Tag Archives: economic growth

January 2018 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Larry Summers says we have a better than even chance of recession in the next three years. Sounds bad, but I wonder what that stat would look like for any randomly chosen three year period in modern history.
  • The United States is involved in at least seven wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence may not actually the work.
  • Cape Town, South Africa is in imminent danger of running out of water. Longer term, there are serious concerns about snowpack-dependent water supplies serving large urban populations in Asia and western North America.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

the Trump infrastructure bill

The Trump infrastructure plan has apparently leaked. The upshot seems to be that states and metropolitan planning organizations, among others, can submit projects to be matched at up to 20% by the federal government. Most of the selection criteria are based on making a strong case that there is a plan to come up with the other 80%.

This sounds okay, as far as it goes, and it might get some projects over the hump that would not otherwise get built. I like the idea that metropolitan planning organizations are eligible, because they are in the best position to look at a city’s needs as a whole, across fragmented political entities and across types of infrastructure. Cities are where people live, where most of the economy happens and taxes are paid, and where people are educated and given skills and where new ideas come from that make our lives better in the long run. What I don’t really like is that economic and social benefits are given only 5% weight in the selection criteria. And even then, they are considered for an individual project in isolation, in the absence of any larger plan. In my ideal world, planning organizations would have comprehensive infrastructure plans that look at all types of infrastructure together over the long term, even including green infrastructure, and really focus on maximizing economic benefits. This would allow us to prioritize individual projects in the larger context of how the whole socioeconomic system works and not just on one “project at a time.

Still, this might be a small step in the right direction. Along with public infrastructure and some small steps to encourage capital investment, research and development in the private sector, add serious programs to address education, job skills training, and research and development in the public sector and you would have the beginnings of a long term national economic plan. Maybe toss in a revenue-neutral pollution tax for good measure.

Norwegian immigration

Snopes.com reminds us why Norwegians are not lining up to emigrate to the United States, and in fact there is a small net flow the other way.

Emigration from Norway to the U.S. hit its peak in 1882 when almost 29,000 mostly poor Norwegians crossed the Atlantic. In 2016, however, only 1,114 Norwegians moved to the U.S., while 1,603 Americans moved to Norway…

Oil-rich Norway ranks fourth in the world for GDP per person, according to the World Bank, compared with the U.S., which was eighth. Norway also boasts a universal health care system, low unemployment and $1 trillion “rainy day” fund fueled by its offshore oil and gas resources that helps pay for generous pensions and other social welfare programs.

Norwegians also have a life expectancy of 81.8 years on average, making them the 15th longest-living people in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. is in 31st place, with a life expectancy of 79.3 years.

My experience in Norway consists of two days in Oslo. It struck me as a fairly ethically diverse place actually. It seemed gloomy, but that might have been the weather. We could definitely study and learn from the way they bank their natural resource-derived wealth for the future, and from the way they blend a thriving capitalist economy with a robust social safety net. But we won’t, because…America.

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

Summers: “better than even” chance of recession in next 3 years

Larry Summers is concerned about the stability of the international economic, financial, and political systems.

While high equity prices and low volatility may seem surprising, they likely reflect the limited extent to which stock-market outcomes and geopolitical events are correlated. For example, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks had no sustained impact on the economy. The largest stock-market movements, such as the 1987 crash, have typically occurred on days when there was no major external news…

Financial markets are widely cited, including by US President Donald Trump, as providing comfort in the current moment. But a relapse into financial crisis would likely have catastrophic political consequences, sweeping into power even more toxic populist nationalists. In such a scenario, the center will not hold…

But recessions are never predicted successfully, even six months in advance. The current expansion in the US has gone on for a long time, and the risk of policy mistakes there is very real, owing to highly problematic economic leadership in the Trump administration. I would put the annual probability of recession in the coming years at 20-25%. So the odds are better than even that the US economy will fall into recession in the next three years.

He goes on to say that recession is not even what he is most worried about, but a downward spiral where people lose faith in their governments and elect people who will actually act to destroy the effectiveness of governments. In this environment, autocrats can seize control by rallying the population against internal and external enemies, whether real but exaggerated, or completely fictional.

December 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The U.S. has lost ground relative to its peers on road deaths, and is now well below average. I noted that something similar has happened with respect to health care costs, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, drug addiction and infrastructure. Maybe a realistic goal would be to make America average again.
  • A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.
  • Daniel Ellsberg says we are very, very lucky to have avoided nuclear war so far. There are some tepid ideas for trimming the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and yet it is being upgraded and expanded as we speak. The North Korea situation is not getting better. Trump may be playing to religious fundamentalists who actually are looking forward to the Apocalypse.

Most hopeful stories:

  • Exercise may be even better for your brain than it is for your body, and exercising your body may be even better for your brain than exercising your brain itself.
  • Macroeconomic modeling is improving. So, just to pick a random example, it might be possible to predict the effects on a change in tax policy on the economy. Now all we need is politicians who are responsive to logic and evidence, and we could accomplish something. At least a few economists think the imperfect tax plan the U.S. Congress just passed might actually stimulate business capital investment enough to move the dial on productivity. The deliberate defunding of health care included in the bill is going to hurt people, but maybe not all that dramatically.
  • Moody’s introduced a new methodology for assessing climate risk in municipal bonds.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • There are life forms surviving in space right now, most likely of Earth origin. I wondered if maybe we should purposely contaminate other planets with them.
  • Microsoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.
  • Futuristic technologies keep coming along. Something vaguely like the “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is being used for experimental aircraft parts. Vital signs might be monitored soon using a simple RFID device. A tiny electric shock of just the right size to just the right part of your brain might cure you of bad habits. And Magic Leap may finally release…something or other…in 2018.

Michael Boskin and the golden rule

A few serious economists, like Michael Boskin at Stanford, are defending the Republican tax plan. Basically, the argument is that the economic growth benefits of stimulating corporate investment in “equipment” outweighs the outright bribery of wealthy campaign donors.

Summers’s own research results dramatically drive home that point. Using data from a variety of countries and time periods, some as short as five years, he and Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, (who also opposes the current tax bill) have made the strongest case I know that equipment investment can have a large impact on GDP growth. Moreover, the effect they estimate is much larger than in the conventional models used in most studies, including those relied on by government revenue scorers.

“The analysis suggests a strong and causal relationship between equipment investment and economic growth,” according to Summers and DeLong. They concluded that, “an increase of three or four percentage points in the share of GDP devoted to equipment investment is associated with an increase in GDP per worker of one percent per year.” So, to achieve the 0.3% increase in annual GDP growth that is now being debated, equipment investment would need to rise by 1% of GDP per year, sizeable to be sure, but well within the range of historical experience.

Summers and DeLong also calculate that the social returns from equipment investment are far larger than private returns. Thus, they concluded that “a strong case seems to exist for making sure economic policy does not penalize, and in fact, rewards, investors in equipment”; and that “measures that reduce the tax burden on new equipment investment are likely to be especially potent in maximizing the equipment investment engendered per dollar of government revenue forgone.” Finally, they noted that, “policies with an anti-equipment bias include tax rules that subsidize assets that can easily be levered … [and] pieces of equipment are frequently more difficult to use as collateral for debt than are investments in structures.”

This fits with the “golden rule level of capital” you learn about in economics 101, where “capital” is the “plants and equipment” mentioned above. If as a society you are investing too little in capital (and you have to invest just to hold it steady as it wears out, let alone increase it) your rate of growth is lower than it could be. Deficit spending to increase capital is a sort of free lunch in this case, because growth will offset the expenditures. It is not too hard to imagine this sort of logic extending to investments in research and development, education, and public infrastructure. (By the way, if you really care about economic growth, WHERE IS OUR TRILLION DOLLAR INFRASTRUCTURE BILL YOU LYING SONS OF BITCHES!)

Maybe reducing the corporate tax rate in the U.S. really is a good, efficient policy that will boost growth. My questions are first, how do we know the corporate tax cut will be invested in capital rather than just pocketed? Second, are the lost tax revenues hurting investments in education and infrastructure which could be equally or more beneficial? Third, how can the Republicans torpedo the health care system that was finally starting to help the working class and small business owners, and still sleep at night? It’s hypocritical and immoral. And finally, how can we just accept the rot of institutionalized corruption where politicians are elected by dollars rather than votes, when other advanced countries (a club we may not belong too much longer) don’t do that?

anti-monopoly politics

This Intercept article talks about an anti-monopoly message some Democrats are trying out. I like the idea in principle. Productivity growth has been stuck in second gear for close to 50 years now, and yet we hear about record corporate profits and stock market returns. These things happen at the same time only if big business is able to make unfair profits by rigging the system unfairly in its favor. That way their profits can grow while wages and innovation both stagnate. This is not a recipe for long-term growth for the economy as a whole.

Big business has been able to hijack the “free market” message for a long time now. Of course, a truly free market is about a truly level playing field for businesses of all sizes, and one where innovators can compete with established big businesses. I would argue that it is also about an economy where entrepreneurs and small business owners can take chances and innovate against a backdrop of health care, childcare and retirement security. But maybe that should not be the focus – one appeal of an anti-monopoly message could be to give the devisive social issues a rest for awhile and focus on inclusive economic growth.

The author gives several examples of monopoly power hurting both rural and urban interests:

FRERICK TALKS ABOUT running a Teddy Roosevelt-style campaign. In rural towns in southwest Iowa, he has challenged the merger between Monsanto and Bayer, which would give two companies (the other is Dow/DuPont) control of 75 percent of the U.S. corn seed supply. Add the company created by the merger of ChemChina and Syngenta, and three companies would sell 80 percent of all seeds. Farmers have no ability to bargain for corn seed, which has doubled in price over the last decade, even while crop prices have dropped…

But Frerick has a broader case to make on monopolies. In urban areas of Des Moines with less connection to farm life, he’s talked about cable companies who take hours to answer customer service calls, or shrinking local newspapers due to Facebook and Google’s capturing of prized eyeballs for advertisers. In older communities, he’s condemned pharmaceutical companies that funnel patients to expensive drugs with little or no competition. A separate 2016 paper Frerick wrote while at Treasury explained how drug companies use corporate charity as a profit center, by paying discounts for individuals so insurers and government plans have to pay exorbitant rates for medications…

Most hospitals buy supplies in bulk through group purchasing organizations (GPOs) which carry a “90/10” requirement. Hospitals must continue to purchase at least 90 percent of their supplies from inside the GPO to qualify for discounts and avoid millions of dollars in penalties. This contractual obligation fortified BD’s monopoly, despite selling a more dangerous, more expensive product.

U.S. home prices highest in riskiest areas

According to Bloomberg,

The chart comes from Attom Data Solutions’ natural hazard index, which matches geographic areas to government data on risk of flood, earthquake, tornado, wildfire, hurricane, and hail.

The riskiest 20 percent of U.S. counties have the most homes, the highest average home values, and the greatest price appreciation in recent years. Why? Buyers who pay premiums for ocean views and mountain lookouts may be getting some additional disaster risk as part of the bargain, said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at Attom. Those kinds of geographical attributes are likely secondary factors in driving price appreciation, though. More importantly, Attom’s list of disaster-prone areas overlaps with engines of economic activity.

This makes sense to me – it is probably just that the big, vibrant U.S. cities are in hurricane and flood prone coastal areas, in fire-prone Mediterranean climates, or both. Climate change is not going to reduce these risks. Having the earthquake risk thrown on top is kind of just bad luck.

Treasury Secretary warns against banking deregulation

According to Project Syndicate, the U.S. Treasury Secretary made a recent statement warning against any rollback of regulations that were put in place following the 2007 financial crisis.

He argued that the United States’ political system “may be taking us in a direction that is very dangerous.” Referring to moves to roll back elements of the new regulatory order established in response to the debacles of 2008-9, he lamented that “everybody wants to go back to the status quo before the great financial crisis.” And he declared that “one cannot understand why grown intelligent people reach the conclusion that you should get rid of all the things you have put in place in the last ten years.”

The article goes on to argue that deregulation is actually not likely because academics and the press are against it. But the statement is not about academics and the press, it is about “the political system”. And who has control over the political system? The finance industry. And of course they want deregulation to boost short-term profits, even though it is not in their long term interests to destroy the world economy they depend on to operate.