Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Davis on Regulation and More

Steve Davis has a thoughtful speech on regulation, policy uncertainty, and above all the need for simplicity.  (On the policy uncertainty website).  A few excerpts:
... the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which compiles all federal regulations in effect each year...grew nearly eight-fold over the past 55 years, reflecting tremendous growth in the scale and complexity of federal regulations. At 175,000 pages, the CFR contains as many words as 130 copies of the King James Bible.  While Ten Commandments sufficed for the Hebrew God of the Old Testament, the CFR contains about one million commandments in the form of “shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required.”...
The size and complexity of the U.S. tax code also grew dramatically in recent decades. As of 2011, it takes 70,000 pages of instructions to explain the federal tax code (McCaherty, 2014). The code has about four million words and 67,000 sections, subsections and cross-references. It’s all crystal clear if you read the instructions carefully. ...
And the best paragraph:
The good Catholic Sisters who saw to my moral instruction in primary school devoted many hours to the Ten Commandments. They wanted my classmates and me to avoid sins. Their success in that regard is in doubt. But at least the Sisters could be confident that we did not sin out of ignorance or uncertainty. How they would have instructed us on one million commandments, I do not know. The delinquents in my school found it hard to absorb a mere ten....

Monday, October 26, 2015

Economic Growth

An essay. It's an overview of what a growth-oriented policy program might look like. Regulation, finance, health, energy and environment, taxes, debt social security and medicare, social programs, labor law, immigration, education, and more. There is a more permanent version here and pdf version here. This version shows on blogger, but if your reader mangles it, the version on my blog or one of the above will work better.

I wrote it the Focusing the presidential debates initiative. The freedom of authors in that initiative to disagree is clear.

Economic Growth

Growth is central

Sclerotic growth is the overriding economic issue of our time. From 1950 to 2000 the US economy grew at an average rate of 3.5% per year. Since 2000, it has grown at half that rate, 1.7%. From the bottom of the great recession in 2009, usually a time of super-fast catch-up growth, it has only grown at two percent per year.2 Two percent, or less, is starting to look like the new normal.

Small percentages hide a large reality. The average American is more than three times better off than his or her counterpart in 1950. Real GDP per person has risen from $16,000 in 1952 to over $50,000 today, both measured in 2009 dollars. Many pundits seem to remember the 1950s fondly, but $16,000 per person is a lot less than $50,000!

If the US economy had grown at 2% rather than 3.5% since 1950, income per person by 2000 would have been $23,000 not $50,000. That’s a huge difference. Nowhere in economic policy are we even talking about events that will double, or halve, the average American’s living standards in the next generation.

Even these large numbers understate reality.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Open-Mouth Operations

(Note: This post uses mathjax and has embedded pictures. When posts are reposted elsewhere these often get mangled. If it's not displaying well, come to the original at

Our central banks have done nothing but talk for several years now. Interest rates are stuck at zero, and even QE has stopped in its tracks. Yet, people still ascribe big powers to these statements. Ms. Yellen sneezes, someone thinks they hear "December" and markets move.

Buried deep in the paper I posted earlier this week is a potential model of "open mouth" operations, that might of interest to blog readers.

Use the standard "new-Keynesian" model \[ x_{t} = E_{t}x_{t+1}-\sigma(i_{t}-E_{t}\pi_{t+1}) \] \[ \pi_{t} = \beta E_{t}\pi_{t+1}+\kappa x_{t} \] Add a Taylor rule, and suppose the Fed follows an inflation-target shock with no interest rate change \[ i_t = i^\ast_t + \phi_\pi ( \pi_t - \pi^\ast_t). \] \[ i^\ast_t = 0 \] \[ \pi^\ast_t = \delta_0 \lambda_1^{-t} \] Equivalently express the Taylor rule with a ``Wicksellian'' shock, \[ i_t = \hat{i}_t + \phi_\pi \pi_t \] \[ \hat{i}_t = - \delta_0 \phi_\pi \lambda_1^{-t}. \] In both cases, \[ \lambda_{1} =\frac{\left( 1+\beta+\kappa\sigma\right) +\sqrt{\left( 1+\beta+\kappa\sigma\right) ^{2}-4\beta}}{2} \gt 1 \] Yes, this is a special case. The persistence of the shocks is just equal to one of the roots of the model. Here \(\delta_0\) is just a parameter describing how big the monetary policy shock is.

Now, solve the model by any standard method for the unique locally bounded solution. The answer is \[ \pi_{t} = \delta_0 \lambda_1^{-t}, \] \[ \kappa x_{t} = \delta_0 (1-\beta \lambda_1^{-1}) \lambda_1^{-t} \] \[ i_t = 0 \]

Here is the equilibrium path of inflation and interest rates (flat red line at zero).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Swiss Deflation

The Wall Street Journal Monday Oct 19 offers a reflection on deflation in Switzerland.

"It’s as close to an economic consensus as you can get: Deflation is bad for an economy, and central bankers should avoid it at all costs."

I differ, as does Milton Friedman's "Optimum quantity of money." And my "who's afraid of a little deflation" in... The Wall Street Journal.

"Then there’s Switzerland, whose steady growth and rock-bottom unemployment is chipping away at that wisdom."

"At a time of lively global debate about low inflation and its ill effects, tiny Switzerland—with an economy 4% the size of the U.S.—offers a fascinating counterpoint, with some even pointing to what they call 'good deflation.' ”

Indeed. The 1970s had stagflation. Now we have the opposite, "good deflation."  The Phillips curve lives on in "consensus."

Switzerland also is a good case for just how powerless central banks are to do much about it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do higher interest rates raise or lower inflation?

A new working paper by that title (pdf).  Some of the main ideas are in a longish post from last August.

The fact that inflation is so stable when interest rates are stuck at zero has profound implications. If inflation is stable at a zero peg, it must be stable at a higher peg as well, which means raising interest rates must sooner or later raise inflation. The open question, which this paper goes after, is whether inflation can temporarily decline when interest rates rise. (Graphs from an earlier blog post here.)

Classical "Keynesian" or "Monetarist" models say that inflation is unstable in a peg. They must be wrong. "New-Keynesian" models say that inflation is stable in a peg, a good point in their favor. The important difference is rational expectations. If people drive a car looking in the rear view mirror, cars are unstable and veer off the road. If people look forward, then cars are stable and get back on the road on their own.

But the standard new-Keynesian model also predicts that inflation goes up if interest rates rise, as shown in the graph.  Interest rates are blue, inflation is red, output is black. The dashed line is when people know the rise is coming, the solid line for when it's a surprise.  Raising rates does lower output, just as you thought.

The paper tries everything to revive the idea that higher interest rates lower inflation, without luck.

The standard new-Keynesian model accounts well for the fact that inflation has been stable at a zero interest rate peg. However, If the Fed raises nominal interest rates, the same model model predicts that inflation will smoothly rise, both in the short run and long run. This paper presents a series of failed attempts to escape this prediction. Sticky prices, money, backward-looking Phillips curves, alternative equilibrium selection rules, and active Taylor rules do not convincingly overturn the result. The evidence for lower inflation is weak. Perhaps both theory and data are trying to tell us that, when conditions including adequate fiscal-monetary coordination operate, pegs can be stable and inflation responds positively to nominal interest rate increases.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Open Borders

Alex Tabarrok has a very nice and very short piece at the Atlantic, The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely. (HT Marginal Revolution)

In the Soviet era, there were walls and guards with guns, and we deplored that people were not allowed to cross the border. Is it that different that the guards with guns are on the other side of the walls?

If you're a liberal, you should cheer the policy with the greatest chance of elevating the world's poor and reducing global inequality. If you're a conservative, believe in the rights of individuals and freedom, don't like minimum wages, unions, protectionism, and government control, it makes little sense to switch sides on this one issue.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lazear on Dodd-Frank and Capital

Ed Lazear has a nice WSJ oped, "How not to prevent the next financial meltdown." (Also available here via Hoover.) The main points will not be new to readers of this blog, or my much longer essay but the piece is admirable for putting the basic points so clearly and concisely.

The core problem of focusing on institutions not activities:
The theory behind so-called systemically important financial institutions, or SIFIs, is fundamentally flawed. Financial crises are pathologies of an entire system, not of a few key firms. Reducing the likelihood of another panic requires treating the system as a whole, which will provide greater safety than having the government micromanage a number of private companies.
A crisis is a run:
The risks to a system are most pronounced when financial institutions borrow heavily to finance investments. If the value of the assets falls or becomes highly uncertain, creditors—who include depositors—will rush to pull out their money. The institution fails when it is unable to find a new source of funds to meet these obligations.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Uncle Sam Spam

I talked a bit to Binyamin Applebaum about his article in the New York Times, Behaviorists Show the U.S. How to Improve Government Operations. As preparation, I read the Social and Behavioral sciences team annual report which he was covering.

Applebaum's article reflects much of the usual New York Times cheerleading for behaviorism and nudge/nanny programs.

Reading the report, I came away more approving of some aspects than blog readers might think, but a little more skeptical of some aspects than Applebaum's article.

  • The bottom line is spam. The government wants to send you letters, email, and text messages to sell its programs.  The limits and objections to the program are pretty obvious once you recognize that fact. Spam gets ineffective pretty quickly, and once we start getting spam from 150 different programs nudging us to do different things, spam will get even more ineffective even more quickly. 
  • If it's a good idea for the government to send us spam email and text messages, why are academic behavioral scientists the ones to do it, not professional spammers (sorry, "direct marketers")? The actual end result of this is more employment and consulting contracts for academic behavioral economics. 
  • The numbers in the report are surprisingly small. Sending spam raises the number of people taking advantage of some program from 2% to 2.2%, which can be sold as a 10 percent increase.  Even I, somewhat of a skeptic to start, am amazed how low the effects are. And both before and after numbers are incredibly small. The big news in this report is that we're full of government programs that only a few percent of the available people are taking advantage of! That might be great news for the budget, but shocking news of effectiveness.