Tuesday, September 27, 2016


I did an EconTalk Podcast with Russ Roberts. The general subject is economic growth, the reasons it seems to be slipping away from us and policies (or non-policies) that might help.

As in other recent projects (growth essaytestimony) I'm trying to synthesize, and also to find policies and ways to talk about them that avoid the stale left-right debate, where people just shout base-pleasing spin ever louder. "You're a tax and spend socialist" "You just want tax cuts for your rich buddies" is getting about as far as "You always leave your socks on the floor" "Well, you spend the whole day on the phone to your mother."

We did this as an interview before a live audience, at a Chicago Booth alumni event held at Hoover, so it's a bit lighter than the usual EconTalk. This kind of thought helps the synthesis process a lot for me.  Russ' pointed questions make me think, as did the audience in follow up Q&A (not recorded). Plus, it was fun.

I always leave any interview full of regrets about things I could have said better or differently. The top of the regret pile here was leaving a short joke in response to Russ' question about what the government should spend more on. Russ was kindly teeing up the section of the growth essay "there is good spending" and perhaps "spend more to spend less" ideas in several other recent writings. It would have been a good idea to go there and spend a lot more time on the question.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Furman on zoning

On this day (Clinton vs. Trump debate) of likely partisan political bloviation, I am delighted to highlight a very nice editorial by Jason Furman, President Obama's CEA chair, on the effects of housing restrictions. A longer speech here. The editorial is in the San Francisco Chronicle, ground zero for housing restriction induced astronomical prices. Furman:
 When certain government policies — like minimum lot sizes, off-street parking requirements, height limits, prohibitions on multifamily housing, or unnecessarily lengthy permitting processes — restrict the supply of housing, fewer units are available and the price rises. On the other hand, more efficient policies can promote availability and affordability of housing, regional economic development, transportation options and socioeconomic diversity...
...barriers to housing development can allow a small number of individuals to enjoy the benefits of living in a community while excluding many others, limiting diversity and economic mobility. 
This upward pressure on house prices may also undermine the market forces that typically determine patterns of housing construction, leading to mismatches between household needs and available housing. 
What's even more praiseworthy is what Furman does not say: "Affordable" housing constructed by taxpayers, or by forcing developers to provide it; rent controls; housing subsidies; bans on the construction of market-rate housing (yes, SF does that); bans on new businesses (yes, Palo Alto does that), and the rest of the standard bay-area responses to our housing problems.  The first few may allow a few lucky low-income people to stay where they are, as long as they remain low-income, but does not allow new people to come chase opportunities. Subsidies that raise demand without raising supply just raise prices more. As in child care or medicine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Negative rates and inflation

Have negative interest rates boosted inflation? Here is a nice graph (source macro-man blog, HT FT alphaville)

Source: Macro-man blog
Not really. Explanations? Choose the chicken or the egg:

1) But for negative rates, inflation would have been even lower

2) We're living in a Fisher effect world. Lower rates lower inflation. (Which is arguably a good, if unintended, thing)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Immigration, trade, and child care

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton want to lower the cost and, presumably, increase the amount of child care. A quick economics quiz: What is the policy change that would have the greatest such effect?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Testimony 2

On the way back from Washington, I passed the time reformatting my little essay for the Budget committee to html for blog readers. See below. (Short oral remarks here in the last blog post, and pdf version of this post here.)

I learned a few things while in DC.

The Paul Ryan "A better way" plan is serious, detailed, and you will be hearing a lot about it. I read most of it in preparation for my trip, and it's impressive. Expect reviews here soon. I learned that Republicans seem to be uniting behind it and ready to make a major push to publicize it. It is, by design, a document that Senatorial and Congressional candidates will use to define a positive agenda for their campaigns, as well as describing a comprehensive legislative and policy agenda.

"Infrastructure" is bigger in the conversation than I thought. But since there is no case that potholes caused the halving of America's trend growth rate, do not be surprised if infrastructure fails to double the trend growth rate. It's also a bit sad that the most common growth idea in Washington is, acording to my commenters, about 2,500 years old -- employment on public works.

Washington conversation remains in thrall to the latest numbers. There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%. Chicagoans used to get excited about the 40 degree February thaw.

The quality can be very very good. Congressman Price, the chair of my session, covered just about every topic in my testimony, and possibly better. Congressional staff are really good, and they are paying attention to the latest. If you write policy-related economics, take heart, they really are listening.

