Sunday, June 13, 2021


Adrian Woolridge wrote a thought-provoking essay titled "Meritocracy, Not Democracy, Is the Golden Ticket to Growth," advertising a forthcoming book. 

Meritocracy, the secret sauce of growth?  

To Woolridge, meritocracy is the secret sauce of prosperity: 

The surest sign that a country will be economically successful is not the health of its democracy, as some liberals like to think, or the leanness of its government, as some free-marketers imagine, but its commitment to meritocracy. Singapore is a soft authoritarian power. But it has transformed itself in a few decades from a poverty-stricken swamp into one of the world’s most prosperous countries, with a higher standard of living and a longer life expectancy than its old colonial master, because it is perhaps the world’s leading practitioner of meritocracy. The Scandinavian countries have some of the world’s largest governments and most generous welfare states. But they retain their positions at the top of international league tables of prosperity and productivity in large part because they are committed to high-quality education, good government and, beneath their communitarian veneer, competition; in other words — meritocracy.

By contrast, countries that have resisted meritocracy have either stagnated or hit their growth limits. Greece, a byword for nepotism and “clientelism” (using public-sector jobs to reward partisan cronies), has struggled for decades. Italy, the homeland of nepotismo, enjoyed a postwar boom like France and Germany but has been stagnating since the mid-1990s....

Democracy alone does not lead to growth, and likewise growth does not swiftly lead to democracy. Look at China vs. India, and many democratic, at least in the sense of leaders chosen by fairly free elections,  but poor countries around the world.

For a generation, political economists have been looking more deeply at institutions -- rule of law, property rights, etc. -- as a secret sauce. "Meritocracy" is a good buzzword for a different idea of what is centrally important. 

...countries that favor recruiting professional managers through open competition have higher growth rates than those that favor recruiting amateur managers through personal connections. America has the highest overall management score, followed by Germany and Japan. Rich-world laggards such as Portugal and Greece, and big emerging-market countries such as India, have a long tail of un-meritocratic and therefore badly managed firms.

The essay goes on, condensing much more evidence. 

It is plausible that meritocracy is especially important now, as businesses globalize and incorporate IT. The rising skill premium and larger reach of global corporations means that it is ever more important to match skilled people with the positions that require skill.

 His bottom line 

... The idea that there is a necessary relationship between democracy and growth rests on a false positive. The really robust relationship is between meritocracy and growth. ..

the evidence of economics is overwhelming: Meritocracy promotes prosperity, and dismantling meritocracy will reduce it. Those who support the current campaign against merit need to admit that they are opting for lower growth. 

I am not an expert on the huge political/economic literature on the correlates of growth. This sounds reasonable, but the Acemoglus, Barros, etc. of the world may have important things to say on the evidence. Still, it's a novel idea and let's follow it.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Vaccine slowdown?


Source. Everyone seems tired of covid. And sure, inflation, debts, "infrastructure," competing voting narratives and so on are more fun. But covid is still with us. 

The graph summarizes what I've read in lots of news stories: vaccination is slowing down. There is plenty of supply, but we are running in to people who do not go get the vaccine. 

This strikes me as a tragedy. (Disclaimer: this is an exploratory post, and I'm anxious to hear about it from more knowledgeable people). It means covid will remain with us as an endemic disease, occasionally breaking out as immunity fades and covid evolves. We're on the 20 yard line, folks, it's not time to punt.

I'm pretty darn libertarian, but not about vaccinations. The US should be pushing for near universal vaccination. This is like finishing your dose of antibiotics. 

We do not have to jump to compulsion. Can we at least allow incentives? Vaccine passports sound like a no-brainer even to a libertarian. Allow me to disclose that I am vaccinated, and allow owners of private property like restaurants, bars, airlines, and so forth to demand proof of vaccination. That provides a nice incentive for people to get vaccinated. 

Our policy makers seem so completely deranged by the tiniest "equity" concerns that even this simple step is off the table. On NPR the fact that some disadvantaged groups refuse the vaccine means the rest of us can't have passports. Republicans are also refusing the vaccine, and nobody cares about that! Yes, some immunocompromised people can't get vaccines. Well, on that altar are we going to allow everyone else off the hook, or push to get others vaccinated so they don't infect immunocompromised people -- who shouldn't be going to bars anyway. This debate goes on and on, and time is wasting. 

