Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On state capacity [feedly]

On state capacity

The news that the government might need to hire hundreds of immigrants to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals isn't merely a delightful irony. It raises a serious question about the UK's state capacity.

This refers (pdf) to the ability of governments to implement policies to achieve their objectives. Although it is usually discussed (pdf) in the context of less developed nations, it applies to the UK government now. Does it have the capacity to negotiate difficult trade deals, or to implement complex points-based immigration controls? The fact that we lack people capable of doing the former suggests perhaps not.

In fact, other things should strengthen our scepticism on this point. Larry Summers oncewrote that "it is much easier to design policy than to implement it." The British government's failure to introduce Universal Credit in a timely or cost-effective manner, and its mismanagement of the deportation of foreign students (in the "safe pair of hands" of Theresa May) give us two examples of this fact.

These, though, might be just specific manifestations of general defects. Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon have shown (pdf) how the endless management reforms of the last 30 years have given us a civil service which "worked a bit worse and cost a bit more" than before. Giles Wilkes has written:

Much of the time, Whitehall throngs with officials struggling just to find out what is going on. The sound of dysfunction is not the cacophony of argument, but the silence of suppressed documents and unreturned phone calls.

And a report from the Institute for Government says:

Departments are inconsistent in how they format and organise their objectives. They confuse measures, milestones and means of reaching them. The inconsistency across departments and the sheer number of objectives questions how useful and usable they are – and crucially, whether they are actually being used to measure performance.

This suggests that government is failing to implement the Bloom and Van Reenen idea that management is a form of technology (pdf), in which there are clear targets, monitoring and feedback.

It is appropriate that I should be writing this in the week that the Chilcott report is finally published. Its massive delays remind us that complex tasks often take much longer than expected, in part because of the planning fallacy.

All this should add to our scepticism about whether Brexit can proceed smoothly, even ignoring (which we shouldn't) the legal technicalities and arguments. I fear that Brexiteers' optimism on this point reflects what I've called cargo cult leadership: the "right leader-????-success" fallacy.

 And herein lies another delightful irony. Many right-wingers have for years preached the virtues of small government and been sceptical of what the state can achieve. And yet it is now they who are placing massive and perhaps excessive demands upon the competence of the state. 

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Productivity mismeasurement: it goes both ways [feedly]

Productivity mismeasurement: it goes both ways

Many economists, myself included, argue that among our greatest concerns is theslowdown in productivity growth, as the growth of output per hour (that's how productivity is measured) is a key determinant of living standards (yes, the distribution of productivity growth is another key determinant; in our age of inequality, growth is necessary but not sufficient to raise middle class living standards and lower poverty; but it sure is necessary!).

Some critics of the slowdown hypothesis argue that we are undercounting output, and thus systematically undercounting output per hour. I and many others find this hypothesis wanting, but an article I read in the NYT this AM got me thinking about a corner of this debate that tends to be overlooked: virtually every mismeasurement argument focuses on how technology is making us better off that are not counted in the national accounts, but some technologies push hard in the other direction.

The article focuses on tech support, which is often not only unbearable and enraging for users trying to find out how to restore their files after their cat erased them, but can be deliberately set up to be so, in order to save costs and discourage their use. One could say the same thing about phone menus in general. They are typically one of the many ways technology is used to externalize labor functions that were formally internal, which is a cost shift onto those of us endlessly pushing buttons in hopes that maybe we'll find a person, and maybe that person will deign to help us.

If we were accurately measuring the output of tech service industry, such inconveniences would score as a negative.

There are other ways in which we fail to capture quality deterioration in our national accounts. Air travel is often raised as a poster child. Infrastructure deterioration is another. If you try to commute into DC, where parts of the Metro are shut down making our already terrible rush hour traffic even worse, you see an electronic sign over the highway that "helpfully" says, "Rethink your commute." Perhaps I lack imagination, but I've rethought it, and all I can come up with is driving or taking the Metro.

End of the day, technology probably provides us with more mismeasured good stuff than bad stuff. To be clear, and this is very important, to make the case that productivity growth is faster than we think, you have to show that mismeasurement has worsened, and there's little evidence to support that claim. In fact, there's some to the contrary–we're actually doing a little better in capturing tech's benefits, which sadly implies the slowdown in productivity growth might be even a little worse than we thought.

But anyone seriously considering this mismeasurement hypothesis must consider both sides of the equation. There's no point in denying the existence of the often hellish worlds of tech support and phone menus.

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Income Distribution and the UK Referendum Result

Income Distribution and the UK Referendum Result

Robert Wade - 29th June 2016
Income Distribution and the UK Referendum Result

Robert Wade explores what the income distribution among voters in Britain's recent referendum may mean for those wondering what to do next.

