Monday, December 31, 2012

Some trade-related news: follow-up

. Monday, December 31, 2012

A few days ago I posted a few short notes on several trade-related happenings (here).  There have been some recent developments that are worth pointing out. 
Farm Bill.  I mentioned that, as of last week, Congress was still stuck on a Farm Bill, and there was talk of a so-called “dairy cliff” . . .  The expiration of the existing Farm Bill provisions would have caused the cost of some dairy products to spike in the short term.  There is now agreement on a temporary solution, however.  Provisions of the existing (2008) farm bill will be kept in place as a holdover, while lawmakers negotiate a broader package in the next Congress.

U.S.-Russia relations.  I also noted that on December 14 the U.S. normalized trade relations with Russia by repealing the Jackson–Vanik Amendment, which served as a potential restriction on trade between the countries.  The repeal notwithstanding, the U.S.-Russia relationship took a hit for another reason.  Just as the Amendment was repealed, the U.S. also adopted a new law, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  The Magnitsky Law is designed to punish Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses, via visa restrictions and asset freezing.  (The title and impetus for the law were inspired by the arrest/death of an anticorruption lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison.)  It is widely believed that the Magnitsky Law led to the recently implemented Russian legislation that bans Americans from adopting Russian children (see here).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

RIP Peter Kenen

. Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I met him only one time, but he was very kind.  Influential contributions to the economics of monetary union. See reflections on his work here by Eichengreen and Wyplosz and here by Krugman.

Monday, December 24, 2012

This Looks Important: The Inefficient Markets Hypothesis

. Monday, December 24, 2012

But I haven't read it yet:
The Inefficient Markets Hypothesis: Why Financial Markets Do Not Work Well in the Real World
Roger E.A. Farmer, Carine Nourry, Alain Venditti
NBER Working Paper No. 18647
Issued in December 2012

Existing literature continues to be unable to offer a convincing explanation for the volatility of the stochastic discount factor in real world data. Our work provides such an explanation. We do not rely on frictions, market incompleteness or transactions costs of any kind. Instead, we modify a simple stochastic representative agent model by allowing for birth and death and by allowing for heterogeneity in agents' discount factors. We show that these two minor and realistic changes to the timeless Arrow-Debreu paradigm are sufficient to invalidate the implication that competitive financial markets efficiently allocate risk. Our work demonstrates that financial markets, by their very nature, cannot be Pareto efficient, except by chance. Although individuals in our model are rational; markets are not.
 I think Munger gets it wrong when he writes:
An objection to the ability of markets to get the rate of time discount "correct." My question: as compared to what? Compared to legislators with a two year time horizon (okay, six in the Senate, right after an election)? Why don't people make fun of the "efficient governments" hypothesis? The libertarian argument is not that markets are perfect, it's that politicians are even more short-sighted.
Again, having only read the abstract, I don't see this as saying that the actors aren't discounting correctly, but that they are discounting differently. This paper is still making pretty strong assumptions -- complete markets and no transaction costs -- but simply showing that with heterogenous agents financial markets are not Pareto-optimal. This is a big deal! It is also in line with things Steve Randy Waldman has been writing about for awhile (e.g.).

I don't think it implies quite what Munger thinks it implies; inefficient/irrational markets could still be more efficient or more rational than politicians. In fact, I imagine that the model would show that the market with a larger number of actors performs better than it would if it were controlled by a smaller number of actors, e.g. a government. But maybe not. I'll have to read it first. 

Update on L'Affaire Loomis


Via Dan Nexon. While I see Nexon's point that we are dealing with mealy-mouthed university administrators, I must completely disagree with his ("modest") level of satisfaction. This represents no victory at all because this new statement from URI officials, like the first one, completely misses the point. This is not about First Amendment rights. Nobody was saying that Loomis should be thrown into the deepest darkest dungeon never to be heard from again. They were saying that he should be fired or otherwise professionally damaged for an emotional -- and politically motivated -- response to a mass killing.

The relevant standard here is academic freedom, not First Amendment rights. The University of Rhode Island subscribes to the 1940 "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" issued by the American Association of University Professors. This Statement indicates that Loomis deserves the full support of the University of Rhode Island even if he was speaking under the banner of the University. (Which he always is, implicitly, contra the views of the CT commenters.) Instead of espousing that principle, which is fundamental to the mission of public universities, the University has repudiated it by saying that Loomis deserves no greater protection than those who have written to the University on this matter, whether in solidarity with or opposition to Loomis.

Loomis does not need the University to protect him from the threats of violence he has received; he has the FBI and the Rhode Island police for that. Loomis does not need the University to protect him from those who would suppress his speech; he has the U.S. Constitution for that. Loomis needs the University to protect him from professional damage as the result of a campaign of sabotage in response to his expression of a political nature. The University has failed to do that. Therefore the University has failed.

This new statement from URI is no better than the first. It simultaneously misses the point and refuses to honor its obligations to its faculty. A better statement would have read, in toto:

"The University of Rhode Island does not comment on the statements of individual faculty members, but it steadfastly defends the principles of academic freedom which are an essential component of the University's commitment to 'fostering a collective and individual propensity for inquiry' so that students may 'communicate, understand, and engage productively with people very different from themselves', including those with different beliefs and values."