Even the public messaging has faded away. Our nudgers in chief should be nudging like crazy -- go get vaccinated, people! 


I think my best moment as a blogger last year may have been my SIR model with behavior  that predicted the reproduction rate would settle down near one. When it's larger than one, people are more careful, including getting the vaccine. When it's less than one, people slack off. We are seeing a massive case of people, and politicians, slacking off of the one most important step, full vaccination. 

Eurosclerosis update


All pre-covid. European GDP per capita fell in the decade following the financial crisis. US growth was nothing to write home about, but things could be worse. The we-should-be-more-like-Europe crowd has some explaining to do. (The Word Bank's software misplaced the UK label; it is the red line on the top of the European group.) From the World Bank, HT Marginal Revolution.

The graph is in dollars, so part of the effect is that the dollar got more valuable relative to the euro. (Thanks to the commenters who noticed that I misread the graph caption. Blog post now fixed to reflect that.) 


A correspondent sends along the following graph from IMF data. IMF data uses PPP adjustments, not straight conversion to dollars. So the exchange rate really is an issue in comparing US to EU growth.  

Relative inflation has not been that different between the two countries. 

At least by these measures, EU inflation has been only very slightly less than US inflation 

So indeed, the exchange rate is the major part of the difference between the two graphs. Whether PPP or actual exchange rates are "right" for this purpose I leave for another day. Certainly the average American's ability to buy European goods has risen relative to the average European's ability to buy American goods. Why exchange rates diverge so long from PPP measures remains, I think, a central puzzle. But thanks to blog readers for quickly pointing out that the Marginal Revolution graph isn't as immediately relevant as it seemed. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Whither the Fed

I gave the UCSD economic roundtable lecture Friday June 11 on inflation and the future of the Fed. It summarizes quickly a number of themes from previous Grumpy writings, and if you enjoy videos you might find it fun. Youtube link in case the above embed does not work. 

I happened on the New York Fed website, proclaiming on its landing page that it is now

"...dedicated to understanding and finding solutions to the numerous forms of inequality that communities of color experience and working with communities in our District to address deep-seated inequities," 

in case you want documentation that the Federal Reserve is taking on inequality and racial issues. 

Slides available here

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The end of "the end of inflation"

This spring's spurt of inflation clearly already means one thing: The end of "the end of inflation." 

For 25 years inflation has seemed stuck on a downward trend. Those of us who worry about it seemed like end-of-the-world sign-holders that couldn't leave the 1970s behind. It's hard to buck the trend. A famous economist advised me to give up studying inflation -- inflation is 2%, he said, that's all you need to know. Apparently a new constant of nature. 

Well, apparently not. Inflation can happen, and there is an economics of inflation. Right now it's pretty obvious -- supply constraints both natural and artificial, coupled with rampant demand. 

Nobody is really sure where it will go. See the IGM survey for a good indication of how wide sensible consensus is on the issue. Maybe these are just temporary shocks, supply bottlenecks, a one-time price level rise from stimulus. Maybe it is the beginning of the 1970s, when exactly the same excuses were offered. 

I'll summarize my bottom line in thinking about this issue. 

1) The dynamics of inflation are roughly     

    inflation = expected inflation + inflation pressure   (*)

If people expect higher inflation next year, then sellers will be quicker to raise prices, and buyers quicker to pay higher prices.  The right measure of inflation pressure is more contentious. The unemployment rate or GDP gap (you will recognize a Phillips curve here) has been a pretty terrible measure. Take your pick of too-low interest rates set by the Fed, too much money, or too much debt and deficit. Whichever it is, if expected inflation remains "anchored," inflation comes back quickly once the pressure is off. If not, we're  in trouble as we have to bottle the expected inflation genie. 

The Fed seems to think that "anchoring" expectations comes from soothing speeches about how anchored expectations are. At worst they may say they have "the tools" to contain inflation should it break out, but they seldom say just what those tools are. I believe that expectations come from expected actions, not speeches, and better from robust institutional rules and commitments that force necessary but unpleasant actions when needed. At least, people must believe that the Fed is willing to repeat 1980 if it comes to that.  And raising interest rates will be much harder now, with a) 100% debt / GDP not 25%, so higher interest rates immediately hurt the budget b) huge reserves so the Fed will be seen to pay a windfall to big banks not to lend out money c) the too-big-to-fail banks will all lose a bundle if interest rates rise d) the current emphasis on inequality, as a recession will hurt the most vulnerable the most. 

2) In today's economy, in the end, inflation comes when people do not believe the government will repay debt. Beyond interest rates, the Fed changes the composition of government debt -- reserves vs. treasurys -- but not the amount of debt. Whether we hold treasurys via the world's largest money market fund (that's what the Fed is) or directly really does not matter. 

Inflation does not come from debt alone, but from debt relative to a credible plan and expectation that debt will be repaid. Expected inflation is anchored by the belief that  if inflation gets out of control our government will promptly put its fiscal as well as monetary house in order. Moreover, since our government has tragically borrowed short term, inflation comes when people believe that other people will lose this faith. Putting the fiscal house in order is not hard as a matter of economics -- a straightforward pro-growth reform of the tax code and entitlements. But our government has kicked that can down the road for nearly 40 years, and absolutely nobody wants to do it. It may have to come after the crisis, which will be much harder. 

None of this is very useful as a short-term forecast, which I do not offer. Both fiscal and monetary policy expectations, in this "regime-switching" moment, are volatile, not well anchored by decades of experience with a "regime," in the rational expectations tradition. I can offer then a summary of the forces at work, but those forces only emphasize how hard forecasting will be. If anyone could tell you for sure we would have inflation next year, we would already have inflation today. The logic of (*) is like the logic of a bank run or a stock market crash. That nobody can predict inflation well is proof of the theory. 

This spurt may pass, and expected inflation, reflecting faith in the ultimate sanity of US fiscal and monetary policy, remain anchored. This spurt may lead to a quick undermining of that faith. 

But at least the question is alive again, and a matter of useful economic analysis and debate. This for sure: The end of "the end of inflation" is at hand. 

Why won't banks take your money?

 Banks to Companies: No More Deposits, Please, says the puzzling headline at WSJ. 

Why would bankers not want to take any amount of deposits, park them in reserves at the Fed or short term Treasury bills, charge fees and a slight interest spread, and sign up for an early tee-time at the local golf club? Sure "net interest margin" or other metrics might not look good, but money is money and more money is more money. 

The answer: 

Top of mind for many big banks is a rule requiring them to hold [sic] capital equivalent to at least 3% of all assets. Worried about the rule’s impact during the pandemic, the Fed changed the calculation in 2020 to ignore deposits the banks held at the central bank, but ended that break this March. Since then, some banks have warned the growing deposits could force them to raise more capital, or say no to deposits.

This is a fascinating little insight into the crazy world of our Fed's risk regulation. 

Three inflations

 The latest inflation numbers are out, up 0.64% from April to May (7.7% annualized), on top of 0.77% (9.2% annualized) from March to April. . To get around the base controversy, I like to plot the level of the CPI: 

The graph suggests that  "reflation" from the pandemic recession was over last year, we had been back to the usual growth, and now we're embarked on something new. 

Inflation is not the same everywhere. For another purpose I broke inflation down to durable goods and services. 

Until about 1985, the three categories moved together. After that we saw a sharp divergence. Inflation depends on what you buy. Services got much more expensive, while durable goods actually saw deflation. The forces are familiar. The rise in skill premium has meant that people got more expensive, and some of that reflects also the rise in cost of businesses such as health care and universities which may have more to do with government payment. Durable goods got cheaper, thank you China, but also they got a lot better and the CPI decline reflects quality adjustments rather than lower sticker prices. (Nondurables and housing behave a lot like the average, so I don't show them.) 

Not all inflation is the same, and what you experience depends on what you buy and where you buy it. 

Now to the point: Where is the current surge in inflation coming from? I rebased the CPIs to 2018, and here they are. No surprise, the current surge of inflation is concentrated in durables.  Durables went up 3% April to May, a 36% annualized rate, on top of 3.52% March to April!  The others are rising too, interestingly, but not as spectacularly. It's also interesting that the big decline in the pandemic was among nondurables. This is all common sense. Bar and restaurant prices went down in the pandemic, less so TVs and gym equipment, and "stuff" is now really getting hard to find and to produce. 

As Tyler Goodspeed points out, this inflation has wiped out the real value of recent nominal wage gains.

(For analysis, the "inflation" tag has several recent posts on the topic.) 


Sunday, June 6, 2021

What about Japan?

What about Japan? It's a question I often hear from advocates of fiscal expansion. Japan has huge debts and no crisis or inflation (so far). Doesn't that prove the US can borrow a ton more money painlessly? 

I offer two new points today: 1) Not every high debt country is so happy. 2) Just what did Japan get for all its fiscal stimulus? Indeed, I will start asking "What about Japan?" Japan seems a tough case for those who advocate that fiscal stimulus will save us from secular stagnation, or that huge spending programs bring prosperity in other dimensions.   

1. Picking and choosing

Here, fresh from the April IMF Fiscal Monitor  is the list of top 30 countries sorted by debt to GDP ratios. I boldfaced larger countries. 

Yes, Japan is up there at 256% of GDP. The champion is Venezuela however. Sudan and Eritrea are not particularly known for economic prosperity. Greece and Italy are not held up as examples to follow either. Serial defaulter Argentina is behind the US already. 

If Japan is sustainable, that doesn't mean all large debts are sustainable. It means there's something different about Japan than the other countries on the list -- or ones now lower down on the list because they already defaulted or had crises. 

2. So what did Japan get for all that debt anyway? 

It was not always thus. Japan started borrowing heavily in the 1990s from a debt/GDP ratio of 63%. (For some reason the IMF does not have US data before 2002.) 

Those debts come from deficits, of 5-10% of GDP every year. Since 2006, the US has been behaving a lot like Japan, or more so. We only have less debt because the US ran surpluses through the 1990s. 

Japan has had perpetually low GDP growth, low inflation and zero interest rates since the 1990s. I view it as low "supply" growth, but it ought to be the poster child for "secular stagnation" fans. 

So I turn the question around: If massive deficits, including lots of "infrastructure"  are going to boost the US economy, why did they not do so for Japan? 


In response to tweets about why is Japan different from the US,  

I did not want to repeat old points. Japan's debt is long-term, held by domestic people, pensions and central bank. US debt is short-term, held by foreign central banks and financial institutions. Our debt is much more prone to run, and a rise in interest rates will feed quickly into the budget. Japan also has accumulated assets from trade surpluses; we have the opposite. Japan's debt is held by old people and subject to estate tax. A lot of Japanese hold bank accounts, as mutual funds and similar investment vehicles familiar in the US are less prevalent. Bank accounts flow in to reserves, backed by Treasury debt. 

More importantly, Japan  does not have looming unfunded Social Security and Medicare, underfunded pensions, contingent liabilities (Fannie and Freddy guarantee most home mortgages, who is going to pay student loans?) bailout guarantees and more.

 Sustainability is about debt vs. ability to repay; about future deficits;  not debt alone.

Japan's slow growth for three decades comes from microeconomics, taxes, regulations, demographics, slow productivity, not money, stimulus, "aggregate demand." 

Thursday, June 3, 2021


A correspondent asked for comment on the new ESG trend among asset managers. For example, BlackRock, and the recent Exxon upheaval with two new green directors (here, but cautionary WSJ coverage here, pointing out how empty the whole Exxon affair really is).  I'm sad to see even Vanguard (which has a lot of my money) going along on this...trend. 

Could you offer some thoughts about the trend of asset managers voting more critically this year? Are the big fund firms like BlackRock getting too far removed from the wishes of their customers? Other analysts say that BlackRock and other ESG-minded fund firms are only following the wishes of their younger investors who care more about those themes, maybe that makes it all ok?

My answer: 

As a private property fan, if the owners of a company want to spend its money on pointless virtue signaling, or important but unprofitable save-the-planet and cure-racial-injustice initiatives (depending on your point of view),  that’s up to them. I would rather get rid of the whole corrupt non-profit status anyway and see lots of organizations organized as corporations devoted to causes right and left. 

The issue here is representation. A very small minority is making these decisions on the behalf of a large and unrepresented majority. For example, if you have a company 401(k) managed by a plan, invested in a mutual fund, who hires out their proxy voting to a service, the decision to trade money for social good, and just what constitutes social good, is a long way removed from your preferences. (Me and Vanguard, for example.)