Large numbers of those who voted in favor of leaving the EU in the UK's In/Out referendum -- 51.9% of voters voted Out -- did so less from a negative assessment of EU membership than from anger at their falling relative income over the past many years and worry that their children would fare economically even worse than they. This conclusion comes both from poll and media interviews conducted after the vote closed, and from the fact that the day after the referendum the second most frequently asked question of Google, among all the EU-related questions, was "What is the EU?".

The Remain camp argued that Britain has done well and will continue to do well economically from EU membership. But the claims of a British "boom" ring hollow to those who are unemployed, or on zero-hours contracts, or forced off benefits.

Much the same applies in the Rust Belt of the United States, and in parts of Europe where politicians like Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen enjoy high electoral support. It helps to understand the Trump phenomenon to know that that ever since 2004 a majority of Americans have told pollsters that they expect their children to be worse off economically than themselves.

The deep causes lie apparently far away in trends in global income distribution. If we place all people (or households) in the world shoulder to shoulder in order of income in 1988 we can calculate the increase of income at each percentage (or each five percentage points, or ventiles) up to 2008. These twenty years are the high period of "globalization works", to echo the title of Martin Wolf's celebratory Why Globalization Works (2004). With the 1988 distribution on the horizontal axis and the cumulative increase in incomes on the vertical axis, the trend line takes the shape of an "elephant curve" (an elephant's head in profile) or "supine S curve" (supine meaning an S lying on its back). (See Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, 2016.)

The place in the 1988 distribution where incomes grew the most over the next twenty years is the middle; most of these people are located in China. The top 1 percent in global income distribution in 1988 enjoyed almost as big a percentage increase in incomes by 2008 as did those in the middle reaches, and of course from a very much higher base; most of these people are located in the West. The place in the global distribution in 1988 which enjoyed the least income increase was the 80th to 99th percentiles; most of these people are in the working and lower-middle classes of western countries, including the UK. These "least gainers" in the UK voted heavily in favor of leaving the EU.

The referendum shock may precipitate action to reduce income inequality

Income and wealth distribution has long been a neglected subject in economics and other social sciences. The current chief economist of Citigroup and former professor of economics at LSE, Willem Buiter, justified the neglect when he said in the Financial Times in 2007,
"Poverty bothers me. Inequality does not. I just don't care."

Social scientists tend to study phenomena identified as "problems". So we have huge amounts of social science on "the poor" and "poverty", but little on "the rich" and "riches", and not much on the relationship between the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor.

In economics, we have a flourishing "poor economics" but no "rich economics". Economists have long ascribed to the marginal productivity theory of income distribution, according to which – in a competitive market -- each factor of production is paid its marginal productivity, including those at the top; a theory which eliminates power between classes as a focus of attention and supports the conclusion that the existing distribution is more or less "fair" and therefore not a "problem" in need of economists' research. The bishop is paid 10 times the rubbish collector, and the hedge fund manager is paid 10 times the bishop, because, broadly speaking, these differentials reflect their marginal productivities, and marginal productivities reflect, more or less, "relative market-valued contributions to society".

The occlusion of income distribution runs deep, even to the main measure of national economic performance. In the early years of the Great Depression, when the US government asked Simon Kuznets to come up with a measure of the performance of the US economy, he and collaborators focused on national income – because the government wanted to know how much income was going into people's pockets, how much they had to spend. During the Second World War the war planners switched focus to production – the amount of armaments, food and the like being produced as a basis for deciding how to raise the amount. Kuznets warned that after the war the focus should go back to income. Instead, ever since, Gross Domestic (or National) Product, not National Income, has been the main measure. John Kenneth Galbraith observed in his 1958 book The Affluent Society that "inequality has ceased to preoccupy men's minds".

Even though the product and the income measures are calibrated to produce the same result (production equals income), the focus on "production" supports the social-peace-keeping assumption that when the cake expands everyone somehow gets a bigger slice. The focus on "income" points to the more conflict-provoking issue of who gets how much. (See Philipp Lepenies, The Power of a Single Number, 2016.)

One possible upside to the referendum shock throughout Europe is more attention by elites to securing a more equal distribution of income and wealth, in the interests of protecting the EU and even in their own longer run self-interest.


Robert H. Wade is professor of political economy at LSE. He won the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2008.