UPDATE: Dan Nexon further explains his position. I respond in comments.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The New Global Savings Glut and the Politics of Imbalances

. Saturday, December 22, 2012

But it’s not just the United States and Japan. Name a country with three elements—a stable political system, a credible central bank to call its own, and a free flow of capital across its borders—and it has, right now, extraordinarily low interest rates. That’s true for Canada and Australia (10 year yields of 1.85 percent and 3.36 percent), of Switzerland and Sweden (0.55 percent and 1.6 percent). Britain, certainly (1.94 percent), but even some countries that don’t technically fit our classification because they lack their own central bank (Germany at 1.42 percent and France at 1.99 percent. That would be the same France that The Economist, in a cover story last month, called “the ticking time bomb at the heart of Europe.”).  
So what is going on? Interest rates are, essentially, the relative price of money today versus its value in the future. And investors are saying that they don’t need very much compensation to delay their spending for the future, as long as they can feel secure that they will get their money back and that the money they get back will be worth roughly what they put in. 
To put it a different way, around the world there are all sorts of savers—pension funds, wealthy individuals in emerging nations, governments that want to ensure they have reserves put aside in case there were to be a run on their currency—for whom the goal is not so much to get a big yield on their savings, but rather to ensure that they will get their money back when they need it.
I may have more to say about this over the coming weeks as I'm writing a book chapter related to the topic, but for now let me just mention that this isn't only about the domestic factors that Irwin describes. It is also related to broader developments in the global economy in recent decades. The only development model which has sustained success is export biased: emerging economies export resources and consumer goods to developed countries. Second, the opening up of global trade has increased reliance on comparative advantage, thus benefiting the owners of the abundant factor of production. Third, the decline in capital controls have allowed financial flows to increase markedly. These three factors have led to a world where trade flows constitute 60% of global GDP, international financial balance sheets are 150% of global GDP ($100 trillion), and income inequality has increased markedly.

But it also means that the global economy is fundamentally imbalanced: developing countries must run persistent current account surpluses, while developed countries must run persistent current account deficits. These must be offset by financial transactions: developed countries essentially hand over IOUs to developing countries. And this process must be indefinite; or, rather, they must continue until the whole world has reached roughly equivalent levels of development, until a new political system makes the export-biased development model impossible (restrictions on trade and/or capital movement), or until the imbalances reach a tipping point and a crisis ensues.

The question is what deficit governments should do in this environment. Irwin suggests that they should take advantage of cheap finance to make domestic investments in infrastructure and education. Another option is to try to reduce the probability of a future (domestic) crisis by balancing the books. In the 1990s they largely chose the latter, which ended up leading to crises in the developing world as imbalances unwound. In the 2000s they chose the latter, which ended up leading to crises in the developed world as imbalances fueled asset price bubbles in real estate and sovereign debt.

The story of the 2010s will be how these imbalances are managed.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some trade-related news

. Friday, December 21, 2012

 Don’t forget the Farm Bill -- With all the talk about the fiscal cliff, some big trade-related legislation has taken a back seat.  In particular, this includes the U.S. Farm Bill, which (among other things) provides subsidies and insurance for farmers.   The current provisions are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, as new versions must be passed every five years.  As of now, no agreement has been reached, causing some concern among farmers (see here).  Potential sources of conflict abound . . . conflicts between two of our favorite snack food providers (see here), and between U.S. farmers and the WTO (see here).  [By the way, there have been rumblings about Farm Bill provisions being included in a fiscal cliff resolution package . . . if one is reached, of course]

Normalized trade relations between U.S. and Russia – See here.  [Some background as to why U.S.-Russia trade relations were not "normal":  The Jackson–Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 restricted trade between the U.S. and a number of nonmarket economies.  Pursuant to the Amendment, most favored nation treatment would be denied to U.S. trade partners that violated certain human rights, e.g., imposed restrictions on emigration.  That said, it is worth noting that the President can (and has often) determined that annual waivers from Jackson-Vanik are appropriate.]
EU files submission in WTO Seal Disputehere.  To recap:  A while back, the EU implemented a regulation restricting the importation of seal products out of concern regarding “the animal welfare aspects of the seal hunt.”  Canada, a major producer of seal products, challenged the regulation as an unlawful restriction on trade, asserting that the EU’s measure was inconsistent with WTO obligations.  Although Canada’s complaint and the EU response raise a host of trade law issues, one interesting point concerns the potential application of GATT article XX.   Article XX(a) is a provision under which a party can argue that a restrictive trade measure is justified on the grounds that it is "necessary to protect public morals."  There is not a ton of jurisprudence on the issue, so a WTO ruling on this would be exciting (to the extent that legal rulings are ever “exciting”).  [Probably more on this later.]

Thursday, December 20, 2012

FDI Undeterred: Argentina's Messy Investment Climate

. Thursday, December 20, 2012

Argentina's investment policies certainly have been in the news recently. In this past Monday's (Dec 17) WTO Dispute Settlement Body's meeting, the US, EU, and Japan requested an establishment of a dispute panel against Argentina. Concurrently, Argentina sought to establish dispute panels against the EU (Spain in particular) and the US. Australia and Turkey lodged a formal complaint that Argentina was trying to use the DSB for inappropriate purposes. (See more here)

For more context, the Kirshner government wrested control of YPL from Spanish energy giant Repsol this past May. In the ensuing fall out, Repsol sued the Argentine government in a U.S. court, President Obama revoked Argentina's preferential trade privileges, and Repsol filed arbitration paperwork at ICSID earlier this month. No one is too confident that Repsol is going to recoup any of its $10 billion investment, especially since Argentina probably hasn't paid out a single arbitorial award. Spain is also threatening to sanction Argentina and Repsol has publically stated it will seek damages from any corporation that subsequently enters production and exploration agreements with YPL.

Standard political theories of foreign direct investment rest on a central insight from obsolescing bargaining (OBM) - FDI is limited by the political risk that firms face when they sink investment in a foreign jurisdiction, thus becoming "captive" to a potentially predatory state that faces incentives to promise contract sanctity ex ante and then renege on these promises ex post. From this perspective, no multinational should want to invest in Argentina - the risk of expropriation is just too high. Tools designed to mitigate the problems associated with time inconsistency of preferences just are not working in the Argentinian case (i.e. - Argentina is not compensating firms for contract breach, despite rulings against it). Yet, my weekly update from the Economist Intelligence Unit includes a discussion about how large oil multinationals are rushing to invest in Patagonia's shale deposits. Multiple oil giants are in contract negotiations with the Argentine government to undertake production sharing agreements with the newly nationalized YPL. And, they are doing this despite Repsol's threat to go after these private corporations for damages associated with nationalization.

So, what is the standard OBM missing? Of course, firms have to care about many things besides political risk. Economic factors are the primary drivers of investment decisions; political considerations are largely secondary. In this context, big countries with large domestic markets and with rich endowments of lucrative natural resources typically can get away with a lot of things small countries without energy reserves cannot. This economic/geographic argument underpins Rachel Wellhausen's recent post on the permissive environment for Argentina's nationalistic investment policies. And, understanding the economic factors that provide governments' more bargaining power vis-a-vie investors certainly explains much of the deviation away from what OBM-based theories predict.

But, I think there is something else we need to consider - how firm and investment characteristics modify OBM dynamics. Some of my current research considers how firms are heterogenous in both the amount of political risk they will accept and how they define political risk. What do I mean by this? First, firm characteristics matter for how risk acceptant they will be. Some of the most interesting current work on FDI focuses on explaining these systematic variations. Daniel Blake argues multinationals view their subsidiaries as a portfolio of potential revenue streams, and within this holistic management conception, MNEs might be willing to sustain losses in one location as part of a larger strategy of gaining market share. Ben Graham argues that firms can learn how to manage political risk, and that some firms are uniquely positioned to manage such risks and therefore may specialize in locating in high risk countries. Together, both of these arguments fit nicely with EIU’s assertion that large oil companies are willing to take large bets in Argentina’s shale fields despite threats of nationalization. Indeed, such threats may benefit large energy multinationals because small firms are less able to manage these risks, depressing acquisition prices. This is an important point because it indicates that certain multinational firms will actually benefit from nationalistic policies!

While a bit further afield from the Argentine case, I also argue firms vary in how exposed they are to the threat of government interference. Firms that enter countries through privatization of utilities and infrastructure as well as firms that engage in resource extraction on government land are more vulnerable to government interference than are manufacturing firms. Right now, I'm working on a project that shows that bilateral investment treaties (treaties specifically designed to overcome OBM problems) have differential effects on different modes of entry for FDI. The point here is that BITs may help attract FDI for privatization much more than FDI for private sector M&As or greenfield investment. Since there is some evidence that mode of entry matters for contributions to economic growth, this insight has important investment and development policy implications.

The Loomis Affair


I speak for no one else on this blog, much less the Department of Political Science or UNC, when I say that I support this statement in support of Erik Loomis.*

I support Loomis mostly because I have a sense of humor, but also because I believe that the Michelle Malkins of the world should not be able to dictate to anyone what is in good taste, and I believe a flagship public University should not acquiesce to blatantly partisan mock outrage over a trivial non-issue.

I disagree with Loomis' ideas, rhetoric, and methods much more often than I agree with them. I cannot ever remember a time that I've been enriched by reading him. But that's well besides the point. If losing one's job was the penalty for every improvised (clearly exaggerated) jibe then not a single one of Loomis' accusers would be employed.

I signed the CT statement. I hope others will as well.

*I do hope everyone associated with this blog and the broader UNC community agrees with me, and expect that they do/will, but I cannot speak for them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Diversity of What, Emmanuel?

. Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I see Emmanuel has posted about what he calls “White Political Economy”: “I'm sorry to say that mainstream IPE--like much social science, to be fair--suffers from the phenomenon of Lots of Monolingual White Guys at American and British Universities Talking to Each Other and Calling It "International." Emmanuel continues, “To be truly worthy of the term "international," I believe you must have certain things like a diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences, genders, outlooks and perspectives.”

I am of two minds here. I agree that contemporary political economy is dominated by guys at American universities (and maybe British too) talking to and writing for each other. I also agree (and indeed argue on record) that the mainstream conversation is conducted within excessively and dangerously narrow theoretical and empirical channels. And I agree that those who do not embrace this perspective—who don’t (as Emmanuel puts it), “suck up to” the big names—tend to be outsiders. Finally, I agree with Emmanuel’s implicit statement that a more diverse political economy would be a better political economy.

However, I don’t agree that the solution lies in a diversification of the ethno-linguistic and gender characteristics of the practitioners. Sure, I value the diversification of the profession along ethnic and gender lines. No, I disagree with Emmanuel because the solution he proposes is based on the very analytic structure he deplores--individualism. The recruitment of a more diverse population into graduate school will not solve the problem because systemic forces dominate individual attributes. As Emmanuel points out, one doesn’t succeed in academics by being different; one succeeds by being only a tiny bit different from everyone else. And so we recruit students into graduate school and proceed to make them think like the typical political economist. We call this socialization; and we are quite self conscious about it. And because the field as it is currently structured is dominated by a single point of view, we train students in a single point of view, the perspective that Emmanuel criticizes as "economistic mid-level theory".

If we want a more diverse IPE, as Emmanuel and I do, then we must offer a compelling alternative to this economistic mid-level theory. If we are not to train our students to think in terms of “economistic mid-level theory,” then how should we train them to think? If we are not to train our students to employ the generalized linear model, then what empirical techniques should we teach them to use? In short, the lack of diversity in contemporary IPE stems not from the failure to recruit an ethnically diverse and gender balanced population of graduate students. No, the absence of diversity stems from the failure of those who disagree with the contemporary mainstream to offer another path.

There Is No Technocracy: Bank of Japan Edition


From the Telegraph:

"Its very rare for monetary policy to be the focus of an election. We campaigned on the need to beat deflation, and our argument has won strong support. I hope the Bank of Japan accepts the results and takes an appropriate decision," he said.

The menace behind his words did not have to be spelled out. He has already threatened to change the Bank of Japan’s governing law if it refuses to comply.
Political economists have not done a very good job of analyzing the political role of central banks and other "technocratic" institutions. We've spent most of our time looking for central bank independence how that conditions inflation outcomes, with a bias in favor of low inflation. But central bankers respond to the political environment in which they operate, have preferences of their own, and should therefore be treated as political actors.

Via Scott Sumner, who also notes:
In 2001 Argentine fans of the “currency board” learned that their policy regime was not as impregnable as they’d assumed. And in 1933 American supporters of the gold standard found that even the world’s largest monetary gold stock couldn’t prevent a devaluation under duress. The reason was the same in both cases—voters get the last word.  
On the 1930s see Beth Simmons, who persuasively argues that differences in political regimes conditioned choice of policies during the Depression. On Argentina I like Paul Blustein's account, which is journalism (not social science) but there's more real social science in it than many academic books.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gov't Agencies & Views on Trade

. Friday, December 14, 2012

Quick follow-up on the previous post.   Simon Lester at the Int'l Law & Economic Policy Blog points to an interesting recent survey of the "best" and "worst" government agencies to work for.  Of the small agencies, USTR had the lowest job satisifaction score.  From the original Washington Post article:

"The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative ranks as the worst small agency, at 32.7 percent. Former employees said its sense of mission was eroded by an ambivalent attitude toward free trade early in the Obama administration and during the economic crisis. Views of the agency’s leaders plummeted 18.9 percentage points over 2011."  (emphasis added)

Article is here:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Multilateral Trade Agreements?

. Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Earlier today, USTR Ron Kirk suggested that multiparty regional trade agreements might be an emphasis of the Obama Administration’s second term.  Kirk emphasized that the President “has more of a bias toward multilateralism than anything else.”  Some have reacted to this announcement as suggesting a shift in policy – from a bilateral to a more multilateral approach toward trade agreements.  I’m not so sure.

Yes, in Obama’s first term significant bilateral treaties were signed with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.  But, the negotiation of these agreements began in earnest 5 years earlier under the Bush Administration.  That they were implemented in 2011, after some additional trade-related policy concessions were made to the President and Congressional Democrats, does not necessarily indicate that these agreements reflected the Administration’s ideal approach to trade policy.

Kirk’s announcement might also be significant in that it signals an emphasis on trade policymaking more generally.  Many criticized the Administration for a lack of attention to trade policy in the early years of Obama’s first term.*/**  Whether the critiques are justified is an open question.  On the one hand, there was the high-profile application of new tariffs to select tire products; there was also a domestic content component to the stimulus bill, etc.  But, let’s say trade policy was generally on the back-burner early on.  After all, Ron Kirk himself essentially admitted as much.***  Would this really be that surprising?  In the wake of the financial crisis and severe recession, would we expect the Administration to be especially aggressive in pursuing trade agreements of any sort?  In addition to the obvious preoccupation with stimulus legislation, there is also a long line of political economy literature finding that constituency preferences for trade liberalization are reduced in economic downturns (this applies to both interest group and individual-level preferences). 

With respect to individual-level preferences, I recently came across a Pew Research Center survey which found that public support for free trade waned at the onset of the global crisis.  In the seven years leading up to the financial crisis, about 44 percent of U.S. respondents were of the belief that free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization were good for the U.S. economy.  In April 2008, opposition to free trade grew, and only 35 percent of respondents answered that free trade agreements had a favorable impact on the economy.  While the figure subsequently rebounded to previous levels, the recession appears to have had a negative (albeit temporary) impact on views regarding free trade. 

If the USTR’s recent announcement does indicate that there will be a renewed focus on trade policymaking, maybe this shouldn’t surprise us at all.


*Reuters.  2011. “Fifty economists have written to ask U.S. President Barack Obama to ‘step up to the plate’ on World Trade and champion a last gasp deal on the moribund Doha round of world trade talks.”  Sept. 21, 2011.

**Sistema Económico Latinoamericano y del Caribe (SELA). 2010.  U.S. Trade Policy under the Obama Administration: Implications for SELA Member States.  March 2010.


Albert Hirschman, RIP


Monday, December 10, 2012

More on the Political Economy of Robots and Inequality

. Monday, December 10, 2012

As a follow-up to the below post please see this good discussion at Alphaville. Also note that the entire conversation remains at the local (i.e. national) level, which I think is a major mistake.

I may or may not have further thoughts later.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

On Keynes, Marx, Krugman, Cowen, and the Possibility of Utopia Via Inequality

. Sunday, December 9, 2012

At the end of a good post on the shift of income shares earned by capital (more) and labor (less) in the US over the past few decades, Krugman writes:
I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.
What implications?
[I]t makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.  
I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.
As it happens, I've been writing about this for quite some time. It was the focal point of my criticism of Tyler Cowen's "Great Stagnation" hypothesis (e.g. 1, 2, 3, and others), which I said was a "Great Redistribution". Basically the question I'd like to answer is why mean and median incomes have diverged, as pictured in the graph above. A "Great Stagnation" hypothesis seeks only to explain the flattening of median income growth. But we haven't had a Great Stagnation, since mean income growth has continued, at least until the Great Recession.

A Great Redistribution view, on the other hand, says that the structure of the global economy has changed over the past 40 years in ways that benefit (US) capital and hurt most of (US) labor. Specifically, the rise of a low-skill labor force in the former global South has competed away wage gains from low-skill American workers, while the rise of a medium-skill industrialized labor force in places like the NICs has competed away wage gains from medium-skill American workers. Additionally, the rise of mechanized labor (via robotics, which prompted Krugman's post) shifts income from labor to capital. Take a look at this chart:

Wages are converging globally, and since the US had disproportionately high wages this is hurting American labor in relative terms. At the same time, the global market has expanded dramatically. This increases the return to high-skill American labor as well as the owners of capital, who can now sell their production to much larger markets. This is particularly the case for goods and services which are reproducible at essentially zero marginal cost: think intellectual property and entertainment. Since the "high skill labor" and "owners of capital" groups are not mutually exclusive, this shows up in the data as both a) increasing wage inequality, and b) increasing returns to capital.

This is the simplest story in the world... basically just stating comparative advantage, at a mix of sectoral and factoral levels. The fact that it's so novel -- even to someone with a Nobel Prize in international macroeconomics! -- is a point of evidence that our intellectual class is way too focused on explaining everything locally. The Great Redistribution view has plenty of implications for political economy at global and local levels, but it is essentially a rejection of many public choice arguments, which tend to emphasize capture of political institutions by bankers or other oligarchs as the fundamental driving force in recent trends in the American economy.

