Monday, December 19, 2016

Electoral College

Source: Real Clear Politics
The electoral college is back in the news, with Democrats suddenly discovering it's a terrible idea.

I wrote at length in defense of the college in a previous post. I wrote just before the 2012 election so I can credibly claim that my view is not a sudden discovery motivated by partisan feeling.

I don't want to repeat the whole post, though I'm still proud of it and hope I can send some traffic there.

Short version: The electoral college forces candidates to attract geographically dispersed support. Moving a swing state from 45% to 55% is much more important than moving a solid blue or solid red state from 75% to 85%.

This is vital. Our country is already polarized, and that polarization is reflected in geography.  See the map. A set of rules that encourages further polarization would be a disaster. American democracy failed miserably once. 700,000 people died and government of the people, by the people, and for the people nearly did perish from the earth. Things like this don't happen again only when people think they can, and vice versa.

In a pure popular vote contest, after candidates and parties adapt their positions and coalitions of support, we are likely to see whole swaths of the country with 70, 80, 90% or more majorities of one or the other party -- and even greater demonization of the other side. Fill in the gaps what happens next.

The deep point: When you set up rules for anything, there is a tension between measurement and incentives. Once people show up at the polls on election day, there is a strong case that "each vote should count the same." But if you do that, the incentives, and hence the outcomes will be much worse.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

National Fellows at Hoover

How would you like to work at Hoover for a year, focusing on research with no teaching or other responsibilities, and soaking up the intellectual climate of Hoover and Stanford? If you are an economist roughly 3-10 years post PhD, doing research with some policy relevance that would benefit from a year here, this could be for you.

More information and application form here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

New Paper

A draft of a new paper is up on my webpage, "Michelson-Morley, Occam and Fisher: The Radical Implications of Stable Inflation at Near-Zero Interest Rates." This combines some talks I had given with the first title, and a much improved version of "does raising interest rates raise or lower inflation?"

The long period of quiet inflation at near-zero interest rates, with large quantitative easing, suggests that core monetary doctrines are wrong. It suggests that inflation can be stable and determinate under a nominal interest rate peg, and that arbitrary amounts of interest-paying reserves are not inflationary. Of the known alternatives, only the new-Keynesian model merged with the fiscal theory of the price level is consistent with this simple interpretation of the facts.
I explore two implications of this conclusion. First, what happens if central banks raise interest rates? Inflation stability suggests that higher nominal interest rates will result in higher long-run inflation. But can higher interest rates temporarily reduce inflation? Yes, but only by a novel mechanism that depends crucially on fiscal policy. Second, what are the implications for the stance of monetary policy and the urgency to “normalize?” Inflation stability implies that low-interest rate monetary policy is, perhaps unintentionally, benign, producing a stable Friedman-optimal quantity of money, that a large interest-paying balance sheet can be maintained indefinitely. However, with long run stability it might not be wise for central bankers to exploit a temporary negative inflation effect.
The fiscal anchoring required by this interpretation of the data responds to discount rates, however, and may not be as strong as it appears.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Trump Taxes Two

Source: Wall Street Journal
"President-elect Donald Trump owns a helicopter in Scotland.
To be more precise, he has a revocable trust that owns 99% of a Delaware limited liability company that owns 99% of another Delaware LLC that owns a Scottish limited company that owns another Scottish company that owns the 26-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, emblazoned with a red “TRUMP” on the side of its fuselage."
So write Jean Eaglesham, Mark Maremont, and Lisa Schwartz in the Wall Street Journal

"WTF?" wonders the incredulous reader. Why does Mr. Trump structure his finances with such mind-boggling complexity, to say nothing of astronomic legal costs? The article is pretty thin on explaining the logic of all this.

You can see the Journal writers struggling for a narrative. Is this about Mr. Trump's "conflict of interest" issues? Is this something nefarious about Mr. Trump, efforts to hide something? (You can be sure earnest investigative reporters at the Times will be beating both drums for the next four years. And just as sure that nobody will pay much attention unless they can tempt Mr. Trump into saying something stupid about it all.)