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

The Winners and Losers Radio Show
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Trade and Jobs and Fallacies of Composition [feedly]

Trade and Jobs and Fallacies of Composition

Paul Krugman (partly) takes on David Autor and his coauthors (co-Autors?), who found large impacts of net imports from China on manufacturing jobs in the US during the period leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.  Krugman takes the position that, in theory, any loss of employment through the trade channel can be offset by more expansionary monetary and fiscal policy, so that trade deficits per se are not consequential (in this respect).  He notes that policy was not expansive enough during the heyday of the China deficit, so there was an employment impact, but smaller than the one estimated by Autor et al., who don't take into account policy spillovers.

Dean Baker takes Krugman to task for relying on unemployment rather than employment data.  If you look at the number of jobs in the economy rather than the number of jobless workers looking for work, he says, the China effect is much larger.  He also points in passing to the potential impact of trade on wages, an argument made powerfully by Dani Rodrikalmost twenty years ago and not, as far as I know, rebutted.

Here I want to make a different point, that Krugman's analysis suffers from a serious fallacy of composition of its own.  The key point has to do with the national income accounting framework used to measure trade and capital flows, the one that's in the back of every economist's mind (or should be) when thinking about issues like this.

Trade is the main component of the current account and measured as net exports or imports.  It's a component of GDP, which is linked to employment through an Okun's Lawmechanism, but, as Krugman points out, policy makers have the ability, at least in part, to offset fluctuations in NX with policies to alter government spending, taxes (and therefore consumption) and investment (via interest rates).  So far, so good.  But here's the thing: assuming no changes in the holdings of currency, the balances on the current and capital account are identically the same.  (The capital account measures net inflow or outflow of capital—financial assets.)  All else being equal, the US trade deficit with China corresponds to an equal and opposite capital inflow, i.e. borrowing.

Economists are used to thinking of the national accounts as separate boxes.  You can analyze trade with China today, sleep on it, and then tomorrow you can analyze capital flows.  Much economic writing treats these items as things that require some process out there in Marketland to make them equal.  Not so, however: the accounting boxes are for mental and measurement convenience, but the two items are identical: they're the same thing, the way a purchase and a sale are the same thing, not two different things.

When the US runs a trade deficit with China it is borrowing in some fashion to finance its net purchases.  (I realize, of course, that the trade-and-finance system works multilaterally, and that China could exchange a portion of its dollar-denominated assets for assets in other countries, with subsequent rounds of displacement effects, but I'm keeping things simple here.)  This is the same logic that we are familiar with at the individual level.  If you spend more than your income, to buy a house or car for example, you are simultaneously borrowing money to cover the difference.  You may be using an auto dealer's trade credit, a bank's mortgage facility, credit cards or some other device, but the financing in some form is identically what the purchase-in-excess-of-income means.  It would make no sense to analyze the purchase and treat the financing as a separate, unrelated  topic.

So back to China.  How did the US finance its humongous trade deficit with that country during the glory years of the early to mid 00's?  To a large extent, this was achieved by selling mortgage-backed securities to the Chinese.  At the peak, a quarter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans were Chinese-held, and there is no reason to believe their share of non-GSE mortgages was much different.  In other words, to purchase Chinese imports in excess of their international income (earned through exports), US consumers were building up debt, especially through mortgage finance, as a vehicle for borrowing from China.

Bottom line: the immense trade deficit during this period took the form of a housing credit bubble.  If you want to analyze the impact of unbalanced trade with China you have to look at the whole thing.  It's reasonable to ask, what would have been the economic effect of these deficits if they had been financed differently—through larger fiscal deficits, for instance, or more corporate debt or some other channel?  It's not clear how policy choices could have made this happen, but hypothetical counterfactuals, as Krugman noted in his blog post, are the right way to go.

The big picture, from my point of view, is that the US is a chronic deficit country and has been since the 1970s.  It has not developed an export capacity capable of generating income at a level comparable to its somewhat-full-employment import demand, but it has been very successful at generating financial assets that foreign wealth holders wish to accumulate.  (During the final phase of the housing credit bubble this foreign demand was nearly all official.)  To repeat, these are not separate events; it's one event seen from two perspectives.  China is an important part of this story, but we can't understand how it connects to US economic development, including employment effects, by looking only at the spending side and not the financing.
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Nouriel Roubini: Politcal Fault lines in Globalization

Globalization's Political Fault Lines

NEW YORK – The United Kingdom's narrow vote to leave the European Union had specific British causes. And yet it is also the proverbial canary in the coalmine, signaling a broad populist/nationalist backlash – at least in advanced economies – against globalization, free trade, offshoring, labor migration, market-oriented policies, supranational authorities, and even technological change.

All of these trends reduce wages and employment for low-skill workers in labor-scarce and capital-rich advanced economies, and raise them in labor-abundant emerging economies. Consumers in advanced economies benefit from the reduction in prices of traded goods; but low and even some medium-skill workers lose income as their equilibrium wages fall and their jobs are threatened.

