who looked to the future with optimism. And why not? The Dow Jones industrial average was soaring. Then the stock market bubble burst on Oct. 24, which led to several days of panicked selling -- an opening bell for the worldwide economic collapse that soon followed. Here's what some leading politicians, economists and business leaders had to say in the months before and after the crash. Sound familiar?

. . .

Irving Fisher, professor of economics at Yale University, in The New York Times, Sept. 6, 1929. He ended up losing much of his wealth in the crash:

"There may be a recession in stock prices, but not anything in the nature of a crash."

. . .

The Harvard Economic Society, November 1929:

"A severe depression like that of 1920-21 is outside the range of probability. We are not facing protracted liquidation."

For the full story, see:

"Word For Word; I'm Having a Flashback; A Storm Unforeseen, Always About to Pass." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., October 11, 2008): 5.

(Note: no author is listed.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 11, 2009

80% of Officials Base Infrastructure Decisions on Politics


Source of graph: online version of the NYT commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) It's hard to exaggerate how scattershot the current system is. Government agencies usually don't even have to do a rigorous analysis of a project or how it would affect traffic and the environment, relative to its cost and to the alternatives -- before deciding whether to proceed. In one recent survey of local officials, almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics, while fewer than 20 percent cited a project's potential (p. B6) benefits.

There are monuments to the resulting waste all over the country: the little-traveled Bud Shuster Highway in western Pennsylvania; new highways in suburban St. Louis and suburban Maryland that won't alleviate traffic; all the fancy government-subsidized sports stadiums that have replaced perfectly good existing stadiums. These are the Bridges to (Almost) Nowhere that actually got built.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "Economic Scene; Piling Up Monuments of Waste." The New York Times (Weds., November 18, 2008): B1 & B6.

March 9, 2009

"Firms that Made Wrong Decisions Should Fail"


Anna J. Schwartz.

Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A11) Most people now living have never seen a credit crunch like the one we are currently enduring. Ms. Schwartz, 92 years old, is one of the exceptions. She's not only old enough to remember the period from 1929 to 1933, she may know more about monetary history and banking than anyone alive. She co-authored, with Milton Friedman, "A Monetary History of the United States" (1963). It's the definitive account of how misguided monetary policy turned the stock-market crash of 1929 into the Great Depression.

. . .

These are not, Ms. Schwartz argues, the same thing. In fact, by keeping otherwise insolvent banks afloat, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have actually prolonged the crisis. "They should not be recapitalizing firms that should be shut down."

Rather, "firms that made wrong decisions should fail," she says bluntly. "You shouldn't rescue them. And once that's established as a principle, I think the market recognizes that it makes sense. Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich." The trouble is, "that's not the way the world has been going in recent years."

Instead, we've been hearing for most of the past year about "systemic risk" -- the notion that allowing one firm to fail will cause a cascade that will take down otherwise healthy companies in its wake.

Ms. Schwartz doesn't buy it. "It's very easy when you're a market participant," she notes with a smile, "to claim that you shouldn't shut down a firm that's in really bad straits because everybody else who has lent to it will be injured. Well, if they lent to a firm that they knew was pretty rocky, that's their responsibility. And if they have to be denied repayment of their loans, well, they wished it on themselves. The [government] doesn't have to save them, just as it didn't save the stockholders and the employees of Bear Stearns. Why should they be worried about the creditors? Creditors are no more worthy of being rescued than ordinary people, who are really innocent of what's been going on."

For the full story, see:

BRIAN M. CARNEY. "OPINION: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Anna Schwartz; Bernanke Is Fighting the Last War." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., OCTOBER 18, 2008): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 8, 2009

FDR's Treasury Secretary Morgenthau Concluded that Big Spending Stimulus "Does Not Work"


Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

Source of portrait:,_Jr.

Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was FDR's Secretary of the Treasury from 1934-1945. In the following important quote, he admits that the big New Deal stimulus spending programs had failed.

(p. 2) We have tried spending money. We are spending more money than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just none interest, and if I am wrong . . . somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job, I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. . . . I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . . And an enormous debt to boot!


Folsom, Burton W., Jr. In New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America. 4th ed. New York: Threshold Editions, 2008.

(Note: ellipses in Folsum's version of the quotation.)

Folsum says that this statement was from testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in May 1939; and can be found in Morgenthau's Diary entry for May 9, 1939 at the Roosevelt Presidential Library.


Source of book image:

March 7, 2009

Bailouts Damage "System Based on the Premise that Risk Can Bring Failure, as Well as Rewards"

CapitalismCommunismCartoon.jpg Source of the cartoon: online version of the WSJ quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) William O. Perkins III says he turned a $1.25 million profit trading Goldman Sachs Group Inc. stock last week.

You would think that would count as a pretty good paycheck for the Houston energy trader. Instead, the experience left him so angry about the demise of capitalism that he says he has decided to spend his profits on advertisements attacking President George W. Bush's planned $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

. . .

So he says he bought Goldman Sachs at $129 a share. The stock fell, so he bought more at $100 a share. It fell again, and he bought at $90. The next day it rallied and he sold out at an average price of $130 a share, for a net gain of about $1.25 million over three days of trading, he said.

Trouble was, the stock didn't rally because of the fundamental strength of the company, Mr. Perkins said. It rallied because the federal government announced that it would rescue Wall Street from its own subprime follies, he said.

"The stock did OK because the government came in and said, 'No one can fail,'" he said. "It's capitalism on the way up and communism on the way down."

His success left him furious, and he decided that someone had to speak out about the damage such a plan would cause to a system based on the premise that risk can bring failure, as well as rewards.

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS. "Trader Makes a Quick $1.25 Million on Rescue, Then Slams It." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 24, 2008): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 6, 2009

Rajan Foresaw Risks of Financial Disaster


"Raghuram Rajan, shown at 2005 symposium, warned of rising risks." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

I praised Rajan's analysis in a blog entry back in January 2008. Rajan deserves credit for seeing the situation earlier and more clearly than most other experts:

(p. A7) To outline his fears about the U.S. economy, Raghuram Rajan picked a tough crowd.

It was August 2005, at an annual gathering of high-powered economists at Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- and that year they were honoring Alan Greenspan. Mr. Greenspan, a giant of 20th-century economic policy, was about to retire as Federal Reserve chairman after presiding over a historic period of economic growth.

Mr. Rajan, a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate School of Business, chose that moment to deliver a paper called "Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?"

. . .

He says he had planned to write about how financial developments during Mr. Greenspan's 18-year tenure made the world safer. But the more he looked, the less he believed that. In the end, with Mr. Greenspan watching from the audience, he argued that disaster might loom.

Incentives were horribly skewed in the financial sector, with workers reaping rich rewards for making money, but being only lightly penalized for losses, Mr. Rajan argued. That encouraged financial firms to invest in complex products with potentially big payoffs, which could on occasion fail spectacularly.

. . .

Mr. Rajan is now focused on coming up with ways to avoid a regulatory backlash akin to what happened during the Great Depression, when governments around the world threw up protectionist barriers and clamped down on financial markets.

Instead of heavy regulation, he says, the incentives of Wall Streeters need to change so that punishments for losing money are in line with rewards for earning it.

At the start of 2008, he suggested that bonuses that financial workers make during boom times should be kept in escrow accounts for a period of time. If the firm experienced big losses later, those accounts would be drained.

Facing withering criticism over the bonuses paid out in the boom, financial giant UBS and Wall Street firm Morgan Stanley have recently announced they're adopting policies along the lines of what Mr. Rajan proposed.

Mr. Rajan also urges other safeguards. Along with Chicago colleagues Anil Kashyap and Harvard economist Jeremy Stein, he's come up with a plan to create a form of financial-catastrophe insurance that firms would buy into.

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN LAHART. "Mr. Rajan Was Unpopular (But Prescient) at Greenspan Party." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JANUARY 2, 2009): A7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 5, 2009

Japan's Stimulus Package Stimulated Debt, but Not Recovery


Source of graphs: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan's Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations.

In the United States, it has also led to calls in Congress, particularly by Republicans, not to repeat the errors of Japan's failed economic stimulus. They argue that it makes more sense to cut taxes, and let people decide how to spend their own money, than for the government to decide how to invest public funds. Japan put more emphasis on increased spending than tax cuts during its slump, but ultimately did reduce consumption taxes to encourage consumer spending as well.

For the full story, see:

MARTIN FACKLER. "Japan's Big-Works Stimulus Is Lesson." The New York Times (Fri., February 5, 2009): A1 & A10.

MarineBridgeHamadaJapan.JPG "The soaring Marine Bridge in Hamada, Japan, built as a public works project, was almost devoid of traffic on a recent morning." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

March 3, 2009

"This is a Crisis of Excessive Debt"


Source of book image:

Niall Ferguson has a recent book on money that has received a great deal of attention (but that I have not yet seen). Here are some of his views, as expressed at the 2009 World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland:

(p. B4) "Even before Obama walked through the White House door, there were plans for $1 trillion of new debt," said Niall Ferguson, a Harvard historian who has studied borrowing and its impact on national power. He now estimates that some $2.2 trillion in new government debt will be issued this year, assuming the stimulus plan is approved.

"You either crowd out other borrowers or you print money," Mr. Ferguson added. "There is no way you can have $2.2 trillion in borrowing without influencing interest rates or inflation in the long-term."

Mr. Ferguson was particularly struck by the new borrowing because the roots of the current crisis lay in an excess of American debt at all levels, from homeowners to Wall Street banks.

"This is a crisis of excessive debt, which reached 355 percent of American gross domestic product," he said. "It cannot be solved with more debt."

While Mr. Ferguson is a skeptic of the Keynesian thinking behind President Obama's plan -- rather than borrowing and spending to stimulate the economy, he favors corporate tax cuts -- even supporters of the plan like Mr. Zedillo and Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley have called on the White House to quickly address how it will pay for the spending in the long-term.

For the full story, see:

NELSON D. SCHWARTZ. "Global Worries Over U.S. Stimulus Spending." The New York Times (Fri., January 29, 2009): B1 & B4.

The latest Ferguson book, is:

Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

March 2, 2009

Japan's Huge Stimulus Spending Led to Economic Stagnation

(p. A2) Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a young and economically astute Republican leader, has numerous problems with the economic-stimulus package working its way through Congress, but essentially they boil down to this: He fears the U.S. is repeating the mistakes Japan made trying to get out of its own economic ditch in the 1990s.

The Ryan critique is important in part because it's popping up with increasing frequency among congressional Republicans.

. . .

Here's the critique in a nutshell: Japan in the early 1990s, like the U.S. today, saw a real-estate bubble burst, spawning a banking and credit crisis that drove the whole economy down, hard. The Japanese then tried stimulating the economy with giant doses of government spending, which didn't pep things up -- but did bring on deficits that required tax increases later, dragging out Japan's problems for years.

For the full commentary, see:

GERALD F. SEIB. "CAPITAL JOURNAL; Avoiding Japan's Stimulus Miscues." Wall Street Journal (Tues., FEBRUARY 2, 2009): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 1, 2009

The Ad Hoc Growth of the Regulatory Snarl

RegulatorySnarlGraphic.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 9) Who's to blame for the implosion of financial markets? The finger-pointing has gone in every direction, and it's easy to see why: the regulatory structure points in every direction.

The apparatus that oversees the nation's financial system is an ad hoc creation: every time there is a fiscal panic, new agencies are formed and existing ones receive new responsibilities.

For the full comment, see:

HANNAH FAIRFIELD. "Metrics; A Snarl of Regulation." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 4, 2008): 9.

February 28, 2009

Financial Crisis Is "A Coming-Out Party" for Taleb and Behavioral Economists

(p. A23) My sense is that this financial crisis is going to amount to a coming-out party for behavioral economists and others who are bringing sophisticated psychology to the realm of public policy. At least these folks have plausible explanations for why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been deeply influenced by this stream of research. Taleb not only has an explanation for what's happening, he saw it coming. His popular books "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan" were broadsides at the risk-management models used in the financial world and beyond.

In "The Black Swan," Taleb wrote, "The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup." Globalization, he noted, "creates interlocking fragility." He warned that while the growth of giant banks gives the appearance of stability, in reality, it raises the risk of a systemic collapse -- "when one fails, they all fail."

Taleb believes that our brains evolved to suit a world much simpler than the one we now face. His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we've actually benefited from dumb luck.

And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other's risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Taleb is characteristically vituperative about the quantitative risk models, which try to model something that defies modelization. He subscribes to what he calls the tragic vision of humankind, which "believes in the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act and requires an acknowledgement of this fact as a basis for any individual and collective action." If recent events don't underline this worldview, nothing will.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID BROOKS. "The Behavioral Revolution." The New York Times (Tues., October 28, 2008): A31.

The reference to Taleb's Black Swan book is:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

Another review of Taleb's book is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Review of: Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan." Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 419-422.

February 26, 2009

Stimulus Statement to President Obama that I Signed

StimulusCatoAd.gif Source of image of stimulus statement:

My name appeared on the list of economists supporting an open statement addressed to President Obama questioning the wisdom of the huge government spending package recently passed by Congress. The statement was published in full-page ads paid for by the Cato Institute that ran on p. A11 of the Weds., Jan. 28, 2009 New York Times and on p. A14 of the Mon., Feb. 9, 2009 Wall Street Journal.

You can download a PDF of the statement, along with the initial list of signatories, at:

February 25, 2009

Government Monetary Excess Caused Financial Crisis


Source of the book image:

Stanford economics professor John Taylor's book Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged and Worsened the Financial Crisis is scheduled to be published in late February 2009.

(p. A19) Many are calling for a 9/11-type commission to investigate the financial crisis. Any such investigation should not rule out government itself as a major culprit. My research shows that government actions and interventions -- not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy -- caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis.

The classic explanation of financial crises is that they are caused by excesses -- frequently monetary excesses -- which lead to a boom and an inevitable bust. This crisis was no different: A housing boom followed by a bust led to defaults, the implosion of mortgages and mortgage-related securities at financial institutions, and resulting financial turmoil.

Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom.

. . .

The realization by the public that the government's intervention plan had not been fully thought through, and the official story that the economy was tanking, likely led to the panic seen in the next few weeks. And this was likely amplified by the ad hoc decisions to support some financial institutions and not others and unclear, seemingly fear-based explanations of programs to address the crisis. What was the rationale for intervening with Bear Stearns, then not with Lehman, and then again with AIG? What would guide the operations of the TARP?

It did not have to be this way. To prevent misguided actions in the future, it is urgent that we return to sound principles of monetary policy, basing government interventions on clearly stated diagnoses and predictable frameworks for government actions.

Massive responses with little explanation will probably make things worse. That is the lesson from this crisis so far.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN B. TAYLOR. "How Government Created the Financial Crisis." Wall Street Journal (Tues., February 9, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

February 24, 2009

Mankiw Warns that Economic Forecasting Would Not Be Able to Give Much Advance Warning of a Depression

(p. 1) According to the economic historian Christina D. Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the great volatility of stock prices at the time also increased consumers' feelings of uncertainty, inducing them to put off purchases until the uncertainty was resolved. Spending on con-(p. 6)sumer durable goods like autos dropped precipitously in 1930.

. . .

Less successful were various market interventions. According to a study by the economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, both of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, President Roosevelt made things worse when he encouraged the formation of cartels through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Similarly, they argue, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 strengthened organized labor but weakened the recovery by impeding market forces.

. . .

What's next? Perhaps the most troubling study of the 1930s economy was written in 1988 by the economists Kathryn Dominguez, Ray Fair and Matthew Shapiro; it was called "Forecasting the Depression: Harvard Versus Yale." (Mr. Fair is an economics professor at Yale; Ms. Dominguez and Mr. Shapiro are at the University of Michigan.)

The three researchers show that the leading economists at the time, at competing forecasting services run by Harvard and Yale, were caught completely by surprise by the severity and length of the Great Depression. What's worse, despite many advances in the tools of economic analysis, modern economists armed with the data from the time would not have forecast much better. In other words, even if another Depression were around the corner, you shouldn't expect much advance warning from the economics profession.

For the full story, see:

N. GREGORY MANKIW. "Economic View; But Have We Learned Enough?" The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., October 26, 2008): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

February 22, 2009

The Future Is "a Whirlpool of Uncertainty"

(p. B1) Nearly all of us try forecasting the market as if each of the past returns of every year in history had been written on a separate slip of paper and tossed into a hat. Before we reach into the hat, we imagine which return we are most likely to pluck out. Because the long-term average annual gain is about 10%, we "anchor" on that number, then adjust it up or down a bit for our own bullishness or bearishness.

But the future isn't a hat full of little shredded pieces of the past. It is, instead, a whirlpool of uncertainty populated by what the trader and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls "black swans" -- events that are hugely important, rare and unpredictable, and explicable only after the fact.

For the full commentary, see:

JASON ZWEIG. "THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR; Why Market Forecasts Keep Missing the Mark." Wall Street Journal (Mon., January 24, 2009): B1.

The reference for Taleb's book, is:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

A brief, idiosyncratic review of Taleb's book, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Review of: Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan." Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 419-422.

February 21, 2009

Democratic 1997 Tax Break Fed Housing Bubble


Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) "Tonight, I propose a new tax cut for homeownership that says to every middle-income working family in this country, if you sell your home, you will not have to pay a capital gains tax on it ever -- not ever."

-- President Bill Clinton, at the 1996 Democratic National Convention

Ryan J. Wampler had never made much money selling his own homes.

Starting in 1999, however, he began to do very well. Three times in eight years, Mr. Wampler -- himself a home builder and developer -- sold his home in the Phoenix area, always for a nice profit. With prices in Phoenix soaring, he made almost $700,000 on the three sales.

And thanks to a tax break proposed by President Bill Clinton and approved by Congress in 1997, he did not have to pay tax on most of that profit. It was a break that had not been available to generations of Americans before him. The benefits also did not apply to other investments, be they stocks, bonds or stakes in a small business. Those gains were all taxed at rates of up to 20 percent.

The different tax treatments gave people a new incentive to plow ever more money into real estate, and they did so. "When you give that big an incentive for people to buy and sell homes," said Mr. Wampler, 44, a mild-mannered native of Phoenix who has two children, "they are going to buy and sell homes."

By itself, the change in the tax law did not cause the housing bubble, economists say. Several other factors -- a relaxation of lending standards, a failure by regulators to intervene, a sharp decline in interest rates and a collective belief that house prices could never fall -- probably played larger roles.

But many economists say that (p. A22) the law had a noticeable impact, allowing home sales to become tax-free windfalls. A recent study of the provision by an economist at the Federal Reserve suggests that the number of homes sold was almost 17 percent higher over the last decade than it would have been without the law.

Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and economics professor at George Mason University, has said the tax law change was responsible for "fueling the mother of all housing bubbles."

For the full story, see:

VIKAS BAJAJ and DAVID LEONHARDT. "1997 Tax Break on Home Sales May Have Helped Inflate Bubble." The New York Times (Fri., December 19, 2008): A1 & A22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 18, and has the somewhat different title: "The Reckoning; Tax Break May Have Helped Cause Housing Bubble.")

WamplerRyan.jpg "Ryan J. Wampler made nearly $700,000 on three sales of his own homes in eight years." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 20, 2009

Stimulus Bill Causes "Burden from Higher Taxes Down the Road"

In the op-ed piece quoted below, Nobel-prize winner Gary Becker, along with Kevin Murphy, express reservations about the recently-passed stimulus bill, although they apparently do not go quite as far as Harvard economist Robert Barro, who believes the multiplier may be close to zero (which would imply no stimulus from the stimulus bill).

Although Becker and Murphy believe that there will be some stimulus, they emphasize that the costs will be substantial:

(p. A17) The increased federal debt caused by this stimulus package has to be paid for eventually by higher taxes on households and businesses. Higher income and business taxes generally discourage effort and investments, and result in a larger social burden than the actual level of the tax revenue needed to finance the greater debt. The burden from higher taxes down the road has to be deducted both from any short-term stimulus provided by the spending program, and from its long-run effects on the economy.

For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER and KEVIN M. MURPHY. "There's No Stimulus Free Lunch." Wall Street Journal (Tues., February 10, 2009): A17.

February 18, 2009

Harvard Economist Barro Calls Stimulus Bill "Garbage"

(p. A17) Harvard economist Robert Barro being interviewed on the stimulus bill by the Atlantic:

Barro: This is probably the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s. I don't know what to say. I mean it's wasting a tremendous amount of money. It has some simplistic theory that I don't think will work, so I don't think the expenditure stuff is going to have the intended effect. I don't think it will expand the economy. And the tax cutting isn't really geared toward incentives. It's not really geared to lowering tax rates; it's more along the lines of throwing money at people. On both sides I think it's garbage. So in terms of balance between the two it doesn't really matter that much.

For the full excerpt of the Atlantic interview with Barro, see:

Robert Barro. "Notable & Quotable." Wall Street Journal (Tues., February 10, 2009): A17.

(Note: italics in original.)

February 16, 2009

Ending Capital-Gains Tax Would Encourage Funding for Entrepreneurial Ventures

(p. A15) In virtually all economics classes, including those taught by the many excellent economists on the Obama team, the idea of government spending as an engine for growth is not a popular topic. Yet despite their skepticism of Keynesianism in the classroom, when it comes to public policy, these economists happily endorse a large stimulus package that could bring our deficit to 10% of GDP. Why?

One explanation is that these economists think this recession is an extraordinary one.

. . .

