Monday, August 28, 2023

Interest rates and inflation part 3: Theory

This post takes up from two previous posts (part 1;  part 2), asking just what do we (we economists) really know about how interest rates affect inflation. Today, what does contemporary economic theory say? 

As you may recall, the standard story says that the Fed raises interest rates; inflation (and expected inflation) don't immediately jump up, so real interest rates rise; with some lag, higher real interest rates push down employment and output (IS); with some more lag, the softer economy leads to lower prices and wages (Phillips curve). So higher interest rates lower future inflation, albeit with "long and variable lags." 

Higher interest rates -> (lag) lower output, employment -> (lag) lower inflation. 

In part 1, we saw that it's not easy to see that story in the data. In part 2, we saw that half a century of formal empirical work also leaves that conclusion on very shaky ground. 

As they say at the University of Chicago, "Well, so much for the real world, how does it work in theory?" That is an important question. We never really believe things we don't have a theory for, and for good reason. So, today, let's look at what modern theory has to say about this question. And they are not unrelated questions. Theory has been trying to replicate this story for decades. 

The answer: Modern (anything post 1972) theory really does not support this idea. The standard new-Keynesian model does not produce anything like the standard story.  Models that modify that simple model to achieve something like result of the standard story do so with a long list of complex ingredients. The new ingredients are not just sufficient, they are (apparently) necessary to produce the desired dynamic pattern. Even these models do not  implement the verbal logic above. If the pattern that high interest rates lower inflation over a few years is true, it is by a completely different mechanism than the story tells. 

I conclude that we don't have a simple economic model that produces the standard belief. ("Simple" and "economic" are important qualifiers.) 

The simple new-Keynesian model 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Interest rates and inflation part 2: Losing faith in VARs

(This post continues part 1 which just looked at the data. Part 3 on theory is here

When the Fed raises interest rates, how does inflation respond? Are there "long and variable lags" to inflation and output?  

There is a standard story: The Fed raises interest rates; inflation is sticky so real interest rates (interest rate - inflation) rise; higher real interest rates lower output and employment; the softer economy pushes inflation down. Each of these is a lagged effect. But despite 40 years of effort, theory struggles to substantiate that story (next post), it's had to see in the data (last post), and the empirical work is ephemeral -- this post.  

The vector autoregression and related local projection are today the standard empirical tools to address how monetary policy affects the economy, and have been since Chris Sims' great work in the 1970s. (See Larry Christiano's review.) 

I am losing faith in the method and results. We need to find new ways to learn about the effects of monetary policy. This post expands on some thoughts on this topic in "Expectations and the Neutrality of Interest Rates," several of my papers from the 1990s* and excellent recent reviews from Valerie Ramey and  Emi Nakamura and Jón Steinsson, who  eloquently summarize the hard identification and computation troubles of contemporary empirical work.

Maybe popular wisdom is right, and economics just has to catch up. Perhaps we will. But a popular belief that does not have solid scientific theory and empirical backing, despite a 40 year effort for models and data that will provide the desired answer, must be a bit less trustworthy than one that does have such foundations. Practical people should consider that the Fed may be less powerful than traditionally thought, and that its interest rate policy has different effects than commonly thought. Whether and under what conditions high interest rates lower inflation, whether they do so with long and variable but nonetheless predictable and exploitable lags, is much less certain than you think. 

Monday, August 7, 2023

Blinder, supply shocks, and nominal anchors

An a recent WSJ oped (which I will post here when 30 days have passed), I criticized the "supply shock" theory of our current inflation. Alan Blinder responds in WSJ letters 

First, Mr. Cochrane claims, the supply-shock theory is about relative prices (that’s true), and that a rise in some relative price (e.g., energy) “can’t make the price of everything go up.” This is an old argument that monetarists started making a half-century ago, when the energy and food shocks struck. It has been debunked early and often. All that needs to happen is that when energy-related prices rise, many other prices, being sticky downward, don’t fall. That is what happened in the 1970s, 1980s and 2020s.

Second, Mr. Cochrane claims, the supply-shock theory “predicts that the price level, not the inflation rate, will return to where it came from—that any inflation should be followed by a period of deflation.” No. Not unless the prices of the goods afflicted by supply shocks return to the status quo ante and persistent inflation doesn’t creep into other prices. Neither has happened in this episode.

When economists disagree about fairly basic propositions, there must be an unstated assumption about which they disagree. If we figure out what it is, we can think more productively about who is right. 

I think the answer here is simple: To Blinder there is no "nominal anchor." In my analysis, there is. This is a question about which one can honorably disagree. (WSJ opeds have a hard word limit, so I did not have room for nuance on this issue.) 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Rangvid on housing inflation

(This post is an interlude between history and VARs) 

Jesper Rangvid has a great blog post today on different inflation measures. 

CPI and PCE core inflation (orange and gray) are how the US calculates inflation less food and energy, but including housing. We do an economically sophisticated measure that tries to measure the "cost of housing" by rents for those who rent, plus how much a homeowner pays by "renting" the house to him or herself. You can quickly come up with the plus and minus of that approach, especially for looking at month to month trends in inflation. Europe in the "HICP core" line doesn't even try and leaves owner occupied housing out altogether. 

Jesper's point: if you measure inflation Europe's way, US inflation is already back to 2%. The Fed can hang out a "mission accomplished" banner. (Or, in my view, a "it went away before we really had to do anything serious about it" banner.) And, since he writes to a European audience, Europe has a long way to go. 

A few deeper (and slightly grumpier) points: 

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Interest rates and inflation -- part 1

Today I begin a three part series exploring interest rates and inflation. (Part 2 empirical work, Part 3 theory) 

How does the Fed influence inflation? Is the recent easing of inflation due to Fed policy, or happening on its own? To what extent should we look just to the Fed to bring inflation under control going forward? 

The standard story: The Fed raises the interest rate. Inflation is somewhat sticky. (Inflation is sticky. This is important later.) Thus the real interest rate also rises. The higher real interest rate softens the economy. And a softer economy slowly lowers inflation. The effect happens with "long and variables lags," so a higher interest rate today lowers inflation only a year or so from now. 

interest rate -> (lag) softer economy -> (lag) inflation declines

This is a natural heir to the view Milton Friedman propounded in his 1968 AEA presidential address, updated with interest rates in place of money growth. A good recent example is Christina and David Romer's paper underlying her AEA presidential address, which concludes of current events that as a result of the Fed's recent interest-rate increases, "one would expect substantial negative impacts on real GDP and inflation in 2023 and 2024."

This story is passed around like well worn truth. However, we'll see that it's actually much less founded than you may think. Today, I'll look at simple facts. In my next post, I'll look at current empirical work, and we'll find that support for the standard view is much weaker than you might think. Then, I'll look at theory. We'll find that contemporary theory (i.e. for the last 30 years) is strained to come up with anything like the standard view. 

Here's the history of interest rates and inflation. We're looking to see if high real interest rates push inflation down. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Fitch is right

(Updated to fix numbers.) Fitch is right to downgrade the US. Read the sober report. But there are a few other reasons, or emphasis they might have added. 

  • The inflationary default

Inflation is the economic equivalent of a partial default. The debt was sold under a 2% inflation target, and people expected that or less inflation. The government borrowed and printed $5 Trillion with no plan to pay it back, devaluing the outstanding debt as a result. Cumulative inflation so far means debt is repaid in dollars that are worth 10% less than if inflation had been* 2%. That's economically the same as a 10% haircut. 

Thursday, July 27, 2023

On the 2% inflation target

Project Syndicate asked Mike Boskin, Brigitte Granville,  Ken Rogoff and me whether 2% is the right inflation target. See the link for the other views. I pretty much agree with them in the short run -- don't mess with it -- but took a different long run view. Apparently Volcker and Greenspan were fans of price level targeting and hoped to get there eventually, which is the sort of long run approach I took here. 

I also emphasize that any inflation target is (of course) a joint target of fiscal as well as monetary policy. Fiscal policy needs to commit to repay debt at the inflation target. 

My view: 

No, 2% is not the right target. Central banks and governments should target the price level. That means not just pursuing 0% inflation, but also, when inflation or deflation unexpectedly raise or lower the price level, gently bringing the price level back to its target. (I say “and governments” because inflation control depends on fiscal policy, too.)

The price level measures the value of money. We don’t shorten the meter 2% every year. Confidence in the long-run price level streamlines much economic, financial, and monetary activity. The corresponding low interest rates allow companies and banks to stay awash in liquidity at low cost. A commitment to repay debt without inflation also makes government borrowing easier in times of war, recession, or crisis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Electric vehicles, carbon taxes, supply and demand, virtue signals, and China

If you have not been paying attention, our government has decided that all electric vehicles are the solution to the climate problem. At least as long as they are made in the US with union labor and benefits. California has committed to banning the sale of anything else. In today's post, a few tidbits from my daily WSJ reading on the subject. 

From Holman Jenkins on electric cars:  

If the goal were to reduce emissions, the world would impose a carbon tax. Then what kind of EVs would we get? Not Teslas but hybrids like Toyota’s Prius. “A wheelbarrow full of rare earths and lithium can power either one [battery-powered car] or over 90 hybrids, but, uh, that fact seems to be lost on policymakers,” a California dealer recently emailed me.

[Note: that wheelbarrow of rare earths comes from multiple truckloads of actual rocks. Also see original for links.] 

...The same battery minerals in one Tesla can theoretically supply 37 times as much emissions reduction when distributed over a fleet of Priuses.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Writing tidbit

From Joseph Epstien's oped in the July 13 WSJ on Biden v Trump (please, dear Lord, no)

Each man has risen to the presidency thanks, mostly, to the unattractiveness of his electoral opponent. Each man was elected as a lesser-evil choice, yet both have succeeded in vastly polluting the tone of our country’s political life. Lesser-evil choices sometimes turn out to be evil enough.

Low and seedy are the corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused: molesting women, entering into dubious financial dealings with foreign corporations and governments, cavalierly mishandling important documents, and more. 

My italics. I'm not here today on content, but just on writing. I make mental notes of little writing tricks that might embellish my prose.  

I liked the first one, just because it's such a beautiful catchy phrase. I'm not sure what the general principle is, but I'd like to come up with more prose like that. 

The second one has a clearer lesson. The usual rule is, write your sentences forward. Or, more likely, edit your sentences to be forwards. You should quickly turn that one around to "The corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused are low and seedy." Or, better, through it changes the subject a bit, "Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused of low and seedy corruptions." 99% of the time you should do that. 

But not this time. Look how beautiful that backward sentence is. There must be some biblical quote it refers to. Maybe readers can come up with the allusions. 

Don't do it all the time. But rules are made to be broken, if you really know what you're doing. Which Epstein clearly does. 

Freeman on Mills on IEA on battery powered cars

James Freeman's always excellent "best of the web" WSJ column today covers a Manhattan Institute report by Mark Mills itself referencing material deep in side an International Energy Agency report on battery powered electric cars. Like corn ethanol, this enthusiasm may also pass. 

The economic and environmental costs of batteries are slowly seeping out. One of my pet peeves in all of our command-and-control climate policy is that any comprehensive quantification of costs and benefits seems so rare, or at least so hidden. How many dollars for how many tons of carbon -- and especially the latter: how many tons of carbon, really, all in, including making the cars? (California only counts tailpipe emissions!) I have seen guesstimates that electric cars only breakeven in their carbon emissions at 50,000-70,000 miles. And, the point of the article, those estimates are likely undercounts especially if there is a huge expansion.  

Parts I found interesting and novel: 

For all of history, the costs of a metal in both dollar and environmental terms are dictated primarily by ore grades, i.e., the share of the rock dug up that contains the metal sought... Ore grade is what accounts for the differences in the cost per pound of gold, $15,000, and iron, $0.05. The former ore grades are typically below 0.001% and the latter over 50%.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

New York Times on HANK, and questions

By the standards of mainstream media coverage of technical economics, Peter Coy's coverage of HANK (Heterogeneous Agent New Keynesian) models in the New York Times was actually pretty good. 

1) Representative agents and distributions. 

Yes, it starts with the usual misunderstanding about "representative agents," that models assume we are all the same. Some of this is the standard journalist's response to all economic models: we have simplified the assumptions, we need more general assumptions. They don't understand that the genius of economic theory lies precisely in finding simplified but tractable assumptions that tell the main story. Progress never comes from putting more ingredients and stirring the pot to see what comes out. (I mean you, third year graduate students looking for a thesis topic.) 

But in this case many economists are also confused on this issue. I've been to quite a few HANK seminars in which prominent academics waste 10 minutes or so dumping on the "assumption that everyone is identical." 

There is a beautiful old theorem, called the "social welfare function." (I learned this in graduate school in fall 1979, from Hal Varian's excellent textbook.) People can have almost arbitrarily different preferences (utility functions), incomes and shocks, companies can have almost arbitrarily different characteristics (production functions),  yet the aggregate economy behaves as if there is a single representative consumer and representative firm. The equilibrium path of aggregate consumption, output,  investment, employment, and the prices and interest rates of that equilibrium are the same as those of an economy where everyone and every firm is the same, with a "representative agent" consumption function and "representative firm" production function.  Moreover, the representative agent utility function and representative firm production function need not look anything like those of any particular individual person and firm. If I have power utility and you have quadratic utility, the economy behaves as if there is a single consumer with something in between. 

Defining the job of macroeconomics to understand the movement over time of aggregates -- how do GDP, consumption, investment, employment, price level, interest rates, stock prices etc. move over time, and how do policies affect those movements -- macroeconomics can ignore microeconomics. (We'll get back to that definition in a moment.) 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Inflation and debt across countries

Peder Beck-Friis and Richard Clarida at Pimco have a nice blog post on the recent inflation, including the above graph.  I have wondered, and been asked, if the differences across countries in inflation lines up with the size of the covid fiscal expansion. Apparently yes. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Fiscal inflation and interest rates

Economics is about solving lots of little puzzles. At a July 4th party, a super smart friend -- not a macroeconomist -- posed a puzzle I should have understood long ago, prompting me to understand my own models a little better. 

How do we get inflation from the big fiscal stimulus of 2020-2021, he asked? Well, I answer, people get a lot of government debt and money, which they don't think will be paid back via higher future taxes or lower future spending. They know inflation or default will happen sooner or later, so they try to get rid of the debt now while they can rather than save it. But all we can do collectively is to try to buy things, sending up the price level, until the debt is devalued to what we expect the government can and will pay. 

OK, asked my friend, but that should send interest rates up, bond prices down, no? And interest rates stayed low throughout, until the Fed started raising them. I mumbled some excuse about interest rates never being very good at forecasting inflation, or something about risk premiums, but that's clearly unsatisfactory. 

Of course, the answer is that interest rates do not need to move. The Fed controls the nominal interest rate. If the Fed keeps the short term nominal interest rate constant, then nominal yields of all bonds stay the same, while fiscal inflation washes away the value of debt. I should have remembered my own central graph: 

This is the response of the standard sticky price model to a fiscal shock -- a 1% deficit that is not repaid by future surpluses -- while the Fed keeps interest rates constant. The solid line is instantaneous inflation, while the dashed line gives inflation measured as percent change from a year ago, which is the common way to measure it in the data. 

There you have it: The fiscal shock causes inflation, but since the nominal interest rate is fixed by the Fed, it goes nowhere, and long term bonds (in this linear model with the expectations hypothesis) go nowhere too. 

OK for the result, but how does it work? What about the intuition, that seeing inflation coming we should see higher interest rates? Let's dig deeper. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Hope from the left

One ray of hope in the current political scene comes from the land of deep blue.  However one views the immense expenditure on solar panels, windmills and electric cars, (produced in the US by US union labor, of course), plus forced electrification of heat and cooking, a portion of the blue-state left has noticed that this program cannot possibly work given laws and regulations that have basically shut down all new construction. And a substantial reform may follow.  

I am prodded to write by Ezra Kleins' interesting oped in the New York Times, "What the Hell Happened to the California of the ’50s and ’60s?," a question repeatedly asked to Governor Gavin Newsom. The answer is, of course "you happened to it." For those who don't know, California in the 50s and 60s was famous for quickly building new dams, aqueducts, freeways, a superb public education system, and more.   

Gavin Newsom states the issue well. 

"..we need to build. You can’t be serious about climate and the environment without reforming permitting and procurement in this state.”

You can't be serious about business, housing, transportation, wildfire control, water, and a whole lot else without reforming permitting and procurement, but heck it's a start. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The perennial fantasy

Two attacks, and one defense, of classical liberal ideas appeared over the weekend. "War and Pandemic Highlight Shortcomings of the Free-Market Consensus" announces Patricia Cohen on p.1 of the New York Times news section.  As if the Times had ever been part of such a "consensus." And Deirdre McCloskey reviews Simon Johnson and Daron Acemoglu's "Power and Progress," whose central argument is, per Deirdre, "The state, they argue, can do a better job than the market of selecting technologies and making investments to implement them." (I have not yet read the book. This is a review of the review only.) 

I'll give away the punchline. The case for free markets never was their perfection. The case for free markets always was centuries of experience with the failures of the only alternative, state control. Free markets are, as the saying goes, the worst system; except for all the others. 