Baltic Air Policing detachment

NATO After Brexit

In the run-up to the Alliance's Warsaw summit,John Andrews assesses the views of Wolfgang Ischinger, Yuriko Koike, Javier Solana, and others on the three main challenges it faces.

In the "Brexit" vote, the fault lines were clear: rich versus poor, gainers versus losers from trade/globalization, skilled versus unskilled, educated versus less educated, young versus old, urban versus rural, and diverse versus more homogenous communities. The same fault lines are appearing in other advanced economies, including the United States and continental Europe.

With their more flexible economies and labor markets, the US and the UK have recovered more strongly than continental Europe in terms of GDP and employment since the 2008 global financial crisis. Job creation has been robust, with the unemployment rate falling below 5%, even if real wages are not growing much.

Yet in the US, Donald Trump has become the hero of angry workers threatened by trade, migration, and technological change. In the UK, the Brexit vote was heavily influenced by fear that immigrants from low-wage EU countries (the proverbial "Polish plumber") were taking citizens' jobs and public services.

In continental Europe and the eurozone, however, economic conditions are much worse. The average unemployment rate hovers above 10% (and much higher in the eurozone periphery – more than 20% in Greece and Spain) with youth unemployment over 30%. In most of these countries, job creation is anemic, real wages are falling, and dual labor markets mean that formal-sector, unionized workers have good wages and benefits, while younger workers have precarious jobs that pay lower wages, provide no employment security, and offer low or no benefits.

Politically, the strains of globalization are twofold. First, establishment parties of the right and the left, which for more than a generation have supported free trade and globalization, are being challenged by populist, nativist/nationalist anti-establishment parties. Second, establishment parties are being disrupted – if not destroyed – from within, as champions of anti-globalization emerge and challenge the mainstream orthodoxy.

Establishment parties were once controlled by globalization's beneficiaries: capital owners; skilled, educated, and digitally savvy workers; urban and cosmopolitan elites; and unionized white- and blue-collar employees. But they also included workers – both blue- and white-collar – who were among the losers from globalization, but who nonetheless remained loyal, either because they were socially and religiously conservative, or because center-left parties were formally supporters of unions, workers' rights, and entitlement programs.

After the 2008 financial crisis, globalization's losers started to organize and find anti-establishment champions on both the left and the right. On the left, the losers in the UK and the US, especially young people, found champions in traditional center-left parties: Jeremy Corbyn in the UK's Labour Party, and Bernie Sanders in America's Democratic Party.

The deepest fault lines emerged among center-right parties. These parties – the Republicans in the US, the Tories in the UK, and center-right parties across continental Europe – confronted an internal revolt against their own leaders. The rise of Donald Trump – anti-trade, anti-migration, anti-Muslim, and nativist – is a reflection of an uncomfortable fact for the Republican establishment: the party's median voter is closer to those who have lost from globalization. A similar revolt took place in the UK's Conservative Party, with globalization's losers coalescing around the party's "Leave" campaign or shifting allegiance to the populist anti-EU UK Independence Party.

In continental Europe, where multi-party parliamentary systems are prevalent, political fragmentation and disintegration are even more severe than in the UK and the US. On the EU's periphery, anti-establishment parties tend to be on the left: Syriza in Greece, Italy's Five Star Movement, Spain's Podemos, leftist parties in Portugal. In the EU core, such parties tend to be on the right: Alternative for Germany, France's National Front, and similar far-right parties in Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and elsewhere.

But, despite the growing number, organization, and mobilization of globalization's losers, globalization itself is not necessarily doomed. For starters, it continues to yield net benefits for advanced and emerging markets alike, which is why the losers still tend to be a minority in most advanced economies, while those who benefit from globalization are a large – if at times silent – majority. In fact, even the "losers" benefit from the lower prices of goods and services brought about by globalization and technological innovation.

This also why populist and anti-establishment parties are still a political minority. Even Syriza, once in power, backpedaled and had to accept austerity, as an EU exit would have been much costlier. And Spain's recent general election, held three days after the Brexit referendum, suggests that, despite high unemployment, austerity, and painful structural reforms, moderate, pro-European forces remain a majority.

Even in the US, Trump's appeal is limited, owing to the demographic narrowness of his electoral base. Whether he can win the presidential election in November is highly doubtful.

This is also why pro-European center-right and center-left coalitions remain in power in most of the EU. The risk that anti-EU parties may come to power in Italy, France, and the Netherlands – among others – is rising, but still remains a distant possibility.