I'm not sure what Krugman means by "uncomfortable implications". It could mean that the fact that the economy is working the way the way it's supposed to is an inconvenient truth for those who think that our political economy is being wrecked by those who prefer public choice explanations. But I doubt Krugman means that. It could mean that the "Golden Age" of American labor that Krugman loves so much -- the 1950s-1960s -- was a historical anomaly, the result of specific contingent circumstances that are not likely to be replicated ever again (and would be tragic if they were, given that that arose because of two devastating world wars and a Great Depression). But I doubt Krugman means that either. It could mean that the technocratic neoliberal vision is a fraud, and that the politics of distribution is likely to dominate capitalist political economies for the foreseeable future.

In any case, as an example of this Krugman talks about "re-shoring", the process of bringing manufacturing production back to the United States. Krugman suggests that this will have no major effect on employment or the income accruing to labor, because much of this production is done using robots. I think he's right that the direct effects on labor and wages will not be much. The indirect effect could be much higher, however. Why? Because in order to have robots build things, you first have to have factories. Humans have to build those. And you have to have roads to transport the goods. Humans have to build those too. And you have to have shops where the goods can be sold. Humans have to work in those shops. The desire for human labor that is complementary to robot labor can support wage gains for the median worker. That may not be enough to overwhelm the relative redistribution from the median worker to the top 10%, but it can help the absolute numbers.

American labor can benefit in another way: by receiving more non-cash compensation. The trend in the US is to provide more years of subsidized non-work at the beginning and end of life -- longer periods of education, longer retirements as lifespans increase -- and more non-cash benefits -- subsidized health care and education -- in a somewhat egalitarian way. These programs are overwhelmingly funded by the top 10% of wage earners, who are the high-skilled workers and the owners of capital*. To the extent that goods are increasingly created by non-human labor they free up people to do other things, some of which will not be market work. We'll call that "unemployment" or "underemployment" but if we generate sufficient national income to guarantee minimum standards of living at a level that ensures human dignity it will function as quasi-early retirement.

At the same time, quality of life continues to increase rapidly as the marginal cost of entertainment, education, and other goods approaches zero as a result of advances in information technology. This gain is felt by the median member of society as much as the richest person in society, and is more valuable for those with more available time. In terms of maximizing valuable leisure and minimizing alienating labor the typical citizen might be doing better, maybe even much better, than she otherwise would even while the data continue to show that she is doing much worse.

If this is an equilibrium it will have some negative consequences, for sure. Among them will be a reduction in social mobility and an increasingly bitter political economy. But Keynes dreamed of a world in which the gains from capitalism were distributed in a way that allowed people to work less, and some people are still dreaming of it. Marx too: his criticism of capitalism was not just that it generated inequality, but that it created alienation as labor became routinized. Marx didn't care about social mobility... he cared about human dignity. So maybe the left should welcome our new robot overlords (and their capitalist owners) for bringing the vision of Keynes and Marx closer to reality. Instead of slaving away in factories we can all post kittens to Tumblr and write stimulating blog posts. Yeah, maybe it looks like inequality, but it could end up being Utopia.

*The US tax code is already pretty progressive, and is likely to get much more progressive over the coming years, beginning with whatever deal comes out of the fiscal cliff negotiations. At the same time, the US benefit system is one of the least progressive, but I expect this to change over the coming decades for political economy reasons. Ultimately it will be up to the democratic system to manage these structural shifts.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

DeLong Smackdown Watch(?): Central Banking Edition

. Saturday, December 8, 2012

Brad DeLong takes Marco Rubio to task for not understanding how central banking works:
Rubio, you see, wants the Federal Reserve to stabilize three things: 
1. The path of the price level, 
2. The value of the dollar, and 
3.The level of interest rates.  
But you cannot do this. cannot stabilize the path of the price level and the exchange rate and nominal interest rates. Were we to confirm The One Who Is to chair the Fed, she could not do it.

If you stabilize the exchange rate--i.e., set up a gold standard and join it--interest rates and the price level will do their thing.  
If you stabilize the nominal interest rate, you will find yourself in either an inflationary or deflationary spiral.  
And if you stabilize the path of the price level, you will have to do some serious leaning against the wind with interest rates, and that will set the currency bouncing around.
This is true of the proverbial "small open economy" that macroeconomists generally model, and is therefore true for most actually-existing counties. But it is not necessarily true of the United States. Why? Because of the fact that in a world with n countries there are n-1 exchange rates. Whichever country controls the base currency has quite a bit more policy flexibility than all the others.

The United States is still that country, despite not having a formal exchange rate peg since the end of Bretton Woods. Other countries still conduct monetary policy with a view towards impacting exchange rates vis-a-vis the US dollar. So long as those countries are stabilizing (nominal) exchange rates, the US central bank can conduct monetary policy with an eye towards stabilizing the path of the price level and interest rates. Absent shocks on the real side, these are the same thing.

This is not what Rubio is saying... DeLong is right about that. What Rubio actually wants -- "The Federal Reserve Board should publish and follow a clear monetary rule – to provide greater stability about prices and what the value of a dollar will be over time" -- is a new way to criticize the Fed. But on its face this is not so crazy. It is what Scott Sumner wants: a stated 5% nominal GDP growth target. Others want some form of a Taylor Rule. The Fed itself actually has stated a goal of 2% long-run inflation. To the extent that the effectiveness of monetary policy depends on expectations, wanting a clearly-articulated policy is perfectly sensible.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

If you incentivize it, will they come?

. Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Monday, I argued investment incentive policy is best understood within a political framework that takes seriously the electoral incentives state and local officials face. Looking through the New York Time's interactive database of investment incentives, it is striking how widely states vary in the amount of incentives offered. What explains this variation? One possible explanation is individual agency. Perhaps Texas has a very large incentive program because of the political influence of G. Brint Ryan; this is the implicit argument forwarded in the New York Times Investigative Series on Investment Incentives. Comparative political economists would point to institutional variation; differences in governance structures and how susceptible local governments are to corruption may explain the extent to which states pursue incentive programs.* Partisanship might matter too, although it is difficult to make the case that voters see incentives as clearly benefiting benefit at the expense of workers. Indeed, as I mentioned on Monday, experimental evidence suggests voters see incentives through the prism of job creation. This makes a partisan-based mechanism less plausible.