But this particular recession is unique not in its dimensions, but in its sources. First, it is the result of a financial crisis that severely affected stock-market valuations. The bad equilibrium did not originate in the labor market, but in the credit market, where investors are reluctant to lend to risky firms. This reluctance is making it difficult for these firms to refinance their debt, forcing them to default on their credit, further validating investors' fear. Thus, the problem is how to increase investors' willingness to take risk. It's unclear how the proposed stimulus package would help inspire investors to do so.

. . .

So how do we stimulate the economy without increasing the already large current-account deficit? It's not easy, but here is an idea: Create the incentive for people to take more risk and move their savings from government bonds to risky assets. There is no better way to encourage this than a temporary elimination of the capital-gains tax for all the investments begun during 2009 and held for at least two years


For the full commentary, see:

ALBERTO ALESINA and LUIGI ZINGALES. "Let's Stimulate Private Risk Taking." Wall Street Journal (Weds., JANUARY 21, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

February 14, 2009

Stimulus Bill is "Big, Messy, Largely Off-Point and Philosophically Chaotic"

(p. A11) The final bill was privately agreed by most and publicly conceded by many to be a big, messy, largely off-point and philosophically chaotic piece of legislation. The Congressional Budget Office says only 25% of the money will even go out in the first year. This newspaper, in its analysis, argues that only 12 cents of every dollar is for something that could plausibly be called stimulus.

What was needed? Not pork, not payoffs, not eccentric base-pleasing, group-greasing forays into birth control as stimulus, . . .

. . .

I think there is an illness called Goldmansachs Head. . . . When you have Goldmansachs Head, the party's never over. You take private planes to ask for bailout money, you entertain customers at high-end spas while your writers prep your testimony, you take and give huge bonuses as the company tanks. When you take the kids camping, you bring a private chef. Goldmansachs Head is Bernie Madoff complaining he's feeling cooped up in the penthouse. It is the delusion that the old days continue and the old ways prevail and you, Prince of the Abundance, can just keep rolling along. Here is how you know if someone has GSH: He has everything but a watch. He doesn't know what time it is.

. . .

But you don't have to be on Wall Street to have GSH. Congress has it too. That's what the stimulus bill was about--not knowing what time it is, not knowing the old pork-barrel, group-greasing ways are over, done, embarrassing. When you create a bill like that, it doesn't mean you're a pro, it doesn't mean you're a tough, no-nonsense pol. It means you're a slob.

That's how the Democratic establishment in the House looks, not like people who are responding to a crisis, or even like people who are ignoring a crisis, but people who are using a crisis.

For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "OPINION; DECLARATIONS; Look at the Time." Wall Street Journal (Sat., JANUARY 30, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

February 8, 2009

A Toast to Schumpeter on His Birthday (February 8, 1883)


Source: scan (and crop) of the cover of the May 23, 1983 issue of Forbes .

In the May 23, 1983 issue of Forbes there appeared a now-famous essay by the late and great management guru Peter Drucker in which he pointed out that 1983 was the centennial of the birth of both John Maynard Keynes and Joseph A. Schumpeter. He noted that in the decades since the great economists' passing, the academic and policy worlds worshiped at the feet of Keynes, and all but ignored Schumpeter (hence the many candles in front of the Keynes portrait on the cover, and the single, small candle in front of the Schumpeter portrait).

But Drucker argued that the world had gotten it wrong. Schumpeter was more important because he had understood a crucial truth: the process of creative destruction is indeed the essential fact about capitalism.

The reference for the original Drucker essay is:

Drucker, Peter F. "Modern Prophets: Schumpeter or Keynes?" Forbes, May 23, 1983, 124-28.

The reference to the reprint of the Drucker essay is:

Drucker, Peter F. "Modern Prophets: Schumpeter or Keynes?" In The Frontiers of Management New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1999, 104-15.

A typo-laden version of the essay has been posted on the web at:

(Note: I thank Aaron Brown for alerting me to the neat cover that appears at the top of this entry).

February 6, 2009

Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Consumers Will Delay Decisions If Government Policies Are Uncertain

(p. A15) . . . , the new administration needs to be clearer on its long-run goals and policies. Mr. Obama deserves time to lay out his longer-term agenda, but he must reassure those who would put capital at risk that we are not headed toward a European-style social welfare state. Will he push for financial reform with better intelligence, the centerpiece being that any firm that is or could quickly become too big to fail must be subject to real-time capital adequacy and risk disclosure and monitoring? Or will he just push for more punitive regulation?

Mr. Obama has pledged to go through the budget and shut down ineffective programs, but how much shorter is his list than mine or yours? Is he capable of a "Nixon goes to China" on Social Security, as President Bill Clinton once hoped to do? Or will he push for tax reform and simplification with a broader base and lower rates?

One thing is certain: Investors, workers and employers need to have a sense of where tax, spending and regulatory policy are headed, or they will postpone decisions and further weaken the economy.

For the full commentary, see:

MICHAEL BOSKIN. "OPINION; Investors Want Clarity Before They Take Risks." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JANUARY 23, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

January 31, 2009

Car Bailout Destroys Dynamism of Process of Creative Destruction

(p. A29) Not so long ago, corporate giants with names like PanAm, ITT and Montgomery Ward roamed the earth. They faded and were replaced by new companies with names like Microsoft, Southwest Airlines and Target. The U.S. became famous for this pattern of decay and new growth. Over time, American government built a bigger safety net so workers could survive the vicissitudes of this creative destruction -- with unemployment insurance and soon, one hopes, health care security. But the government has generally not interfered in the dynamic process itself, which is the source of the country's prosperity.

But this, apparently, is about to change. Democrats from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi want to grant immortality to General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. They have decided to follow an earlier $25 billion loan with a $50 billion bailout, which would inevitably be followed by more billions later, because if these companies are not permitted to go bankrupt now, they never will be.

This is a different sort of endeavor than the $750 billion bailout of Wall Street. That money was used to save the financial system itself. It was used to save the capital markets on which the process of creative destruction depends.

Granting immortality to Detroit's Big Three does not enhance creative destruction. It retards it. . . .

. . .

But the larger principle is over the nature of America's political system. Is this country going to slide into progressive corporatism, a merger of corporate and federal power that will inevitably stifle competition, empower corporate and federal bureaucrats and protect entrenched interests? Or is the U.S. going to stick with its historic model: Helping workers weather the storms of a dynamic economy, but preserving the dynamism that is the core of the country's success.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID BROOKS. "Bailout to Nowhere." The New York Times (Fri., November 18, 2008): A29.

(Note: ellipses added.)

January 30, 2009

"Atlas Shrugged is a Celebration of the Entrepreneur"


"The art for a 1999 postage stamp." Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. W11) Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that "Atlas Shrugged" parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.

Rand, who had come to America from Soviet Russia with striking insights into totalitarianism and the destructiveness of socialism, was already a celebrity. The left, naturally, hated her. But as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated "Atlas" as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible.

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises -- that in most cases they themselves created -- by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.

. . .

Ultimately, "Atlas Shrugged" is a celebration of the entrepreneur, the risk taker and the cultivator of wealth through human intellect. Critics dismissed the novel as simple-minded, and even some of Rand's political admirers complained that she lacked compassion. Yet one pertinent warning resounds throughout the book: When profits and wealth and creativity are denigrated in society, they start to disappear -- leaving everyone the poorer.

For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN MOORE. "DE GUSTIBUS; 'Atlas Shrugged': From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years." Wall Street Journal (Fri., JANUARY 9, 2009): W11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

January 29, 2009

Multiplier: Is it 1.5 as Team Obama Hopes; or Zero, as Barro Estimates?