The questions at my hearing pushed me to clarify just how will debt problems affect the average American. What I had not said in the prepared remarks needs to be said. If we don't get an explosion of growth, the US will not be able to make good on its promises to social security, health care, government pensions, credit guarantees, taxpayers, and bondholders. Something's got to give. And the growing size of entitlements means they must give. Even a default on the debt, raising taxes to the long-run Laffer limit, will not pay for current pension and health promises. Those will be cut. The question is how. If we wait to a fiscal crisis, they will be cut unexpectedly and by large amounts, leaving people who counted on them in dire straits. Greece is a good example. If we make sensible sustainable promises now, they will be cut less, and people will have decades to adjust.

Ok, on to html testimony:

Growing Risks to the Budget and the Economy.
Testimony of John H. Cochrane before the House Committee on Budget.
September 14 2016

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

I am John H. Cochrane. I am a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University1. I speak to you today on my own behalf on not that of any institution with which I am affiliated.

Sclerotic growth is our country's most fundamental economic problem.2 From 1950 to 2000, our economy grew at 3.6% per year.3 Since 2000, it has grown at barely half that rate, 1.8% per year. Even starting at the bottom of the recession in 2009, usually a period of super-fast catch-up growth, it has grown at just over 2% per year. Growth per person fell from 2.3% to 0.9%, and since the recession has been 1.3%.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


I was invited to testify at a hearing of the House budget committee on Sept 14. It's nothing novel or revolutionary, but a chance to put my thoughts together on how to get growth going again, and policy approaches that get past the usual partisan squabbling. Here are my oral remarks. (pdf version here.) The written testimony, with lots of explanation and footnotes, is here. (pdf) (Getting footnotes in html is a pain.)

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

Sclerotic growth is our country’s most fundamental economic problem. If we could get back to the three and half percent postwar average, we would, in the next 30 years, triple rather than double the size of the economy—and tax revenues, which would do wonders for our debt problem.

Why has growth halved? The most plausible answer is simple and sensible: Our legal and regulatory system is slowly strangling the golden goose of growth.

How do we fix it? Our national political and economic debate just makes the same points again, louder, and going nowhere. Instead, let us look together for novel and effective policies that can appeal to all sides.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Glaeser and Summers on Infrastructure

Ed Glaeser has a superb essay on infrastructure at City Journal, titled "If you Build It.." I have a few excerpts, but do go and enjoy the whole thing. Larry Summers also has a new blog post on infrastructure, with some fascinating bits if you read carefully. I wrote about some of these issues in the WSJ and recent post, but not with Ed's clarity and erudition, nor Larry's imprimatur.

Glaeser starts with a clear summary paragraph:

Monday, September 5, 2016

Rosenberg in New York Times

Naomi Rosenberg's Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Times is the best piece of writing I have had the painful pleasure to read in a long time. The title is How to Tell a Mother her Child Is Dead. Warning: this is not an easy piece to read.

Read it. Read the whole thing. Read it again. There is no excerpt I can offer.

Why is it so good? She does not clear her throat. She does not introduce the subject -- the title did that. She dives right in: "First you get your coat."  She uses short, declarative, active sentences. The absence of contractions is powerful.

She does not beat us over the head with the obvious, or fill it with policy-blather. She reminds us of the daily tragedy in many cities, like my hometown of Chicago, that we must no longer ignore.

She reminds us of the deep humanity of doctors who pick up the pieces. The emergency room doctor who took care my mother could have been Dr. Rosenberg, and I will forever be thankful for her consideration. "You use the mother’s name and you use her child’s name."  Yes. Too often in our many doctor visits raising four children, someone addressed us as "Mom" and "Dad." We're not dumb. We know that means you can't bother to look down at the sheet in front of you to read and pretend to know who we are.

She reminds us to treat people in awful circumstances with the same humanity and respect as she treats her patients, not as numbers, abstractions, easy categories or talking points for longstanding policy arguments.

Had she said any of that, it would have been much weaker. She didn't need to say it. In all likelihood, neither do I.

Let us remember Dr. Rosenberg and her colleagues this labor day, as they will be at that painful work while we barbecue.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Settlement skulduggery

Andy Koenig had a WSJ oped on a subject getting far too little attention. When the government goes after big companies such as banks, and obtains huge out of court settlements, just where does the money go?
...In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group ["a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors"] has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America.

...in April ... the Justice Department announced a $5.1 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs. In February Morgan Stanley agreed to a $3.2 billion settlement. Previous targets were Citigroup ($7 billion), J.P. Morgan Chase ($13 billion), and Bank of America,... $16.65 billion...
The money does not go to any individual who demonstrably lost money as a result of the banks' actions. Instead,
... a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but.

...Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements...