Prof. Krugman Snared By 364 Trap

In his New York Times column of September 15, 2014, How to Get It Wrong,Paul Krugman pleas for open-mindedness and reason. From whence did Prof. Krugman convert from his embrace of dogmatism?

Well, it’s clear that he has not converted. Indeed, the evidence resides about three quarters of the way through his column:

“The great majority of policy-oriented economists believe that increasing government spending in a depressed economy creates jobs, and that slashing it destroys jobs — but European leaders and U.S. Republicans decided to believe the handful of economists asserting the opposite. Neither theory nor history justifies panic over current levels of government debt, but politicians decided to panic anyway, citing unvetted (and, it turned out, flawed) research as justification.”

This passage brings back vivid memories of the 364. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and my friend and collaborator, the late Sir Alan Walters, was her economic guru. Britain’s fiscal deficit was relatively large, 5.6% of its gross domestic product, and the economy was in the middle of a nasty slump. To restart the economy, Thatcher instituted a fierce fiscal squeeze, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. This was immediately condemned by 364 dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian economists - virtually all of the British establishment. In a letter to the Times, they wrote, “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Thatcher and Walters were vindicated quickly. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy turned around and boomed for the next five years. That result provoked disbelief among the Keynesians. After all, according to their dogma, the relationship between the direction of a fiscal impulse and economic activity is supposed to be positive, not negative.

The 364’s dogma was proven wrong. Thatcher and Walters were right.

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

Chile’s Proposed Education Reforms Would Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

For the past three decades, Chile has had a nationwide voucher-like school choice program. Parents can choose among public and private schools, and the government picks up most or all of the tab. But, since the election last fall of a left-leaning government led by Michelle Bachelet, the future of the program has been in doubt. In May, President Bachelet introduced a first round of reforms aimed at dismantling aspects of the program, though these are still under debate. I’ve written about what that could mean for Chile’s educational performance and equality in today’s edition of the Santiago-based El Mercurio. Here’s the original English version:

Chile’s elementary and secondary education system has been harshly criticized in recent years for academic underperformance and for having large gaps in achievement between lower-income and higher-income students. There is significant truth to both charges. What is less widely known is that Chile has been improving substantially in both respects for at least a decade, and that president Bachelet’s proposed reforms are likely to reverse that improvement.

Though Chilean students perform in the bottom half of countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, many of the nations that participate in that test are rich and fully industrialized. When compared to other Latin American countries, Chile is number one across all subjects. More importantly, Chile is one of the fastest-improving countries in the world on international tests, and so it is gradually closing the gap with rich nations.

Imperialist Tourist Spots Help Explain Chinese Aggressiveness Today

BEIJING—Modern China continues to rise.  But ancient China remains.  And bears witness to a history the West would prefer to forget.

The Summer Palace is one of Beijing’s most enchanting tourist destinations.  But some of the old buildings are in ruins—courtesy of the Western powers.

Imperial China long was a cultured and advanced civilization that eventually fell into decay.  By the 1800s the Western powers had begun to carve out concessions and colonies.

The Summer Palace first was created in the 12th century and was meant to ease the life of the royal family.  In 1860 during the Second Opium War French and British troops destroyed most of what is now called the Old Summer Palace.

In 1886 the Empress Dowager Cixi used funds planned for a navy to rebuild the royal playground.  She called the site the Garden of Peace and Harmony, an appropriate name, except for the garden’s unwanted guests.

In 1900 came the Boxer Rebellion, named for the violent xenophobic, spiritual movement named the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists.”  The Boxers targeted foreigners, especially missionaries, and Chinese Christians.  The revolt, supported by the Empress Dowager, reached Beijing, in which Western diplomats were killed and legations were besieged.  The Western nations raised an eight-nation rescue force, including American troops.

The allied forces eventually relieved the city—alas, the Boxers discovered that their training did not render them immune to bullets.  One of the casualties was the New Summer Palace. The gardens and buildings were burned by the allies, objects contained within were plundered.

The Empress Dowager had to rebuild again on her return to Beijing, which she had fled in advance of the allies.  She died in 1908 and the republican revolution occurred three years later.

This unseemly history is of more than just academic interest.  It helps explain Beijing’s behavior today.

No doubt, some Chinese, both in and out of the People’s Republic of China, have an exaggerated sense of Chinese history, civilization, and destiny.  And Imperial China, despite the fascinating esoterica surrounding it, was an unfriendly place for most of the humane values which we value today.  Nevertheless, China has been treated badly, especially by the Western powers which today are most insistent on Beijing following Western standards.

This historical experience helps explain the nationalism which afflicts even young Chinese who are liberal in many other ways.  The same students believe in a strong, even dominant China.

In fact, many ethnic Chinese living outside of the PRC cheered Hong Kong’s 1997 reversion to Beijing’s control.  For them, the issue was CHINA, not the particular regime ruling the territory known as China at this moment.

More important, those in charge feel a special responsibility as their nation gains the resources, influence, and power necessary to reverse a century or more of humiliation.  That may not justify increasing Chinese assertiveness, especially in the West’s eyes.  But it helps explain the behavior.

This doesn’t mean other nations should automatically concede the PRC’s claims.  But it suggests that Chinese assertiveness involves something other than malevolent aggression.

In which case, as I write in my new article on China-US Focus, “Washington is foolish to militarize disputes which are, at most, of only moderate geopolitical interest.  Other nations, especially those, like Japan, whose behavior has been, shall we say, less than exemplary, have a special responsibility to accommodate Beijing’s perceptions and interests.”

History helps explain Beijing’s policies and politics today.  While those in the West might have amnesia about what their ancestors did to the forebears of China’s leaders, the latter are not so likely to forget.  Policymakers in the U.S. would do well to consider that history in designing their approach to Beijing.  A peaceful and prosperous 21st century might depend on it.

Immigration’s Real Impact on Wages and Employment

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has been releasing a series of reports claiming that immigrants are benefiting from the slightly recovering job market while natives are not.  Of course, if immigrants were even less likely to gain jobs than Americans, CIS would use that as evidence that immigrants are a drain on the economy.  No matter.  

The implicit assumption in CIS’ publications is that if those millions of immigrants weren’t working in the United States, more native-born Americans would have jobs – a static view of the economy.  CIS’ fixed pie implication is inappropriate to any kind of reasonable economic analysis of the effects of immigration on the labor market.  That is the primary reason why labor economists do not use CIS’ methods when attempting to measure the labor market impacts of immigration.  Even if CIS’ numbers were compiled correctly, they are not measuring anything useful.

A large body of academic economic research has found that immigration has a relatively small effect on U.S-born American wages and their employment prospects.  For wages impact, the estimates are that immigrants either lower the wages of some American workers by about 2 percent or raise them by about 2 percent in a dynamic economy (this, this, and this).  The employment effects vary little but, like wages, the effects are small and clustered around zero.  Nowhere will you find a tradeoff where one additional immigrants means that one American loses a job in the economy.

The CIS papers make no counterfactual dynamic economic estimates of the strength of the labor market without immigrants.

Here are some additional facts you won’t see in CIS’ papers:

More Headaches in Obamacare Open Enrollment

Open enrollment for Obamacare’s second year begins in two months. Recent reports suggest that this year’s enrollment period will not be a smooth process.

According to Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press, individuals face many hurdles in signing up for or renewing coverage:

  • For the roughly 8 million people who signed up this year, the administration has set up automatic renewal. But consumers who go that route may regret it. They risk sticker shock by missing out on lower-premium options. And they could get stuck with an outdated and possibly incorrect government subsidy. Automatic renewal should be a last resort, consumer advocates say.
  • An additional 5 million people or so will be signing up for the first time on HealthCare.gov and state exchange websites. But the Nov. 15-Feb. 15 open enrollment season will be half as long the 2013-2014 sign-up period, and it overlaps with the holiday season.
  • Of those enrolled this year, the overwhelming majority received tax credits to help pay their premiums. Because those subsidies are tied to income, those 6.7 million consumers will have to file new forms with their 2014 tax returns to prove they got the right amount. Too much subsidy and their tax refunds will be reduced. Too little, and the government owes them.
  • Tens of millions of people who remained uninsured this year face tax penalties for the first time, unless they can secure an exemption.

These won’t be the only issues. In July, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that the HealthCare.gov website is still not complete. The back-end system that links the website to insurers and distributes the subsidies is not operational. Additionally, thousands, possibly millions, of insurance policies will be cancelled over the next several months for not including all of Obamacare’s mandates which will increase the confusion for individuals.

The Obama administration says that this year’s open enrollment period will be better than the last, but the complexity and short enrollment period will still create lots of headaches for consumers. Shockingly, overhauling a large swath of the United States economy is not easy work.

War Powers in the Bush-Obama Era

Over at the National Interest, I have a piece examining President Obama’s claim, in his nationally televised address Wednesday night, that “I have the authority to address the threat from ISI[S].” 

Just where he’s supposed to get that authority isn’t clear—even to the Obama administration itself. In the last week, Obama officials have invoked (1) the War Powers Resolution, (2) the 2002 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, and (3) the AUMF that Congress passed three days after 9/11. Any AUMF in a storm, it seems. 

As I explain in the article, not one of those claims survives a good-faith reading of the relevant legislative text. The WPR specifically forecloses any interpretation that it grants the president a “free pass” for elective bombing. And invoking the 2001 or 2002 AUMF for a new war against a new enemy over a decade later is the sort of statute-stretching that makes using TARP to bail out car companies look timid by comparison. 

You could describe the president’s approach as “three bad arguments in search of a theme.” Near as I can discern it, that theme is, “I’m not George W. Bush.” 

Apparently, it’s very important to Barack Obama to make clear that he doesn’t subscribe to the Congress-be-damned, I’m the “Decider” approach of his predecessor. Justifying war on a pure presidential power theory is for bad people like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, the legal architect of the Bush-Cheney “Terror Presidency.” (Though, of course, Bush went to Congress for authorization in Iraq and Afghanistan, even while denying he needed it).

Obama’s nothing like that, he’ll have you know. He’s the guy who told us on the campaign trail that “The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers,” and affirmed that the president lacks the power to launch military attacks absent an “actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  (His eventual veep, Joe Biden, went further, promising to “impeach [Bush] if he takes the nation to war against Iran without congressional approval.”)

And yet, it’s hard to escape the echoes of Obama’s predecessor in Wednesday night’s speech, from his case for preventive war against an enemy that “if left unchecked… could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States,” to his promise to “support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units” (When they stand up, we will stand down). As John Yoo himself said last week: “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.”

Tortured, bad-faith constructions of authorization passed by past Congresses for different wars can’t hide that underlying reality. Obama may not be George W. Bush, but he’s doing a pretty decent imitation.