Let me suggest a productive narrative. Mrs. Clinton's email saga laid bare for all of us to see the financial arrangements of prominent public figures -- "charitable foundations" to funnel money around, all "legal." In my view, rightly felt disgust at that look into our political system had a lot to do with the election. Mr. Trump's financial arrangements lay bare for all of us to see the financial arrangements of the super-wealthy in this country, also massively complex, perfectly "legal," and smelling equally of last week's fish. The right response is equal disgust at the obscene tax code and crony capitalist system that produces this mess.  Mitt Romney's taxes were 550 pages long, and he only had investments, not operating companies! Fellow peasants, get out your pitchforks!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Growth full oped

Source: Wall Street Journal

On November 7 I wrote "Don't believe the economic pessimists," an oped about growth in the Wall Street Journal. Now that 30 days have passed, I can post the whole thing here. pdf here (my webpage).

Don't Believe the Economic Pessimists

No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, now ought to be the time that policy makers in Washington come together to tackle America’s greatest economic problem: sclerotic growth. The recession ended more than seven years ago. Unemployment has returned to normal levels. Yet gross domestic product is rising at half its postwar average rate. Achieving better growth is possible, but it will require deep structural reforms.

The policy worthies have said for eight years: stimulus today, structural reform tomorrow. Now it’s tomorrow, but novel excuses for stimulus keep coming. “Secular stagnation” or “hysteresis” account for slow growth. Prosperity demands more borrowing and spending—even on bridges to nowhere—or deliberate inflation or negative interest rates. Others advocate surrender. More growth is impossible. Accept and manage mediocrity.

But for those willing to recognize the simple lessons of history, slow growth is not hard to diagnose or to cure. The U.S. economy suffers from complex, arbitrary and politicized regulation. The ridiculous tax system and badly structured social programs discourage work and investment. Even internet giants are now running to Washington for regulatory favors.

If you think robust growth is impossible, consider a serious growth-oriented policy program—one that could even satisfy many of the left’s desires.

The next crisis?

Where will the next crisis come from?  Every crisis starts with a pile of debt that can't be paid back, and shady accounting to hide that debt. When one big one goes under, everybody starts to question the shady deals they've invested in, the extend-and-pretend game ends, heretofore simple rolling over of short term debt suddenly ends, and the run starts. Governments bail out. Really big crises happen when governments run out of bailout power or will and you have a sovereign debt crisis or inflation. Governments bail out by borrowing, but if people won't lend the government money to bail out, either default or inflation must follow.  Reinhart and Rogoff describe a frequent "quiet period" between financial crisis and sovereign crisis. So far we have just had quiet.

So, where around the world is there a lot of debt that might not be paid back and really shady accounting? Well, duh, China, right?

So if I have to dream up a nightmare scenario it goes something like this: A pile of debt in China is found wanting. China's government takes desperate steps -- huge bailouts, sell its pile of treasuries, force people to buy worthless assets, print up lots of money, but prop up its value by stopping people from taking currency abroad, and so forth.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Balance sheet balance

The Fed has a huge "balance sheet" -- It owns about $3 trillion of government bonds and mortgage backed securities, which it finances by issuing about $1 trillion of cash and $2 trillion of reserves -- interest-bearing accounts that banks have at the Fed. Is this a problem? Should the Fed trim the balance sheet going forward?

On Tuesday Dec 6, I participated on a panel at Hoover's Washington offices to discuss the book "Central Bank Governance And Oversight Reform" with very distinguished colleagues, Michael Bordo, Charles Plosser, John Taylor, and Kevin Warsh. We're not afraid to disagree with each other on panels -- there's no "Hoover view" one has to hew to, so I learned a lot and I think we came to some agreement on this issue in particular.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Carrier Commentary

When Paul Krugman, Larry Summers,  Sarah Palin, and the Wall Street Journal all agree on something -- that presidential deal-making and strong-arming over plant location is a terrible idea -- it's worth paying attention to.

I think Tyler Cowen did the best job of describing what's wrong with the deal, interviewed on NPR. (Transcript, Highlights and audio link).

(This is an impressive radio interview. I long to be able to express something that quickly clearly and coherently on radio. Tyler must have really prepared hard for it.)
INSKEEP: Don Evans says this is a way for the president-elect to send a strong message to workers and to corporations about what his priorities are. What's wrong with that?

TYLER COWEN: We're supposed to live under a republic of the rule of law. Not the rule of man. This deal is completely non-transparent. And the notion that every major American company has to negotiate person-to-person with the president over Twitter is going to make all business decisions politicized.