While people and institutions may help explain a portion of variation in incentive programs, I’d argue structural conditions are most important. (This probably won’t surprise readers of the blog – contributors here tend toward thinking about the world in such terms.) As I mentioned in Monday’s post, states and localities are working to attract jobs in a context of open capital markets. Consequentially, absent transaction costs, capital is mobile while labor is relatively fixed and this makes capital strong. Capital gets locational incentives because its exit option is credible. Labor, however, is captive so governments can tax it more. The problem with this view (besides the fact that suggesting governments face little pressure to reduce taxes on middle-class workers will get you laughed – and voted - out of Washington these days) is that the global economy, while open, is not frictionless. Transaction costs, or in network terms, negative externalities are important.

There is a large literature in economics on agglomeration effects – basically the idea that centers of economic activity form due to positive externalities generated by the success of a few enterprises.** In the 1950s, Detroit was perhaps the best example of one of these centers. Successful, large manufacturing enterprises require deep supply chains, preferably located with geographic convenience to reduce transportation costs and to decrease production times. Competitors often locate nearby to be better able to recruit management, design, and other knowledge workers. In network terms, when a fit enterprise center emerges, preferential attachment reinforces that center.

Today, thriving centers of economic activity in the US include New York City, the Silicon Valley, and perhaps even NC’s own Research Triangle Park. It is then not surprising that, according to the New York Times report, California is reducing its incentive program, which is already comparatively small at $112 per capita. New York and North Carolina have relatively low per capita incentive programs, $210 and $69 respectively. Compare that to the three largest incentive programs on a per capita basis – Alaska at $991, West Virginia at $845, and Texas at $759. Economic geography matters. The states with the largest incentive programs are those that either never generated large centers of economic activity, or whose centers have become obsolete as our economy has shifted from manufacturing to services.

Economic centers form due to a confluence of factors, some of which governments have control over and some that they don’t. Investments in education and infrastructure can provide a skilled workforce and inexpensive access to energy, telecommunication, water, and transportation networks. And, it is true that offering locational incentives may reduce governments’ ability to invest things that will actual increase their locality’s fitness. But, this ignores the fact that incentive programs are fundamentally designed undermine powerful network effects that concentrate economic activity. That is why they are so inefficient; because they are swimming against the current. Fitness is not the whole story – preferential attachment entrenches economic centers. So, incentives ultimately are big risks – if you are lucky, you may attract enough high-quality enterprises that you can build a thriving center. But, network dynamics are working against you.

* Nate Jensen pointed me to this particular NBER working paper , which finds evidence that corruption increases incentive programs.
**See here (firewalled) for a review.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Political divisions and currency (re)alignments

. Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Last week, the U.S. Treasury (once again) declined to label China a “currency manipulator.”  The decision was followed by the usual refrain about the U.S. taking a soft line on China, to the detriment of U.S. manufacturing.  To some, it is inexplicable that the U.S. does not more directly confront China on the issue.  This is especially so in light of the substantial support in Congress for currency-related legislation.  See, for example, the fairly recent Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act (CERORA).  The Act sought to provide a number of avenues through which the U.S. could punish China if the yuan did not substantially appreciate against the dollar.  This high-profile piece of currency legislation was passed (only in the Senate) in 2011. 

Did the bill pit senators who represent manufacturing interests against all others?  Not really.  As the plot below indicates, senators from states with higher levels of manufacturing production as a share of state GDP were actually less likely to vote for the bill, on average.  


Work by a number of political economists provides an explanation as to why might this be the case.* Simply put, the exchange rate preferences of manufacturers are not homogenous.  Broad labels like “manufacturing” and “tradables”cover a lot of ground. Thomas has work showing that internationally competitive manufacturing firms are often not vulnerable to exchange rate based influences on competitiveness (Oatley 2010). Others have done (or are doing) research on the various firm/industry-level factors that determine how sensitive businesses are to appreciation and depreciation. For example, Broz and Werfel (2012) find that the extent of exchange-rate pass-through in an industry, as well as industry reliance on imported intermediate inputs, have an impact on their vulnerability to exchange rates.
These factors might go great lengths in explaining the apparent negative relationship between tradables production at the state level and senators’support for CERORA. (It is also worth noting that in a simple statistical model, state-level manufacturing production had a negative and statistically significant relationship with senators’ support for the legislation – even when controlling for other factors such as party, state unionization rates, unemployment, etc.   More on this to come.)
In short, exchange rate preferences are a lot more complex than popular portrayals suggest.  The political wrangling on the CERORA bears this out.  The voices that diverged from the hardline “undervalued yuan = unemployment = America’s immediate decline” story were not insignificant ones.  Speaker John Boehner vocally opposed the law.  David Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, indicated that a currency bill was not a priority for 2011.  And, President Obama suggested that the bill was not the best way to handle dollar-yuan misalignment.  As it turns out, these individuals have a fairly significant role to play in determining the fate of any currency realignment legislation.*

*Oatley, Thomas. 2010. “Real Exchange Rates and Trade Protectionism.”
Business and Politics 12 (2): 1-17.
*Broz & Werfel. 2012.  available at: wip/broz_wefel_resubmission_071712.pdf

*In fact, because of this clear opposition at the tippy-top, the Senate's vote on this legislation was often considered to be "symbolic."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Can I Have Some Politics With My Investment Incentives?

. Monday, December 3, 2012

On Sunday, The New York Times unveiled the first of a three part "investigation" of investment incentives in the United States. The story has generated a lot of media chatter, and caught my attention because I actual study investment incentives, albeit within the context of developing non-democratic regimes. I plan to write a series of posts directly engaging with the Times reporting, and I want to start with a short post laying a critical framework.

The report finds that states and local governments in the U.S. provide, on average, a combined $80 billion in investment incentives each year. The author, Louise Story, frames the issue as a tradeoff between incentives and broad-based government spending; investment incentives amount to a transfer from workers to businesses. Today, the second part in the series focused on Texas's incentive program (it's the biggest in the country), and blames its excess on the close relationship between a tax incentive consultant G. Brint Bryan and basically every elected official in the state of Texas. Tomorrow's installment will focus on incentives for the entertainment industry.

As someone who studies this stuff, I'm glad it's receiving national attention. The New York Times released a database cateloging the investment incentives, which I along with many others will be glad to use for our own research purposes. Yet, there are some real weaknesses with Story's analysis. And, while she mentions economists who have concluded incentives are inefficient, she never once sources good work in political science about the political motivations for providing incentive packages.

The closest Story gets to a political explanation for incentive programs comes when she mentions academic research that concludes incentives are inefficient:

One, [economist]  in Minnesota, used mathematical proofs and game theory to show that competition between states did not increase overall economic value. Several other economists have since called the practice a zero-sum game. 

Okay, let's unpack that a bit. Incentives inherently are inefficient because, best case, they induce a company to invest in a location that it otherwise wouldn't because doing so without the incentive doesn't make financial sense. If investing made financial sense, a government shouldn't need to offer an incentive in the first place. But, of course, the investor-government relationship doesn't exist in a vacuum. States and localities (not to mention other countries) are all trying to entice companies to invest within its borders. So, capital has leverage because it is mobile and governments will engage in competition with one another for the investment, ratcheting up the value of incentive packages. Story takes this as evidence that incentives are bad and should be curtailed. As a political scientist, the inefficient outcome is the starting point because it is puzzling: Why do governments offer incentives when they are inefficient? Story's answer seems to be "because tax consultants have corrupted the halls of power." This is an incredibly unsatisfying answer. Why did the tax consultants get so much political power in the first place? Why can't politicians just freeze them out?

Indeed, there is actually a decent amount of work in political science devoted to understanding incentive programs and policies toward foreign investment. Nate Jensen has a really neat working paper along with several other authors in which they use experimental data to show that U.S. voters reward governors who offer firms incentive packages and punish those who don't. Sonal Pandya finds workers, and in particular skilled workers, are more inclined to support efforts to attract foreign investment. At a global level, the lack of an institution governing investment policies is routinely pointed to as the source for recurring prisoners' dilemma-type dynamics. Politicians provide incentives because the localities with which they are competing for investment provide them and because their constituents reward them for doing so. You don't need a story about corruption to understand the dynamics perpetuating incentive programs.

I mention this because I don't think the corruption meme is helpful. What drives the high value of investment incentives in the US is fiscal federalism. If the Federal government had authority over taxation and investment incentives, states wouldn't be able to use the tax code to compete against each other. This is a distinction that is lost in the New York Times report. Story finds it bizarre that, amid a national discussion about austerity and government debt there hasn't been a sustained discussion about investment incentives. Well, investment incentives happen at the state and local level, so it's unsurprising that dicussions about the national budget don't normally veer off in this direction. Moreover, investment incentives, for the most part, do not generate budgetary outlays - a point Story obscures in her reporting. Of the $80 billion in incentives offered each year, $70 billion are in the form of income and sales tax exemptions or reductions. Sure, this $70 billion can be considered lost revenue, but it doesn't amount to spending and it is also difficult to determine exactly how much tax incentives cost because firms often argue that they would not make an investment without the incentive. When governments do provide incentives that require budgetary outlays, mostly in the form of loans, a national discussion often ensues (remember Solyndra?). 

In all that, I have hardly touched the global conditions that affect policies toward investment. I'll discuss that further in a follow-up post.


Friday, November 30, 2012


. Friday, November 30, 2012

Look for a few changes around here as we move toward the new year. First, we are recruiting new contributors. Robert Galantucci has agreed to join us as an occasional contributor. Rob is a graduate student in political science at UNC with interests in US trade politics. Prior to returning to school, Rob was a practicing attorney with a specialty in trade law. Welcome aboard, Rob!

We are actively recruiting contributors, so look for more new voices soon.

Also, many of you may not have heard, Will has found a job and will be leaving UNC for better pay. Congratulations, Will! I will let him provide details. In the short run, this means he may be likely to dissertate more and blog a bit less. This may have long term implications for us too, but these remain uncertain.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

UNC Everywhere

. Thursday, November 29, 2012

Right at the middle of the budget negotiations:

“There’s a standoff, and the staff hasn’t gotten anywhere. Rob Nabors [the White House negotiator], has been saying: ‘This is what we want on revenues on the down payment. What’s you guys’ ask on the entitlement side?’ And [the House Republicans] keep looking back at us and saying: ‘We want you to come up with that and pitch us.’ That’s not going to happen.”

Rob Nabors received his M.A. in political science from UNC before going to work in D.C. at the Office for Management and Budget. He was also the co-author of Thomas' most-cited paper (per Google Scholar).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is There An Asian RMB Bloc?

. Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Michael Pettis says "no". But that doesn't mean the RMB doesn't matter. It does. Just not so much for the US or EU or the broader currency reserve and exchange system. It matters more for China's competitors in global export markets.

Read the whole thing. I'm looking forward to Pettis' forthcoming book as much as any scheduled for next year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Potential US-EU Trade Deal Inverts Typical Trade Politics

. Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Standard stories of trade politics often begin with reference to Olson's logic of collective action, which argues that small groups with common interests may be able to effectively mobilize politically, thus influencing policy in ways which benefits them at the expense of the majority. Trade generates diffuse benefits for large numbers of consumers but concentrated costs for smaller numbers of (comparatively disadvantaged) producers. Consumers will find it more difficult to overcome collective problems and mobilize politically than affected producers. Therefore, the logic of collective action expects trade policy to be protectionist absent two conditions:

1. A countervailing small group of comparatively advantaged producers that is able mobilize politically in favor of open trade, at least for their goods/services.

2. An international negotiating process that allows states to reciprocal concessions: you liberalize your comparatively disadvantaged markets and I'll liberalize mine.

But the trade deal that the US-EU are negotiating inverts this dynamic. According to the NY Times, because trade between the US and EU is already relatively liberalized, the benefits and costs of further liberalization are diffuse:

Tariffs on goods traded between the United States and the European Union are already low, averaging less than 3 percent. But companies that do substantial amounts of trans-Atlantic business say that even a relatively small increase in the volume of trade could deliver major economic benefits. 
“The reason we care about this is because these base line numbers are so huge,” said Karan Bhatia, a former deputy U.S. trade representative who is now vice president for global government affairs at General Electric in Washington. “This could be the biggest, most valuable free-trade agreement by far, even if it produces only a marginal increase in trade.”
As a result, the normal political dynamic does not exist, and all of the major parties seem to be in support:
There does not seem to be any broad-based political opposition to an E.U.-U.S. trade agreement, as there was to Nafta.
Indeed, the political push seems to be for more liberalization rather than less:
Last week, a coalition of food and agricultural groups led by the National Pork Producers Council in the United States wrote to Mr. Kirk, expressing concern that a free-trade agreement might leave them out.

The council complained that in the past, Europe had blocked imports of genetically modified corn and soy products and objected to American companies’ use of product descriptions like “Parmesan” cheese. In Europe, that label is reserved for cheese that comes from the Parmigiano-Reggiano region of Italy.
Presumably Italian cheese producers would be opposed to this, but because the margins are so low they may not be willing to pay the high costs necessary to build a broad enough coalition which would be able to meaningfully impact the bargaining process. And, in fact, it seems as if no such coalition has yet formed:
“I haven’t heard anyone say it doesn’t make sense,” said Peter Beyer, a member of the German Parliament from Ms. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, and a major advocate of an agreement.  
That could always change as details from the plan emerge. Technical details can matter quite a lot in these negotiations, particularly if the negotiators start harmonizing technical standards on goods like pharmaceuticals. But because the underlying dynamic is different -- diffuse benefits and costs rather than diffuse benefits but concentrated costs -- this negotiation may go more smoothly than other trade deals.

Finally, this deal could invert trade politics in another way: by bringing other countries back to the WTO table to complete the Doha round. I wrote about the potential for that previously.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shall We Continue in Sin, So That Grace May Abound? God Forbid.

. Sunday, November 18, 2012

I used to blog sometimes about how many things we call "public goods" really aren't. People label things they like "public goods" because it eliminates opposition of the public provision of these goods. So folks call all sorts of things "public goods" which are not public goods: education, health care, etc. Actual public goods, which are both non-excludable and non-rival in consumption, are pretty rare. I stopped harping on this because I thought I'd made my point and nobody else seemed to care.

But now I see Mike Munger twisting himself into knots over whether roads are public goods, so I'd like to revisit the topic. Munger's conclusion is that roads are public goods, kind of, sometimes. But not other times. He reaches this conclusion by comparing the marginal cost of use under different scenarios: if the addition of the marginal car has a zero (or near zero) impact on the cost of the using the road then it is a public good; otherwise it is not.

This is mistaken in the same way that it is mistaken to say that the "Tragedy of the Commons" is a story about externalities (or public goods). A public good is not defined by comparing the cost of additional units of consumption at various margins. For true public goods the marginal cost of additional unit of consumption is negligible at all margins. That is the definition of a public good: increasing consumption does not reduce the amount of consumption available to others. When we compare costs at varying margins all we're doing is talking about relative levels of scarcity. Public goods are not, cannot, be sensitive to scarcity.

To understand where this logic ends consider that under Munger's definition -- public goods are good, and less-used roads are the most public goody of all roads -- we should build a bunch of roads (and bridges) to nowhere. Almost no one will use them, so the marginal cost of an additional vehicle will be the closest to zero that it can possibly be. Let's start building!

This is the sort of absurdity for which Saul of Tarsus admonished the early church in Romans 6: if God's grace is good, and grace is only extended to cover sins, then should we sin as much as possible in order to maximize grace? Of couse not. Similarly, we should not build roads which will not be used.

Roads are excludable: to use them you must possess a motor vehicle as well as an assortment of licenses and insurance contracts which permit you to operate that motor vehicle on that road. You and your vehicle must also physically be in the place where the road is. Roads are also rivalrous in consumption: the more people use them the fewer additional people can use them without congestion. Roads are therefore not public goods. Ever.

It does not necessarily follow that there should be no public provision of roads. Just because something is not a public good does not mean that there is no reason for public provision of it. There may be a case which can be made on consequentialist grounds that collective action (via taxation) to provide a non-public good is justifiable. I believe that many roads will pass this sort of cost-benefit test. But this case needs to be made on its own merits.

And if we make that case on its merits, we will likely come to the opposite conclusion of Munger: scarcely-used roads in rural areas are the ones which should be tolled/taxed. Why? Because the case for public funding of roads is not that they are public goods, but that they increase efficiency by reducing transaction/transportation costs. They function like a utility in an environment where a monopolistic market structure is likely to be more efficient than a competitive market structure so long as the monopolist is not a profit-maximizer (i.e., where the monopolist's producer surplus is redistributed to consumers, i.e. where the monopolist is a government -- subject to an electorate -- rather than a firm). Those efficiency gains will be highest when and where the roads are used the most, and lowest when and where the roads are used the least. Public subsidization should be highest where there is the most potential for efficiency gains. This occurs in the busiest areas.

If we see lots of congestion on some roads that is a signal that we should build more roads there. Not to make roads more like public goods (by reducing the cost of the marginal unit of consumption), but to try to reap the social gains from whatever economic activities are causing the congestion. If we cannot build more roads (because there is no empty land, say) then we should build some other transportation network, like bike paths or subways, to allow people to engage in productive activity more easily. The positive spillover effects from such investments are more likely to pass a cost-benefit test than in a rural area.

I'm not opposed to congestion pricing in general, but we need to recognize congestion pricing for what it is: a tax on productivity. People don't drive into Manhattan during rush hour because they enjoy it. They go through that nightmare to get to work, often in high-wage/high-productivity sectors of the economy. I'm not sure why we'd want to discourage that.

International Political Economy at the University of North Carolina: 2012
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