In this sense the classic teaching of economics does  a disservice. We start with the theorem that free competitive markets can equal -- only equal -- the allocation of an omniscient benevolent planner. But then from week 2 on we study market imperfections -- externalities, increasing returns, asymmetric information -- under which markets are imperfect, and the hypothetical planner can do better. Regulate, it follows. Except econ 101 spends zero time on our extensive experience with just how well -- how badly -- actual planners and regulators do. That messy experience underlies our prosperity, and prospects for its continuance. 

Starting with Ms. Cohen at the Times, 

The economic conventions that policymakers had relied on since the Berlin Wall fell more than 30 years ago — the unfailing superiority of open markets, liberalized trade and maximum efficiency — look to be running off the rails.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the ceaseless drive to integrate the global economy and reduce costs left health care workers without face masks and medical gloves, carmakers without semiconductors, sawmills without lumber and sneaker buyers without Nikes.

That there ever was a "consensus" in favor of "the unfailing superiority of open markets, liberalized trade and maximum efficiency" seems a mighty strange memory. But if the Times wants to think now that's what they thought then, I'm happy to rewrite a little history. 

Face masks? The face mask snafu in the pandemic is now, in the Times' rather hilarious memory, the prime example of how a free and unfettered market fails. It was  a result of "the ceaseless drive to integrate the global economy and reduce costs?" 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The barn door

Kevin Warsh has a nice WSJ oped warning of financial problems to come.  The major point of this essay: "countercyclical capital buffers" are another bright regulatory idea of the 2010s that now has fallen flat. 

As in previous posts, a lot of banks have lost asset value equal or greater than their entire equity due to plain vanilla interest rate risk. The ones that haven't run are now staying afloat only because you and me keep our deposits there at ridiculously low interest rates. Commercial real estate may be next. Perhaps I'm over-influenced by the zombie-apocalypse goings on in San Francisco -- $755 million default on the Hilton and Parc 55, $558 million default on the whole Westfield mall after Nordstrom departed and on and on. How much of this debt is parked in regional banks? I would have assumed that the Fed's regulatory army could see something so obvious coming, but since they completely missed plain vanilla interest rate risk, and the fact that you don't have to stand in line any more to run on your bank, who knows?

So, banks are at risk; the Fed now knows it, and is reportedly worried that more interest rates to lower inflation will cause more problems. To some extent that's a feature not a bug -- the whole theory behind the Fed lowering inflation is that higher interest rates "cool economic activity," i.e. make banks hesitant to lend, people lose their jobs, and through the Phillips curve (?) inflation comes down. But the Fed wants a minor contraction, not full-on 2008. (That did bring inflation down though!) 

I don't agree with all of Kevin's essay, but I always cherry pick wisdom where I find it, and there is plenty. On what to do: 

Ms. Yellen and the other policy makers on the Financial Stability Oversight Council should take immediate action to mitigate these risks. They should promote the private recapitalization of small and midsize banks so they survive and thrive.

Yes! But. I'm a capital hawk -- my answer is always "more." But we shouldn't be here in the first place. 

Monday, June 12, 2023

Papers: Dew-Becker on Networks

I've been reading a lot of macro lately. In part, I'm just catching up from a few years of book writing. In part,  I want to understand inflation dynamics, the quest set forth in "expectations and the neutrality of interest rates," and an  obvious next step in the fiscal theory program. Perhaps blog readers might find interesting some summaries of recent papers, when there is a great idea that can be summarized without a huge amount of math. So, I start a series on cool papers I'm reading. 

Today: "Tail risk in production networks" by Ian Dew-Becker, a beautiful paper. A "production network" approach recognizes that each firm buys from others, and models this interconnection. It's a hot topic for lots of reasons, below.  I'm interested because prices cascading through production networks might induce a better model of inflation dynamics. 

(This post uses Mathjax equations. If you're seeing garbage like [\alpha = \beta] then come back to the source  here.) 

To Ian's paper: Each firm uses other firms' outputs as inputs. Now, hit the economy with a vector of productivity shocks. Some firms get more productive, some get less productive. The more productive ones will expand and lower prices, but that changes everyone's input prices too. Where does it all settle down? This is the fun question of network economics. 

Ian's central idea: The problem simplifies a lot for large shocks. Usually when problems are complicated we look at first or second order approximations, i.e. for small shocks, obtaining linear or quadratic ("simple") approximations. 

On the x axis, take a vector of productivity shocks for each firm, and scale it up or down. The x axis represents this overall scale. The y axis is GDP. The right hand graph is Ian's point: for large shocks, log GDP becomes linear in log productivity -- really simple. 

Why? Because for large enough shocks, all the networky stuff disappears. Each firm's output moves up or down depending only on one critical input. 

Friday, June 9, 2023

The Fed and the Phillips curve

I just finished a new draft of "Expectations and the neutrality of interest rates," which includes some ruminations on inflation that may be of interest to blog readers. 

A central point of the paper is to ask whether and how higher interest rates lower inflation, without a change in fiscal policy. That's intellectually interesting, answering what the Fed can do on its own. It's also a relevant policy question. If the Fed raises rates, that raises interest costs on the debt. What if Congress refuses to tighten to pay those higher interest costs? Well, to avoid a transversality condition violation (debt that grows forever) we get more inflation, to devalue outstanding debt. That's a hard nut to avoid.  

But my point today is some intuition questions that come along the way. An implicit point: The math of today's macro is actually pretty easy. Telling the story behind the math, interpreting the math, making it useful for policy, is much harder. 

1. The Phillips curve

The Phillips curve is central to how the Fed and most policy analysts think about inflation. In words, inflation is related to expected future inflation and by some measure if economic tightness, factor \(x\). In equations, \[ \pi_t = E_t \pi_{t+1} + \kappa x_t.\] Here \(x_t\) represents the output gap (how much output is above or below potential output), measures of labor market tightness like unemployment (with a negative sign), or labor costs. (Fed Governor Chris Waller has a great speech on the Phillips curve, with a nice short clear explanation. There are lots of academic explanations of course, but this is how a sharp sitting member of the FOMC thinks, which is what we want to understand. BTW, Waller gave an even better speech on climate and the Fed. Go Chris!)  

So how does the Fed change inflation? In most analysis, the Fed raises interest rates; higher interest rates cool down the economy lowering factor x; that pushes inflation down. But does the equation really say that? 

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Cost Benefit Comments

The Biden Administration is proposing major changes to cost-benefit analysis used in all regulations. The preamble here, and the full text here. It is open for public comments until June 20

Economists don't often comment on proposed regulations. We should do so more often. Agencies take such comments seriously. And they can have an afterlife. I have seen comments cited in litigation and by judicial decisions. Even if you doubt the Biden Administration's desire to hear you on cost-benefit analysis, a comment is a marker that the inevitable eventual Supreme Court case might well consider. Comments tend only to come from interested parties and lawyers. Regular economists really should comment more often. I don't do it enough either. 

You can see existing comments:  Search for Circular A-4 updates to get to, then select “browse all comments.” (Thanks to a good friend who sent this tip.) 

Take a look at comments from an MIT team led by Deborah Lucas here and by Josh Rauh. These are great models of comments. You don't have to review everything.   Make one good point. 

Cost benefit analysis is useful even if imprecise. Lots of bright ideas in Washington (and Sacramento!) would struggle to document any net benefits at all. Yes, these exercises can lie, cheat, and steal, but having to come up with a quantitative lie can lay bare just how hare-brained many regulations are. 

Monday, June 5, 2023

Stephens at Chicago; effective organizations

Brett Stephens gave a great commencement speech (NYT link, HT Luis Garicano) at the University of Chicago. One part stood out to me, and worthy of comment. Bret starts with the problem of Groupthink:

Why did nobody at Facebook — sorry, Meta — stop Mark Zuckerberg from going all in on the Metaverse, possibly the worst business idea since New Coke? Why were the economists and governors at the Federal Reserve so confident that interest rates could remain at rock bottom for years without running a serious risk of inflation? Why did the C.I.A. believe that the government of Afghanistan could hold out against the Taliban for months but that the government of Ukraine would fold to the Russian Army in days? Why were so few people on Wall Street betting against the housing market in 2007? Why were so many officials and highly qualified analysts so adamant that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Why were so many people convinced that overpopulation was going to lead to catastrophic food shortages, and that the only sensible answers were a one-child policy and forced sterilizations?

Oh, and why did so many major polling firms fail to predict Donald Trump’s victory in 2016?

Conspicuous institutional failures are the question of our age We could add the SBV regulatory fiasco, the 2007 financial regulatory failure, the CDC FDA and numerous governments under Covid,  and many more.  Systemic incompetence doesn't just include disasters, but ongoing wounds from the Jones act to California's billions wasted on obviously ineffective homeless spending.