(p. A17) Now we have the extreme demand-side view that the so-called "multiplier" effect of government spending on economic output is greater than one -- Team Obama is reportedly using a number around 1.5.

To think about what this means, first assume that the multiplier was 1.0. In this case, an increase by one unit in government purchases and, thereby, in the aggregate demand for goods would lead to an increase by one unit in real gross domestic product (GDP). Thus, the added public goods are essentially free to society. If the government buys another airplane or bridge, the economy's total output expands by enough to create the airplane or bridge without requiring a cut in anyone's consumption or investment.

The explanation for this magic is that idle resources -- unemployed labor and capital -- are put to work to produce the added goods and services.

. . .

What's the flaw? The theory (a simple Keynesian macroeconomic model) implicitly assumes that the government is better than the private market at marshaling idle resources to produce useful stuff. Unemployed labor and capital can be utilized at essentially zero social cost, but the private market is somehow unable to figure any of this out. In other words, there is something wrong with the price system.

John Maynard Keynes thought that the problem lay with wages and prices that were stuck at excessive levels. But this problem could be readily fixed by expansionary monetary policy, enough of which will mean that wages and prices do not have to fall. So, something deeper must be involved -- but economists have not come up with explanations, such as incomplete information, for multipliers above one.

. . .

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. In any event, when I attempted to estimate directly the multiplier associated with peacetime government purchases, I got a number insignificantly different from zero.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. BARRO. "Government Spending Is No Free Lunch." Wall Street Journal (Thurs, JANUARY 22, 2009): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

January 27, 2009

Bernanke Praised FDR's "Willingness to Be Aggressive and to Experiment"

Bernanke apparently endorsed FDR's policy volatility. To the contrary, Amity Shlaes has persuasively argued that the policy volatility increased uncertainty, and discouraged entrepreneurial ventures, thereby lengthening and deepening the Great Depression.

Bernanke taking FDR as a mentor, is deeply disturbing. (And I regret an earlier entry in which I placed trust in Bernanke's judgment.)

(p. A2) While Ben Bernanke was teaching economics at Princeton University in late 1999, he admonished officials in Japan for doing too little to get their country out of its economic funk. Their model, he said, should be Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Roosevelt's specific actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment -- in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again," Mr. Bernanke said in a paper on Japan's paralysis.

Nearly a decade later, Mr. Bernanke, now the Federal Reserve chairman, is trying to follow his own advice.

. . .

Mr. Bernanke's choices could damage several objectives that the Fed holds sacrosanct. Low interest rates and an exploding balance sheet could some day cause inflation. With so much slack in the economy and commodities prices tumbling, that looks like a far-fetched risk today. But the Fed's novel new lending programs could be difficult to unwind quickly if the economy turns around unexpectedly, potentially leaving the financial system with more stimulus than it needs -- along with inflation.

Mr. Reinhart notes that Mr. Bernanke's approach also could open the Fed to political intrusion, something central bankers have fought for decades to avoid.

The recent debate about an auto-industry bailout was one example of the risk. Earlier this month, Sen. Christopher Dodd wrote to Mr. Bernanke asking if the central bank could help Detroit. Mr. Bernanke politely responded that he wanted to stay out of industrial policy. But after Senate action failed, the Connecticut Democrat raised the prospect of Fed involvement again at a news conference Friday.

"When the Federal Reserve is involved in more markets, more instruments and is seen to have an unlimited balance sheet and flexibility to use that balance sheet, it will be subject to political pressure," Mr. Reinhart said.

. . .

Then there's the biggest risk of all: the economy might not turn around. History was kind to Mr. Roosevelt because the economy got moving again on his watch, though of course it didn't really turn around until the U.S. became enmeshed in a world war. Mr. Bernanke will be a hero if the economy rebounds. But if it doesn't, the judgment is certain to be much tougher.

For the full commentary, see:

JON HILSENRATH. "THE OUTLOOK; Bernanke's Fed, Echoing FDR, Pursues Ideas and Action." Wall Street Journal (Mon., DECEMBER 15, 2008): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Amity Shlaes' wonderful book, is:

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

January 24, 2009

Capitalism's Defenseless Fortress

FortressDefended.JPGPhotograph by Art Diamond.

(p. 143) . . . capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.

The bourgeois fortress thus becomes politically defenseless. Defenseless fortresses invite aggression especially if there is rich booty in them. Aggressors will work themselves up into a state of rationalizing hostility---aggressors always do.


Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

FortressDefenseless.JPGPhotograph by Art Diamond.

January 23, 2009

Confidence in Market Is Undermined by Economist-Backed Interventions

(p. A17) This year will be remembered not just for one of the worst financial crises in American history, but also as the moment when economists abandoned their principles. There used to be a consensus that selective intervention in the economy was bad. In the last 12 months this belief has been shattered.

Practically every day the government launches a massively expensive new initiative to solve the problems that the last day's initiative did not. It is hard to discern any principles behind these actions. The lack of a coherent strategy has increased uncertainty and undermined the public's perception of the government's competence and trustworthiness.

The Obama administration, with its highly able team of economists, has a golden opportunity to put the country on a better path. We believe that the way forward is for the government to adopt two key principles. The first is that it should intervene only when there is a clearly identified market failure. The second is that government intervention should be carried out at minimum cost to taxpayers.

For the full commentary, see:

OLIVER HART and LUIGI ZINGALES. "Economists Have Abandoned Principle." Wall Street Journal (Weds., DECEMBER 3, 2008): A17.

January 22, 2009

"I Want Some TARP" Satirical Video Clip

TARP.jpg Screen capture from the link cited below.

Today (Weds., 1/21/09) on CNBC, I caught a snippet of a replay of Bill Zucker's musical video parody of the government's TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) bailout. It was funny, and mainly on-target.

You can view it on YouTube, at:

January 21, 2009

"In Spite of the Economic Crisis and Unemployment . . . Civilization's Progress is Going Faster and Faster"

The Palace of Discovery mentioned in the passage below was a part of the 1937 Paris Exposition.

(p. 206) The mastermind behind the Palace of Discovery, French Nobel Prize laureate Jean Perrin, wrote, "In spite of the wars and the revolutions, in spite of the economic crisis and unemployment, through our worries and anxieties, but also through our hopes, civilization's progress is going faster and faster, thanks to ever-more flexible and efficient techniques, to farther- and farther-reaching lengths. . . . Almost all of them have appeared in less than a century, and have developed or applied inventions now known by all, which seem to have fulfilled or even passed the desires expressed in our old fairy tales."


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis in the title is added; ellipsis in the quoted passage is in the original.)

January 19, 2009

Uncertainty About Government Actions Slows Recovery

In the commentary quoted below, Tyler Cowen makes the important point that recovery from the current economic crisis is being slowed by uncertainty about what the government will do next. While the uncertainty lasts, consumers will consume less, and investors will invest less.

Amity Shlaes has made a similar point about the Great Depression. Uncertainty about what policies FDR would try next, kept investors from risking their money in new entrepreneurial ventures.

(p. 5) The financial crisis is a result of many bad decisions, but one of them hasn't received enough attention: the 1998 bailout of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund. If regulators had been less concerned with protecting the fund's creditors, our current problems might not be quite so bad.

. . .

. . .    Today, . . . , that ad hoc intervention by the government no longer looks so wise. With the Long-Term Capital bailout as a precedent, creditors came to believe that their loans to unsound financial institutions would be made good by the Fed -- as long as the collapse of those institutions would threaten the global credit system. Bolstered by this sense of security, bad loans mushroomed.

. . .

While there are some advantages to leaving discretion in regulators' hands, this hasn't worked out very well. It has become increasingly apparent that the market doesn't know what to expect and that many financial institutions are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see what regulators will do next. Regulatory uncertainty is stifling the ability of financial markets to engineer at least a partial recovery.

For the full commentary, see:

TYLER COWEN. "Economic View; Bailout of Long-Term Capital: A Bad Precedent?" The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., December 26, 2008): 5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

For the Amity Shlaes book mentioned above, see:

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

January 14, 2009

Only Permanent Tax Cuts Provide Effective Stimulus


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) The incoming Obama administration and congressional Democrats are now considering a second fiscal stimulus package, estimated at more than $500 billion, to follow the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. As they do, much can be learned by examining the first.

The major part of the first stimulus package was the $115 billion, temporary rebate payment program targeted to individuals and families that phased out as incomes rose. Most of the rebate checks were mailed or directly deposited during May, June and July.

The argument in favor of these temporary rebate payments was that they would increase consumption, stimulate aggregate demand, and thereby get the economy growing again. What were the results? The chart nearby reveals the answer.

The upper line shows disposable personal income through September. Disposable personal income is what households have left after paying taxes and receiving transfers from the government. The big blip is due to the rebate payments in May through July.

The lower line shows personal consumption expenditures by households. Observe that consumption shows no noticeable increase at the time of the rebate. Hence, by this simple measure, the rebate did little or nothing to stimulate consumption, overall aggregate demand, or the economy.

These results may seem surprising, but they are not. They correspond very closely to what basic economic theory tells us. According to the permanent-income theory of Milton Friedman, or the life-cycle theory of Franco Modigliani, temporary increases in income will not lead to significant increases in consumption. However, if increases are longer-term, as in the case of permanent tax cut, then consumption is increased, and by a significant amount.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN B. TAYLOR. "Why Permanent Tax Cuts Are the Best Stimulus." Wall Street Journal (Tues., NOVEMBER 25, 2008): A15.

January 11, 2009

Gains in Productivity Due to "Bipartisan Removal of Regulations that Stifle Competition and Innovation"

In the Clinton administration, Martin Neil Baily was the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. He is one of those Democratic economists, along with Brad DeLong and Larry Summers, who appreciates the importance of innovation through the process of creative destruction, in making our lives better.

(p. A15) The economic attention of U.S. government and business leaders is fixed squarely on the downturn and financial crisis. Whether or not bailouts are proper short-term medicine, economists agree that the long-run solution for restoring economic growth lies in raising productivity.

The single best measure of a country's average standard of living is productivity: the value of output of goods and services a country produces per worker. The more workers produce, the more income they receive, and the more they can consume. Higher productivity results in higher standards of living.

So how has U.S. productivity grown recently? Unfortunately, very slowly. After averaging 2.7% productivity growth from 1995 through 2002, annual growth of productivity in the nonfarming business sector has slowed dramatically -- to just 1.7% in 2005, 1.0% in 2006, and 1.4% in 2007. At this new average rate of under 1.4%, it would take nearly 52 years for average U.S. living standards to double -- versus just 26 years at the earlier average. Signs of this slowdown are apparent, particularly in the waning competitiveness of U.S. sectors like automobiles, financial services and information technology.

On Monday, we are issuing a new report that details a set of policies the government could implement to boost U.S. productivity growth. Time is of the essence in addressing this challenge because the economy-wide impacts of structural policies tend to appear only gradually, in part because of many-year corporate planning horizons. It is also because faster productivity growth will ease the burden of massive U.S. fiscal deficits now projected for the coming years.

A central theme of this report is the critical role that competitive product markets play in spurring productivity growth and boosting standards of living. One of the great U.S. policy successes of recent decades has been the bipartisan removal of regulations that stifle competition and innovation in product markets. U.S. industries that face strong competitive intensity are more productive than highly regulated or otherwise sheltered industries. This competition, in turn, yields higher incomes and greater choices for consumers.

Maintaining the productivity benefits of product market competition requires sound choices in areas including trade and investment, regulation and infrastructure.

For the full commentary, see:

MARTIN NEIL BAILY and MATTHEW J. SLAUGHTER. "What's Behind the Recent Productivity Slowdown." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): A15.

January 6, 2009

Government Pressure Led Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to Increase Their Subprime Loans

FannieMaeFormerHeads.jpg "Former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac testified in the House Tuesday: left to right, Richard Syron, Daniel Mudd, Leland Brendsel and Franklin Raines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac engaged in "an orgy of junk mortgage development" that turned the two mortgage-finance giants into vast repositories of subprime and similarly risky loans, a former Fannie executive testified on Tuesday.

. . .

And in March 2006, Enrico Dallavecchia, Fannie Mae's chief risk officer, wrote to Mr. Mudd to say, "Dan, I have a serious problem with the control process around subprime limits."

Despite the concerns, Fannie Mae further increased its purchases of subprime loans, according to a January 2007 internal presentation.

Freddie Mac's senior executives ignored similar warnings. Donald J. Bisenius, a senior vice president, wrote in April 2004 to a colleague that "we did no-doc lending before, took inordinate losses and generated significant fraud cases."

"I'm not sure what makes us think we're so much smarter this time around," he wrote.

Housing analysts say that the former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac increased their nonprime business because they felt pressure from the government and advocacy groups to meet goals for affordable housing as well as pressure to compete with Wall Street.

For the full story, see:

LYNNLEY BROWNING. "Ex-Executive Faults Fannie and Freddie for Nonprime Loans." The New York Times (Weds., December 10, 2008): B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 12, 2008

Fred Thompson Satirizes Current Economic Bailout Policies

ThompsonFredOnTheEconomyDec2008.jpg Source of image: screen capture from the Fred Thompson video commentary described, and linked-to, below.

My brother Eric alerted me to a wise and witty video commentary by former Senator Fred Thompson satirizing current government bailout policies. The video has been posted to multiple locations. Here is the link to the posting on YouTube:

December 9, 2008

I Was Wrong: Apparently the U.S. Auto Industry Does Have a Prayer

PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle.jpg"PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.   S.U.V.'s sat on the altar of Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, as congregants prayed to save the auto industry." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The process of creative destruction, requires that failed businesses be allowed to fail, so that the resources (labor and capital) devoted to the failed businesses, can be devoted to more productive uses.

The Danny DeVito character in "Other People's Money" makes this point in a speech near the end, in which he says that the Gregory Peck character has just delivered a "prayer for the dead" in calling for continued support for a dead business that is technologically obsolete.

On a more personal level, we have always bought cars from Honda and Toyota, because we sincerely believe that they build better cars than Detroit does. By what right does the government force taxpayers to prop up companies whose products have been rejected in the marketplace?

When the economic and moral arguments for bailout fail, all that is left for a failed industry is prayer (and politics)---one more reason to believe that the opportunity cost of prayer, is high.

(p. A19) DETROIT -- The Sunday service at Greater Grace Temple began with the Clark Sisters song "I'm Looking for a Miracle" and included a reading of this verse from the Book of Romans: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."

Pentecostal Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, who shared the sanctuary's wide altar with three gleaming sport utility vehicles, closed his sermon by leading the choir and congregants in a boisterous rendition of the gospel singer Myrna Summers's "We're Gonna Make It" as hundreds of worshipers who work in the automotive industry -- union assemblers, executives, car salesmen -- gathered six deep around the altar to have their foreheads anointed with consecrated oil.

While Congress debated aid to the foundering Detroit automakers Sunday, many here whose future hinges on the decision turned to prayer.

Outside the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, a sign beckoned passers-by inside to hear about "God's bailout plan."

For the full story, see:

NICK BUNKLEY. "Detroit Churches Pray for 'God's Bailout'." The New York Times (Mon., December 8, 2008): A19.

(Note: The photo of the top appeared on p. A1 of the print edition of the December 8, 2008 NYT; also, the online version of the article has a date of Dec. 7 instead of the Dec. 8 date of the print version.)

PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle2.jpg"Worshipers at Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, prayed on Sunday for an automobile industry miracle." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

December 6, 2008

Reason for Success of U.S. Economy: "We Let People Fail"

McCain's chief economic adviser and entrepreneur-expert Hotz-Eakin offered some cogent comments on the trend toward more government bailouts at the taxpayers' expense:

(p. A6) Mr. Obama is by no means an activist in the Japanese mold, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign. But as a whole, policies crafted to address distinct problems in the auto, energy and banking sectors are merging into a broader policy that would pick some winners and losers, preserve entire industries and shape consumer choices.

"We're backing into industrial policy in an emergency to correct massive market failures," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute who has worked with the president-elect's economic team.

. . .

"The reason the U.S. economy was so successful for so long was not because we did things so well. It was because we let people fail." Mr. Hotz-Eakin said. "This is dangerous at some very deep level."

For the full story, see:

JONATHAN WEISMAN. "Wider U.S. Interventions Would Yield Winners, Losers as Industries Realign." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., NOVEMBER 20, 2008): A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the final paragraph was in the print edition, but was deleted from the online version.)

November 6, 2008

Chatwani Vies for "Worst Timing Ever Award"

ChatwaniAmit.jpg "Amit Chatwani, writer of and a book, "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Banker."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A28) Happy hour in the financial district has its own taxonomy. The other night amid the several sidewalk tables on Stone Street, Amit Chatwani, the 26-year-old behind the satirical Wall Street blog, broke down the scene within seconds of his arrival.

The young woman carrying a canvas "deal bag" with the Goldman Sachs logo was most likely a bank associate, he surmised. The younger-looking man reading the so-counterintuitive-it's-intuitive business book "The Black Swan" was an analyst with big-picture dreams. And the rest of the tables were filled with tech-support and human-resources staff, he figured.

"They have to be back-office, because it's too early for bankers to be out," Mr. Chatwani said. "They could be traders, I suppose. Or compliance and risk management, which is basically middle-office that's treated as back-office."

But Mr. Chatwani would be the first to admit that his assessments of the culture of Wall Street are not, at the moment, holding their value. His book, written under the name Leveraged Sell-Out and entitled "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Banker," was published by Hyperion in August, giving it a fair claim to some kind of Worst Timing Ever Award.

For the full story, see:

ERIC KONIGSBERG. "Attn, Satirist of the Spoiled of Wall Street: Bad Timing, Dude." The New York Times (Thurs., October 16, 2008): A28.

The reference for The Black Swan book mentioned above, is:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

A marvelous review of The Black Swan, is:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Review of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable." Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 419-22.

November 4, 2008

When the Ship Is Sinking, Schumpeter Suggests: "Rush to the Pumps"

Wabash economics professor Ben Rogge's best lecture focused on a question made famous by Schumpeter: "Can Capitalism Survive?" In some ways, Ben's message was a pessimistic one.

But near the end of his lecture, Rogge included the following quote from Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

(p. xi) This leads to the charge of "defeatism." I deny entirely that this term is applicable to a piece of analysis. Defeatism denotes a certain psychic state that has meaning only in relation to action. Facts in themselves and inference from them can never be defeatist or the opposite whatever that might be. The report that a given ship is sinking is not defeatist. Only the spirit in which this report is received can be defeatist: The crew can sit down and drink. But it can also rush to the pumps.

Source of quote:

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

Reference to Rogge's collection of essays that includes the title essay mentioned above:

Rogge, Benjamin A. Can Capitalism Survive? Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1979.

November 3, 2008

"We Will Stay a Laissez-Faire Economy"


"Andrus Ansip, leader of Estonia, an ex-Soviet Republic." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

An earlier entry suggested that Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's support for Steve Forbes' flat tax, had helped Estonia achieve a high rate of growth.

Apparently there is some sentiment in Estonia to stay the course:

(p. B6) TALLINN, Estonia -- For nearly two decades, Estonia embraced capitalism with such gusto that it seemed to be channeling the laissez-faire philosophy of Milton Friedman. From its policies meant to attract foreign investors to its flat tax and freewheeling business culture, it stood out as the former Soviet republic most adept at turning post-Communist chaos into a thriving market economy.

Now Estonians, and some of their Baltic neighbors, are slogging through their first serious economic downturn since liberation from the Soviet grip in the early 1990s.

. . .

Whatever happens, government officials say there will be no betrayal of Friedman's philosophy. "We will stay a laissez-faire economy," said Juhan Parts, Estonia's minister of the economy.

. . .

"I'm an optimist," said Marje Josing, director of the Estonian Institute for Economic Research. "Fifteen years ago things looked bad, but they managed. A little real-life pressure won't hurt."

Indeed, so far the downturn has done little to discourage Estonia's ambitious entrepreneurs. If anything, it has made them look more avidly elsewhere for growth.

"Estonia may be a small country," Tarmo Prikk, chief executive of Thulema, an office furniture maker, said with a laugh. "But my ego is bigger."

For the full story, see:

CARTER DOUGHERTY. "Estonia's Let-It-Be Economy Is Rattled by Worldwide Distress." The New York Times (Fri., October 10, 2008): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

November 2, 2008

Obama's Tax Policies Would Be "a Significant Step Towards" Another "Great Depression"

Lee Ohanian is the co-author of a much-cited article in the highly-ranked Journal of Political Economy on the economics of the Great Depression. Below is a paragraph from his recent analysis of our current situation:

(p. A17) I am particularly concerned about bad policies because significantly higher taxes have been proposed by Barack Obama. His plan would raise the marginal tax rate on the most productive workers more than 10 percentage points -- an increase that would bring us near Western European levels. His plan would also raise capital income taxes, taxing capital gains and dividends at 20%, compared to a 15% rate under Sen. John McCain's plan. A five percentage-point difference might strike you as small, but it is not. I have calculated that a five percentage-point difference in overall capital income taxation over the long haul is equal to a difference in the nation's capital stock of about 18%. This means a 6% difference in GDP and a 6% difference in the average wage rate. This means that real GDP and the average wage would fall, gradually but persistently declining about 6% after 25 years. That's not quite a Great Depression, but a significant step towards one.

For the full commentary, see:

LEE E. OHANIAN. "Good Policies Can Save the Economy; Why we need lower tax rates and more skilled immigrants." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., OCTOBER 8, 2008): A17.

The academic article co-authored by Ohanian is:

Cole, Harold L., and Lee E. Ohanian. "New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis." Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (August 2004): 779-816.

November 1, 2008

Obama Plans Big Increases in Many Taxes


Source of table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) When it comes to taxes, the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain is arguably as wide as it's been in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale battled in 1984. Sen. Obama is proposing to raise taxes more than any recent candidate, while Sen. McCain wants to cut them substantially.

. . .

In sum, Mr. Obama is proposing to use the tax code to substantially redistribute income -- raising tax rates on a minority of taxpayers to finance tax credits and direct income supplements to millions of others. How much revenue his higher rates would raise depends on how much less those high-earners would work, or how much they would change their practices to shelter their income from those higher rates.

By contrast, Mr. McCain is proposing some kind of tax reduction for most Americans who pay taxes. He says he would finance those cuts by reducing the rate of growth in federal spending.

For the full commentary, see:

Brian M. Carney. "The Election Choice: Taxes." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 25, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 28, 2008

Democratic Housing Secretary Cisneros Aided Irresponsible House Buying


"Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, speaking to President Bill Clinton on Dec. 19, 1994, in Washington." Source of caption and photo: online version of the 2006 NYT article cited below.

(p. 1) SAN ANTONIO -- A grandson of Mexican immigrants and a former mayor of this town, Henry G. Cisneros has spent years trying to make the dream of homeownership come true for low-income families.

As the Clinton administration's top housing official in the mid-1990s, Mr. Cisneros loosened mortgage restrictions so first-time buyers could qualify for loans they could never get before.

Then, capitalizing on a housing expansion he helped unleash, he joined the boards of a major builder, KB Home, and the largest mortgage lender in the nation, Countrywide Financial -- two companies that rode the housing boom, drawing criticism along the way for abusive business practices.

And Mr. Cisneros became a developer himself. The Lago Vista development here in his hometown once stood as a testament to his life's work.

Joining with KB, he built 428 homes for low-income buyers in what was a neglected, industrial neighborhood. He often made the trip from downtown to ask residents if they were happy.

"People bought here because of Cisneros," says Celia Morales, a Lago Vista resident. "There was a feeling of, 'He's got our back.' "

But Mr. Cisneros rarely comes around anymore. Lago Vista, like many communities born in the housing boom, is now under stress. Scores of homes have been foreclosed, including one in five over the last six years on the community's longest street, Sunbend Falls, according to property records.

While Mr. Cisneros says he remains proud of his work, he has misgivings over what his passion has wrought. He insists that the worst problems developed only after "bad actors" hijacked his good intentions but acknowledges that "people came to homeownership who should not have been homeowners."

For the full story, see:

DAVID STREITFELD and GRETCHEN MORGENSON. "The Reckoning; Man in the Middle; Building Flawed American Dreams; Helping Low-Income Families Buy Homes and Watching the Failures." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., October 19, 2008): 1 & 23.

See also:

DAVID JOHNSTON and NEIL A. LEWIS. "Inquiry on Clinton Official Ends With Accusations of Cover-Up." The New York Times (Thurs., January 19, 2006).

CisnerosDeveloper.jpg "THE DEVELOPER Henry Cisneros in his office in San Antonio with Sylvia Arce-Garcia, an executive assistant. He is the head of CityView, a developer." Source of caption and photo: online version of the 2008 NYT article cited above.

October 27, 2008

"Ill-Conceived Regulation Poisoned the System"


Source of formula title and of formula: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) Here's how ill-conceived regulation poisoned the system. Until recently, bank CEOs and regulators slept well at night thanks to a financial model developed in the 1990s called "value at risk" or VaR. It assesses historical variances and covariances among different securities, informing financial institutions of the risks they're taking. By assessing risk factors across all securities, VaR can compare historical levels of risk for given portfolios, usually up to a 99% probability that banks would not lose more than a certain amount of money. In normal times, banks compare the VaR worst case with their capital to make sure their reserves can cover losses.

But VaR can't account for extreme unprecedented events -- the collapse of Barings in 1995 due to a rogue trader in Singapore, or today's government-mandated bad mortgages bundled into securities that are hard to value and unwind. The "1% likely" happened. And because the 1% literally didn't compute, there was no estimate of the stunning losses that have occurred.

Yale mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot pointed out the shortcomings of the VaR model in his "The (Mis)behavior of Markets," published in 2004. He noted that bell curves work for, say, disparities in the height of people. In markets, instead of flat tails of rare events at either end of the bell curve, there are "fat tails" of huge upsides and huge downsides. Markets are more complex than the neat shape of bell curves.

Last year's bestselling nonfiction book had a similar theme. In "The Black Swan," former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out that extreme outcomes are actually common, warning that financial engineers -- "scientists," as he calls them -- ignore these unlikely outcomes at their peril. But today's credit panic was not entirely unpredictable. Mr. Taleb was prescient in writing, "The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at their risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: Their large staffs of scientists deemed these events 'unlikely.'"

For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "The 1% Panic." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., OCTOBER 13, 2008): A17.

(Note: the online version of the article had the following added subtitle: "Our financial models were only meant to work 99% of the time.")

For the Taleb book mentioned in the commentary, see:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

For an insightful review of the Taleb book, see:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Review of the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable." Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (2008): 419-22.

December 8, 2006

"Nebraskans Preparing for the Imminent Arrival of Several Million New York Refugees"

(p. 12) HOUSING prices are falling on both coasts, and bubble panic is around the corner.  The financial magazines are already grabbing their readers by the throat and taunting them with headlines like:  ''U.S. Housing Crash Continues!'' ''Where Will Housing Prices Fall the Most?'' ''Is It Time to Cash Out?''

What if it is time to cash out?  Where do you go?  If you sell on either coast, then you need to find real estate somewhere that the housing bubble missed.  Guam?  American Samoa?  Wait, how about eastern Nebraska?  Downright frothless when it comes to housing:  the median home price here usually chugs along at the annual rate of inflation and never goes down (up 4 percent last year, up 22 percent over the last five years).

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of living in Omaha, a city of 414,000 souls, consider that this year Money magazine ranked it seventh of the nation's 10 best big cities to live in, ahead of New York City, which ranked 10th.  O.K., now you may recoil in horror.

These compelling statistics have Nebraskans preparing for the imminent arrival of several million New York refugees (victims of post-traumatic bubble anxiety disorder), who will need emergency real estate and housing triage services.


For the full commentary, see:

Richard Dooling.  "Sweet Home Omaha."  The New York Times, Section 4 (Sunday, October 29, 2006):  12.

October 27, 2005

Nazi Economy Was Not Efficient

A common view of National Socialism is that it was evil, but efficient. A recent book by Richard J. Evans challenges the "efficient" part of the common view. Here is a relevant paragraph from a useful review of Evans' book:

(p. B5) The Nazi machine, as Mr. Evans describes it, moved forward with a good deal of creaking and squeaking. The economy was no exception. On many fronts, the Nazis managed nothing more than to bring the economy back to the status quo that existed before the Depression. As late as January 1935, one estimate put the number of unemployed at more than four million, and food shortages were still a problem in 1939. Workers put in longer hours simply to stay even.

For the full review, see:

WILLIAM GRIMES. "The Radical Restructuring of a Germany Headed to War." The New York Times (Weds., October 26, 2005): B8.

The reference to the book is:

Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich in Power: 1933-1939. The Penguin Press, 2005.



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