Tag: macroeconomics

Krugtron the Invincible or the Undercover Economist?

If one questions the old-school Keynesian orthodoxy, one risks being accused by Paul Krugman of being complicit in an “anti-scientific revolution” in macroeconomics:

[w]e had a scientific revolution in economics, one that dramatically increased our comprehension of the world and also gave us crucial practical guidance about what to do in the face of depressions. The broad outlines of the theory devised during that revolution have held up extremely well in the face of experience, while those rejecting the theory because it doesn’t correspond to their notion of common sense have been wrong every step of the way.

Yet a large part of both the political establishment and the economics establishment rejects the whole thing out of hand, because they don’t like the conclusions.

Galileo wept.

While there is no question of the importance of Keynesian models in 20th-century economic thinking, the current pluralism of modeling and empirical strategies in macroeconomics is a fact of life. The existence of divergent views on macroeconomics should not be surprising, given by the difficulty of doing clean empirical tests. Krugman does his discipline a disservice by elevating one narrow subset of models to the status of a well-established scientific truth and presenting the views of a large part of what he calls “the economics establishment” – i.e. of numerous other academics – as somehow obviously false and irrelevant.

So when it comes to economic journalism, one can – and should – do better than Krugman. To see a living example, come next Thursday to Cato and listen to Tim Harford (or watch live here if you can’t make it). Harford may disagree with libertarians on many issues but, unlike Krugman, he has always been the epitomy of civility. What is more, his writings demonstrate that one can communicate complicated ideas to wide audiences without falling into tired ideological clichés and self-righteousness.

Another Dismal Assessment of Obamanomics: United States Drops to 7th in WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index

Every year, I look forward to the annual releases of both Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom. With their comprehensive rankings, these two publications enable interested parties to compare nations and see which countries are moving in the right direction.

As an American, I’m ashamed to say that these publications also show which nations are moving in the wrong direction. And the United States ranks poorly by this metric, having dropped from 3rd place to 10th place since 2000 according to Economic Freedom of the World.

The United States also has dropped to 10th place in the Index of Economic Freedom, and is now ranked only as a “mostly free” nation.

Some people dismiss these pieces of data because the two rankings are considered to reflect a pro-free market bias.

But the folks at the World Economic Forum surely can’t be pigeonholed as a bunch of small-government libertarians, and the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report shows the same trend.

The United States took the top spot in the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index as recently as 2007 and 2008, but then dropped to 2nd place in 2009.

I think Bush bears the full blame for that unfortunate development. But the decline has continued in recent years, and Obama deserves a good part of the blame for the drop to 4th place in 2010.

The United States then fell to 5th place last year, in part because of horrible scores for “Wastefulness of Government Spending” (68th place) and “Burden of Government Regulation” (49th place).

Given this dismal trend, I opened the just-released 2012 Report with considerable trepidation. And my fears were justified. The United States has now dropped to 7th place.

Here is some of what was said about America.

The United States continues the decline that began a few years ago, falling two more positions to take 7th place this year. Although many structural features continue to make its economy extremely productive, a number of escalating and unaddressed weaknesses have lowered the US ranking in recent years. …some weaknesses in particular areas have deepened since past assessments. The business community continues to be critical toward public and private institutions (41st). In particular, its trust in politicians is not strong (54th), perhaps not surprising in light of recent political disputes that threaten to push the country back into recession through automatic spending cuts. Business leaders also remain concerned about the government’s ability to maintain arms-length relationships with the private sector (59th), and consider that the government spends its resources relatively wastefully (76th). A lack of macroeconomic stability continues to be the country’s greatest area of weakness (111th, down from 90th last year).

For people who like to look at the glass as being 1/10th full, the United States does beat Portugal (116ht place) in the score for macroeconomic stability.

Here are a few additional highlights. Or lowlights might be a better word.

  • The United States scores 42nd in property rights, behind Namibia and Uruguay.
  • The United States ranks 59th in government favoritism, behind Guinea and Bolivia.
  • The United States scores 76th in wastefulness in government spending, behind Mali and Nicaragua.
  • The United States also is 76th in the burden of government regulation, behind Kenya and Thailand.
  • The United States scores 69th in extent of taxation, behind Gambia and Ethiopia.
  • The United States ranks 103rd for total tax rate, behind Greece (!) and Philippines.

Now time for some caveats. The WEF report is based on survey results, for better or worse, and it also probably is best characterized as a measure of the attitudes of the business community rather than an estimate of economic freedom.

Regardless of limitations, though, it is a good publication. As such, it is downright embarrassing to see the United States fare so poorly in key indices—particularly when third-world nations score better.

We know that small government and free markets are the keys to prosperity. Bush took us in the wrong direction, however, and Obama is repeating his mistakes.

So don’t be surprised to see the American score decline further as additional reports are issued.

Cry for Argentina

With Obamacare at the Supreme Court, the presidential primary debates in full swing, and the federal government’s continued unwillingness to liberate the economy and thus allow it to create jobs, it’s easy to forget that there’s a world outside America, one with its own economic issues and presidential elections.

Take Argentina, for example, a country near and dear to my heart ever since I studied abroad there nearly 15 years ago. A century ago, Argentina was emerging from oligarchic rule to an ever-liberalizing democracy that was one of the richest countries in the world. By 1930 it had the seventh-largest economy, outpacing fellow new-world ex-colonies like Canada and Australia and attracting waves of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe. How did a country so rich in natural and human resources fall from that peak to become the butt of economists’ jokes?  (There are four types of countries in the world: developed, developing, Japan, and Argentina.)

The answer is the autarkic corporatism that came from the rule of Juan Domingo Peron, imposing an industrial policy that destroyed the burgeoning export-import sector, nationalized railroads, and gave unions all the power they wanted (so much that they even began clashing with Peron - sound familiar?). Combine that macroeconomic insanity—leading inevitably to social unrest and repressive government reactions thereto—with an idiosyncratic ”Third Way” foreign policy and redistributionist welfare schemes, and the jewel of Spain’s former empire came back to the pack of faltering Latin American states.

Wild populist swings of both the left and the right followed, interrupted only by a string of coup d’etats—I recall the syllabus of my Argentine history class read, “primer golpe de estado; segundo golpe de estado; tercer golpe de estado…”—resulting in a Dirty War between the ideological extremes that ended in the tone-deaf military triumvirate’s disastrous excursion in the Falkland Islands.  (Case in point: they thought President Reagan would support them over Thatcher’s Britain.) Democracy returned for good in 1983 but, save for a brief illusory period in the 1990s, Argentina’s economic house has never been in order. Recall that the country was a poster-child for hyperinflation in the late 1980s and even now inflation runs north of 20 percent (nobody knows for sure because the official figures cannot be trusted).

After an economic crisis of Great-Depression proportions (labeled simply La Crisis) in the early 2000s gave the country an extremely painful but long-needed correction—unpegging the peso from the U.S. dollar among other long-needed reforms—an accidental president from the south, Nestor Kirchner, began reimposing his brand of Peronism. This included defaulting on sovereign debt, government control of the energy sector, expanded social programs, and rapprochement with the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Deciding not to run for reelection, Kirchner handed the presidency to his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who essentially continued his heterodox policies while governing with an increasingly heavy hand against protestors and the media.

A few weeks ago, Argentines overwhelmingly reelected Fernandez, easily beating back opposition groups that never coalesced into a single movement or candidate. This result wasn’t surprising because the economy is expected to grow by eight percent this year and the middle class has largely recovered from the crisis—though most economists consider the current situation to be unsustainable, with the country eventually headed to a reckoning akin to the one it faced at the end of the ’90s (recall the tragic cycles the country endures).

Argentina provides America a “teachable moment,” to use one of our president’s favorite expressions. Like Argentina has been many times over the last century, the United States is at a crossroads. Will it continue to stand for individual liberty, innovation, and social mobility, or will Americans trade their freedom for ever-larger entitlements and evanescent protections from life’s vicissitudes? As Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote in a column that we can only hope fails to be prophetic:

On this, the experience of Mrs. Kirchner’s Argentina is instructive. It abandoned free markets, ostensibly in the interest of social justice. The predictable result has been greater injustice, more poverty, and increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the political class and its friends. Efforts to make the economy competitive have repeatedly been defeated even as the standard of living declined.

Argentina tests the theory that democracies have a built-in capacity to correct the overreach of government. Not only has it been unable to extricate itself from the black hole of corporatism, it is getting sucked in further.

Or, as Cristina Fernandez put it on the eve of her reelection, “I don’t know if Obama has read Peron, but let me tell you, it sure seems like it.”

[Not coincidentally to the timing of this blogpost, I will be in Argentina all next week, a working vacation of sorts.  I’m currently scheduled for two public talks: in Buenos Aires on Nov. 24 at 7pm at the business/economics university ESEADE on the topic of rule of law and economic development and in Tucuman on Nov.25 at 6pm at the Catalinas Park Hotel at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Soviet communism, sponsored by the think tank Libertad y Progreso. Both events will be in Spanish.]

Ricardo Paging Alan Blinder

I almost hesitate to suggest that anyone actually read Alan Blinder’s defense of Keynesian economics in today’s Wall Street Journal, except that the piece lays out clearly in my mind why Blinder is so wrong.  The only part you really need to read is:

In sum, you may view any particular public-spending program as wasteful, inefficient, leading to “big government” or objectionable on some other grounds. But if it’s not financed with higher taxes, and if it doesn’t drive up interest rates, it’s hard to see how it can destroy jobs.

So in Blinder’s world, deficits are explicitly not future taxes, despite what I believe is a fairly strong consensus among economists that some form of Ricardian equivalence holds (see John Seater’s literature review and conclusion, “despite its nearly certain invalidity as a literal description of the role of public debt in the economy, Ricardian equivalence holds as a close approximation.”).  Perhaps Blinder is blind to the fact that deficits are so much a part of the public debate today because households absolutely see those deficits as future taxes.

I also think Blinder misses that fact that crowding out can occur without raising interest rates.  As Cato scholar Steve Hanke points out, the Fed’s current policies have basically killed the interbank lending market, which has encouraged banks to load up on Treasuries and Agencies, rather than lend to the productive elements of the economy.  While I sadly don’t expect most mainstream macroeconomists to focus on the link between the banking sector and the macroeconomy, Blinder has no excuse; he served on the Fed board.

As I have argued elsewhere, banks are indeed lending, but to the government, not the private sector.  The simplistic notion that crowding out can only occur via higher interest rates, as if price is ever the only margin along which a decision is made, has done serious harm to macroeconomics.  But then if macroeconomists actually understood the mechanics of financial markets, then we might not be in this mess in the first place.

Economics 101

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

In his speech in Ohio yesterday, did President Obama draw a stark enough contrast with House Minority Leader John Boehner, whom he attacked by name eight times, to help his party in November?

My response:

The contrast the president drew was clear enough. His problem is that the people aren’t buying what he’s selling – and for good reason. His ideas, far from being new, have been tried countless times, both here and abroad. They don’t work. And they undermine basic American principles about individual liberty and free choice.

So when Obama says that Boehner and the Republicans have no new ideas, he’s partly right. (They have new ideas about how to address unsustainable entitlement programs – ask Rep. Paul Ryan.) At least in their rhetoric – their behavior in office, alas, is too often another matter – Republicans stand in substantial part for old ideas that work and conform more closely to the nation’s first principles, starting with lower taxes, less regulation, and less government management of the economy. That contrasts sharply with Obama’s countless “programs” to “stimulate” the economy, his targeted tax and spending schemes to create “green jobs,” to sell cars, and on and on. Listening to him, you’d think the economy would collapse were it not for Washington’s management of it.

The truth is quite the opposite, of course, as Americans are coming increasingly to appreciate. Economies prosper when entrepreneurs with ideas and capital are able to employ both for profit. But they won’t do that when conditions are uncertain, as they are when government meddles recklessly and uncertainly at every turn. How often have we heard entrepreneurs in recent months saying that they’d like to hire more people, but with the uncertainty of ObamaCare and so much else coming out of Washington, they’re sitting on their capital? And who can blame them?

So the answer is, get out of their way and let them do what they do best. But that’s not the Obama way. This “community organizer” – who organized people to demand more from government – seems to have no grasp of how economies work, beyond the failed command-and-control model. Even Fidel Castro has just now admitted that a government run economy doesn’t work. So either Obama smells the coffee coming now even from Cuba, or elections will take care of the matter.