Finally, economic theory suggests that globalization can be made to benefit all as long as the winners compensate the losers. This can take the form of direct compensation or greater provision of free or semi-free public goods (for example, education, retraining, health care, unemployment benefits, and portable pensions).

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For workers to accept more labor mobility and flexibility as creative destruction eliminates some jobs and creates others, appropriate schemes are needed to replace income lost as a result of transitional unemployment. In the continental EU, establishment parties remain in power partly because their countries maintain extensive social welfare systems.

The backlash against globalization is real and growing. But it can be contained and managed through policies that compensate workers for its collateral damage and costs. Only by enacting such policies will globalization's losers begin to think that they may eventually join the ranks of its winners.

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

The Winners and Losers Radio Show
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Econobrowser: Markets post-Brexit

Markets post-Brexit

U.S. stock prices fell more than 5% in the two-day aftermath of the British vote to leave the European Union. But equities have since regained those losses and are back near all-time highs.

S&P 500 stock price index, Jan 4 to July 1.  Source: FRED.

S&P 500 stock price index, Jan 4 to July 1. Source: FRED.

By contrast, the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds fell about 25 basis points post Brexit and stayed there. That puts long-term interest rates down about 75 basis points for the year and near their all-time low.

Yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury bond, Jan 4 to June 30.  Source: FRED.

Yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury bond, Jan 4 to June 30. Source: FRED.

The inflation-compensated 10-year yield fell about 15 basis points post Brexit and 60 bp for the year. That leaves the other 10-bp decline in nominals post Brexit to be accounted for by lower expectations of inflation.

Yield on 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected securities, Jan 4 to June 30.  Source: FRED.

Yield on 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected securities, Jan 4 to June 30. Source: FRED.

All this is consistent with the view that Brexit initially sparked fears of substantial effects on economic growth. These fears may have since subsided. But the expectation remains that central banks around the world will be keeping real rates low for an even longer period than anticipated prior to the British vote.

Here's a plot of the 10-year expected inflation rate that is implied by the difference between the previous two graphs. Currently it's down to 1.4%. If you described this series as "well-anchored," what you might mean is that it's anchored well below the Fed's long-run 2% target. And it seems to have drifted even lower as a result of events in Britain last week.

Breakeven inflation rate on 10-year Treasuries, Jan 4 to June 30.  Source: FRED.

Breakeven inflation rate on 10-year Treasuries, Jan 4 to June 30. Source: FRED.

In other words, markets think the Fed will try a little harder, but be a little less successful, to achieve its long-run objectives.

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

The Winners and Losers Radio Show
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Weisbrot: A Policy of Non-Intervention in Venezuela Would Be a Welcome Change

A Policy of Non-Intervention in Venezuela Would Be a Welcome Change

Mark Weisbrot
The New York Times, June 28, 2016

See article on original site

The best thing that the United States government could do with regard to Venezuela, regardless of political outcomes there, would be to end its intervention there. 

Washington has caused enormous damage to Venezuela in its relentless pursuit of "regime change" for the last 15 years. In March, President Obama once again absurdly declared Venezuela to be an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," and extended economic sanctions against the country. Although the sanctions themselves are narrow, they have a considerable impact on investment decisions, as investors know what often happens to countries that Washington targets as an unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security. The sanctions, as well as pressure from the U.S. government, helped convince major financial institutions not to make otherwise low-risk loans, collateralized by gold, to the Venezuelan government.

Washington was involved in the short-lived 2002 military coup against the elected government of Venezuela, and the U.S. government acknowledged providing "training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations" who carried out the coup. Afterwards, it stepped up funding to opposition groups and has continued to this day to give them millions of dollars. In 2013, Washington was again isolated in the region and the world when it refused to recognize the presidential election results (even though there was no doubt about the outcome); the U.S. thereby lent its support to violent street protests that were seeking to topple the government. Washington gave political support to similar efforts in 2014.

All this is well-documented and well-known to journalists covering Venezuela, but try finding one at a major news outlet who has the courage to write about it. It's a bit like reporting on Ukraine and never mentioning Russia. 

U.S. intervention in Venezuela, as in other countries, has contributed to political polarization and conflict over the years, as it encouraged elements of the opposition at numerous junctures to also pursue a strategy of regime change, rather than seeking peaceful political change.

A switch to a policy of non-intervention in Venezuela would be a sea change for Washington, and would set a healthy precedent. After all, the world is awash in bloodshed and refugees as a result of the U.S. pursuit of "regime change" in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other countries. Why not try something different in the Western Hemisphere?

John Case
The Winners and Losers Radio Show
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