Sunday, February 28, 2021

r < g

r<g is an essay on the question whether r<g means the government can borrow and not worry about repaying debts. No. 


A situation that the rate of return on government bonds r is less than the economy's growth rate g seems to promise that borrowing has no fiscal cost. r<g is irrelevant for the current US fiscal problems. r<g cannot begin to finance current and projected deficits. r<g does not resolve exponentially growing debt. r<g can finance small deficits, but large deficits still need to be repaid by subsequent surpluses. The appearance of explosive present values comes by using perfect-certainty discount formulas with returns drawn from an uncertain world. Present values can be well behaved despite r<g. The r<g opportunity is like the classic strategy of writing put options, which fails in the most painful state of the world.

The essay is based on comments I gave at the spring NBER EFG meeting on Ricardo Reis' "The constraint on public debt when r<g but g<m." My discussion starts here at 4:48,  Ricardo presents the paper (very good, worth listening to, many points I didn't get to) at 4:30 

pdf for now, as translating equations to blogger is taxing. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Fiscal theory of the price level draft

The Fiscal Theory of the Price Level is a book I'm writing on that topic. It now has a full draft, here

Comments, typos, suggestions, complaints, parts you find too easy, part you find too hard, things you think are wrong, parts you find repetitive, parts you find need better connection, things I should add, things I should delete are all most welcome! 

I also did a 2 hour video mini-course on FTPL for the Becker-Friedman Institute last summer, with slides/notes here. 

Update: The video link is now fixed (2/1/2012)

Monday, February 22, 2021

Econtalk on virus

About a month ago, Russ Roberts and I had a great conversation about virus, vaccine, and tests for the Econ Talk podcast, and the free market approach. It's out now, here for the podcast, or embedded below  and here video on YouTube. The podcast link already has some excellent comments. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Lipson on basic decency

Why are people gloating over Rush Limbaugh’s death? Charles Lipson writes 

The gloating over Rush Limbaugh’s death ought to shock the conscience. That’s not a political statement. That’s a cri de coeur about how our basic sense of human decency has been warped by political differences.

To take one example, a Yale Law professor tweeted he wasn’t just happy Limbaugh had died, he was euphoric.

He’s not some drunk being carried out of a rowdy bar. He’s the Charles F. Southmayd Professor of Law and Philosophy at Yale Law School and the Director of Yale’s Center for Law and Philosophy. ...

The New York Times chose to write about Limbaugh's "Legacy of Venom:", "Weaponizing conspiracy theories and bigotry."  Could they not wait for his body to be cold? Or show less respect for the tens of millions of apparently deplorable fellow citizens who listened to him? 

This is not one more complaint about the woke left. This is a problem on both sides. 

Rush’s friends on the right are happy to claim the moral high ground when the left is degrading itself like this. But they only hold it for a moment. They act the same way when the opportunity arises. Do you think they would behave any better if a Nancy Pelosi was hit by a bus? Many would think it was the perfect time to share with the world how much they hated the Speaker, how glad they were to see her gone.

Quite a few expressed that view when invading the Capitol a month or so ago.  

Lipson's main point, and mine: 

The point here is not only that this behavior is despicable, though it is. The point is that so many people think their views are righteous and worth sharing with the world. That smugness and moral self-righteousness are signs of our political divisions and the moral decay they generate.


When prominent people celebrate Rush Limbaugh’s death they are, inadvertently, telling us something about the decay of our civic culture. They are showing that we are now behaving as if we are at war, a cultural and political civil war. In the process, we are losing our sense of respect for each other at a very basic level.

No one has the moral high ground here. Far too many take every fleeting opportunity to cry, ‘Vengeance is mine.’ That cry springs from battles that both sides now consider life-or-death. That is not how political differences should be contested in a constitutional democracy. That is not how people in tolerant, liberal societies treat each other. For those who say, ‘We are better than that,’ it’s time to show it.

Both sides of our partisan politics are acting as if this is a life or death battle, the point being to wipe the other side off the face if not of the earth, of our political life. As I have opined, if it is so, we need to change the winner take all rules of our game. 

My mother advised, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything. George Shultz, who we have been remembering this week at Hoover,  would not have behaved this way, even on the death of a deep ideological opponent. "Show respect" was one of his watchwords. He did, even to the Soviets. 

Let's try to keep comments polite on this one. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Institutional culture

Arnold Kling has an intriguing series of blog posts on the nature of universities and other institutions that are, as he says, cancel-bait. I removed the cancel-bait part and pass on his observation on the shift in institutional culture, visible in universities but also in corporate and nonprofit institutions and in our politics. 

1. The older culture saw differential rewards as just when based on performance. The newer culture sees differential rewards as unjust.

2. The older culture sought people who demonstrate the most competence. The newer culture seeks to nurture those who are at a disadvantage.

3. The older culture admires those who seek to stand out. The newer culture disdains such people.

4. The older culture uses proportional punishment that is predictable based on known rules. The newer culture suddenly turns against a target and permanently banishes the alleged violator, based on the latest moral fashions.

5. The older culture valued open debate. The newer culture seeks to curtail speech it regards as dangerous.

6. The older culture saw liberty as essential to a good society. The newer culture sees conformity as essential to a good society.

7. The older culture was oriented toward achievement. The newer culture is oriented toward safety. Hence, we cannot complete major construction projects, like bridges, as efficiently as we used to. 

Why? Well, he passes on a theory which I don't necessarily agree with, though I haven't read the cited book. The increasing politicization of all institutions of civil society is a different force that has a lot to do with the new culture. But the observations seem perceptive no matter what the reason. Academic economics certainly seems much more careerist than it used to be, more about who has what title and job than about who wrote what interesting new idea.  But maybe that perception is a sign of age. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Vaccine math. $500 per shot?

I'm reading up on the $1.9 trillion "stimulus." This caught me eye:

 Biden's plan would set out $160 billion for a nationwide vaccine program that would help state and local governments get the vaccine into people's arms.

There are 328 million people in the US. $160 billion is just about exactly $500 per person. 

Now, I am of the view that the government should have spent a lot more on vaccines, testing, public health and so forth, given the $5 trillion and counting it has cost the government, and more in lots GDP, jobs, years of school and so forth. This is likely the least bothersome line in the bill. 

Still, has the US really gotten to the point of health care sclerosis and dysfunction that it costs $500 -- on top of money already allocated -- to give someone a shot?  

Test snafu

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a $5 test that works in minutes, and can find asymptomatic people who might transmit covid? Imagine how many schools, businesses, restaurants, weddings, churches, and so forth could safely open with such a thing. Imagine how much the reproduction rate of the virus could be crushed. 

There is! And it's sitting on shelves, one of the biggest casualties of the US federal monopoly on this simplest of all consumer goods. From detailed Wall Street Journal coverage

“Antigen testing is one of the most powerful tools we have to hasten control to normalcy,” said Richard Pescatore, associate state medical director at the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services...

The tests can quickly help determine whether someone is infectious. The tests detect cases by searching for pieces of proteins from the virus. They deliver results in minutes.

Among the first rapid antigen tests cleared by regulators was the BinaxNOW, which is made by Abbott Laboratories, costs $5 and doesn’t require any equipment.

Costs $5 to the federal government. Imagine if Abbott could send it to you via Amazon or ship it in bulk to Wal Mart. Alas, rather than simply sell the tests on the open market, the federal government is the monopoly buyer, shipped them to states, and they sit on shelves: 

The wages of stimulus


Discussing stimulus, a colleague passed along a factoid -- wages and salaries, he said,  are running $20 billion a month or $240 billion a year below where they should be. If the "stimulus" were to aim entirely to replace all lost wages due to the pandemic, that would stop at $240 billion, not $1.9 trillion. (My colleague is usually a pro-stimulus type.) I forgot to get the source, so I tried to recreate it. Here are some documented numbers, total compensation of employees, wage and salaries. 

Feb 2019 $9,228

Feb 2020 $9,659

Dec 2020 $9,675

These are billions at an annual rate. Actually, by these numbers Dec 2020 is already above Feb 2020! That doesn't account for inflation, or missing growth. If we want to entitle ourselves to the trend, wages should have gone up $430 billion. Ok, still less than $1.9 trillion. (My snarky comment: trends are earned slowly, not laws of nature. Trends in wages come from higher productivity, expanding businesses, greater labor force participation, lower unemployment.) 

One can argue for federal payments as insurance. Some people are definitely hurting, and some others are doing better. But the case for an overall "aggregate demand" shortfall seems weak. It is not always 1933. 

Inflation issues


In analyzing whether inflation is coming, Mickey Levy at Berenberg Capital passes along the above graph. These are price indices, so the upward or downward slope measures inflation. Is there inflation? That depends on whether you ask durable goods or services. 

Why are we experiencing durable good deflation, and will it last? Part of the answer is quality adjustment: 

Friday, February 5, 2021

A modest proposal for vaccine rationing

A mid-20s child of a good friend just got the vaccine. Why? He runs a micro-brewery, which his state deemed "essential," because it's "manufacturing." 

As the WSJ reports

After nursing-home residents and health-care workers, the CDC says priority should go to those over age 75 and an expansive list of “frontline essential workers.”,

...“essential workers” ... include those who “work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health. 

media! Economics blogging should count, no? 

What happens when a good is rationed? It is given out politically. 

While many states have already given priority to police and firefighters, teachers’ unions are trying to cut to the front of the line and are blackmailing politicians by refusing to reopen schools. But teachers and child-care workers face less risk than other front-line workers since children are less likely to transmit the coronavirus. 

Other unions are also lobbying for priority. The SEIU lambasted California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s well-advised decision last week to remove “essential” workers such as janitors from the state’s priority guidelines and base eligibility almost solely on age. “It’s like he’s putting us out to die,” griped SEIU United Services Workers West political director Sandra Díaz. 

Industry groups including hotels, airlines and ride-share companies are also lobbying states to have their workers vaccinated first. Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week announced that restaurant, taxi and ride-share drivers would be next in line for vaccines. But why restaurant workers before retail workers or 60-year-olds?

The WSJ suggests rationing based on age. 

The modest proposal: Why not let "industry groups" decide when they want the vaccine based on...hold your breath.. paying a market price to get it?  I wouldn't dare whisper that maybe individual people could be allowed to decide when to get the vaccine -- that is what we're talking about, when, not if --  by deciding when they want to pay for it, as our political climate cannot say out loud that anything should be rationed by willingness to pay. But surely, we can agree that profit-making businesses should be allowed to pay to get their workers vaccinated sooner -- if it's really important to them to do so -- rather than just by who has more political connections to be labeled "essential." 

Fun: Rory Cooper tweets

Fairfax schools says they're going to open up 2 days a week in March for some kids. Wanna know how? They're hiring thousands of unskilled classroom monitors to watch kids watch computer screens because their fully vaccinated teachers won't return to the building. This is nuts.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Trading halts and game over

David Battan writing in the WSJ brings come clarity to Robin Hood's trading stop.  It raises some questions for me, however. Much of the problem seems to stem from two-day clearing and settlement, and brokers lending people money to trade. Instant settlement and at least separating the lending activity from the trading activity ought to help. The institutions are really stuck with relics of a pre-computer world, it seems. 

OK, first the facts, then speculation, and an invitation for commenters to correct me as I am not a master of these important plumbing issues. 

When clients trade, especially on margin, they use the broker’s money to play. Imagine a client buys 100 shares of GameStop for $400 a share, using $20,000 of his own money and borrowing $20,000 from Robinhood. If the stock drops from $400 to $120 (as it did on Jan. 28), the client’s position may be sold for $12,000 due to the margin violation, leaving Robinhood trying to collect an unsecured $8,000 debt from “u/Thicc_Ladies_PM_Me.” Good luck. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands of similar clients. Option trading is worse because the leverage is much greater. 

"Margin violation" means basically this: