Posted by: Dirk | January 11, 2017

President Obama and the gains from trade

Going through my inbox, I found this quote from President Obama from November 2016:

That’s why I firmly believe that one of our greatest challenges in the years ahead — across our nations and within them — will be to make sure that the benefits of the global economy are shared by more people and that the negative impacts, such as economic inequalities, are addressed by all nations.  When it comes to trade, I believe that the answer is not to pull back or try to erect barriers to trade.  Given our integrated economies and global supply chains, that would hurt us all.  But rather the answer is to do trade right, making sure that it has strong labor standards, strong environmental standards, that it addresses ways in which workers and ordinary people can benefit rather than be harmed by global trade.  All of this is the central work of APEC.

Looking back at the elections of 2016, I think it shows a lot of what went wrong.

According to standard international trade theory, the Heckscher-Ohlin model, there are winners and losers from trade. The model suggests that the gains from trade are higher than the losses, so that the winners can compensate the losers so that everybody wins. That, obviously, is the world we want to live in. Economists help politicians to make the world a better place – for everybody!

However, even the textbook “International Economics” by Krugman/Melitz/Obstfeld contains some insights in why things did not work out that well. They have a graph showing that the computer industry declined in terms of jobs badly between 2000 and 2009, even worse than the industrial sector as a whole. The graph looked something like this (but only for 2000-2009), which I got from the World Bank:

Employment in industry (% of total employment)

employmentThere has been a fall in industry jobs, and that means that there have been losers from trade. It has been very obvious that the jobs went elsewhere as the US started to import manufactured products from abroad, with much of the increase coming from Asia, where China was used as a platform to export Asian products to the rest of the world.

According to the Heckscher-Ohlin model, the winners from trade are the owners of capital. Capital is abundant in the US, and scarce in China. Obviously, the model does not allow US firms to move their machines to China, even though this is what happened to some extent. The losers are the workers, which see their jobs leave to never return. The sensible policy that an economist using the Heckscher-Ohlin model should give to the US government is to increase taxes on capital and cut taxes on labor. In reality, the opposite happened. George W Bush cut taxes for the rich, and the relatively poor and the middle class was left to itself.

Incoming President Trump does not seem to keen to rely on economic advisors, as a recent Bloomberg article makes clear:

Economists aren’t shying away from joining Donald Trump’s administration and would be willing to pitch in if asked, according to former economic policy makers now in academia. […] Alan Krueger, who led the CEA in the White House of President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2013 before passing the torch to incumbent Jason Furman, suggested that it might be more of a matter of Trump not wanting many economists in his administration, rather than the other way around.

With the record of advice of the recent past, it will be difficult for economists to resume their role at the table of the powerful. Of course, US policy was not completely driven by economists, but then I can’t recall any dissatisfaction of economists from the early 2000s with the tax and trade policies of George W Bush. Yes, it was pointed out that the rich stood to benefit, but where was the connection to international trade?

Here is what I found on Greg Mankiw’s blog, written by Bob Frank who debates him (link):

While serving as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Greg actively supported the Bush tax cuts targeted at top earners by arguing that the cuts would spur them to work harder. Greg would have been astonished to observe such a response from his colleagues at Harvard. Does he have a behavioral model that leads him to expect different behavior from high achievers in other occupations? Or does he have one that explains why any such differences consistently fail to reveal themselves in the data? In the absence of a plausible behavioral model backed by persuasive empirical evidence to the contrary, I stand by my conclusion that trickle-down theory is supported neither by economic theory nor by empirical evidence.

That to me seems like the typical economist of the early 2000s.

UPDATE JAN 11, 2017: Since Obama mentioned his job record in his farewell speech, I’d like to add another statistic which includes the latest data and comes from the BLS. Here is the number of employees in US manufacturing (in thousands):


As you can see, there was an upward movement from 2010-2015, but that has fizzled out and the sector is on decline again. Again, this is not a good record for the average American. If the new jobs were not created in manufacturing, they must come from the service sector. But these jobs normally don’t pay so well. This is one of the crucial issues that the new administration might address – or paper over, using economists to confuse and mislead the public over what determines the size of the manufacturing sector and the rate of unemployment. We’ll have to wait and see.

I’ve been watching one of the “Free to Chose” programs hosted by Milton Friedman, which are very odd to watch in terms of clothing and the absence of any ethnic minorities. What I find interesting about this programme is a sentence by the then former Chairman of the Fed, William McChesney Martin:

When I’ve talked for a long time about the independence of the Federal Reserve, that’s independence within the government not independence of the government.

The way that central bank independence is discussed nowadays seems to imply that central banks are independent from government. A recent article on reads:

Over the past 30 years, most central banks across the advanced economies have been given the ability to conduct monetary policy independently from interference by fiscal and political authorities (Crowe and Meade 2007). Today, almost all central banks in OECD countries are operationally instrument-independent, counting on their own tools to set or target several interest rates, even if none of them is goal-independent, since political bodies give them their mandate.

I reject the notion that it is possible to run central bank “independently from interference by fiscal and political authorities”. An increase in government spending, for instance, increases the amount of reserves in the system when it happens. Perhaps before, the government borrowed from banks, which themselves borrowed from the central bank. This is going on everywhere all of the time, and for me it is plain wrong to say that a central bank can be independent from the Treasury. This is recognized by most modern literature, including the Fed (see this paper).

What Milton Friedman and his insistence on monetary policy did to monetary theory was not advancing monetary thought, but rather a regression to older neoclassical times in which the monetary neutrality was an axiom. Keynes got rid of it, making money explicit, and then Friedman and his followers closed the curtain on Keynes. In the last few years, the picture changed again and Keynes has been revived in a modern form. Fiscal policy made a comeback, and 2017 will see more advancement towards Keynesian positions that stress the role of the state in fighting unemployment that results from leaving it to the market alone to determined the level of jobs available.

A new year, a new look at the US economy:


These are the sectoral balances for the US, which can be accessed through FRED here:

private sector

government sector

ROTW (rest of the world = current account)

To get an updated version of the graph above you can click here to go to the FRED2 website.

It looks like the private sector is starting to save more and/or invest less. The government deficit has stabilized, and so has the current account deficit. Given that the dollar is expensive and global growth weak, demand from the rest of the world will be relatively weak. In order to grow, demand must come from domestic sources then. The private sector, as I just wrote, does not seem to go on a spending binge (and into debt) right now, so it seems like expansionary fiscal policy is the way forward. Let’s see what 2017 brings.

The FT writes about Laffer endorsing Trump’s policy of tax cuts for the rich:

Although tax rates in most countries rose throughout the 20th century, which was by far the best century in economic history, Mr Laffer is unbowed. “When [taxes] went up [countries] did very poorly and when they went down, they did very well,” he says.

I would like to back up the criticism of the FT at the start of the first sentence with a chart taken from FRED2:


The blue line shows you tax receipts on corporate income divided by GDP. The red line is real GDP growth. Now Mr Laffer claims that cutting taxes leads to higher GDP and hence more tax income, so that the tax intake of the government will not decline even though rates have been cut. Wikipedia, though not authoritative on the subject of economics, gets it reasonably right when it says: “Generally, economists have found little support for the claim that tax cuts from current rates increase tax revenues or that most taxes are on the side of the Laffer curve where additional cuts could increase government revenue.”

If Mr Laffer would have been right, then one should have expected that with lower marginal tax rates from the 1980s onwards, when Reagan cut them being advised by Laffer, the tax intake would not go down (much) since higher GDP growth would lead to higher tax intake. However, the figure shows that the blue line falls and stays down. The (red) economic growth rates also do not go up to reach the levels of the 1950s-1970s. Remember that the US was not destroyed after WWII, like so many other countries, so no claim can be made that economic growth is more difficult to achieve after the post-war boom had fizzled out.

Laffer’s trickle-down economics did not do well empirically. Whether a cut in taxes stimulates the economy is a different question, and also any changes in tax rates might be overcompensated by changes in government spending taking place simultaneously. This, I believe, was part of the bait-and-switch under Ronald Reagan (tax cuts for the rich, but huge increase in government spending on defence) and will be part of the Trump policy, too. Nothing new here.

Posted by: Dirk | December 6, 2016

The US government needs to spend more

Sometimes it is interesting to look at the long run in order to see policy changes that somehow slip through under the radar. One of these instances, I think, is the way that real government consumption expenditures and gross investment have decreased since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008/09 (h/t to Nersisyan and Wray). Don’t get me wrong: there is lots of talk about upgrading infrastructure, sure. However, most people seem to believe that this is the result of a neglect for public infrastructure over some decades. While I think that this is right, probably most people would not have thought that this problem got a lot worse since 2010:
us-govspendtaxThe expenditures of government stopped following the upward trend after the recession, whereas transfers and taxes resumed the historical upward-sloping path. Only in the last few years did government expenditures grow again, but just slightly, not surpassing the historical maximum from 2009. This means that government could do and probably should do more in order to get the economy out of a situation of low growth and low participation in labor markets. The Civilian employment to population ratio has still not recovered and seems to stagnate now (data).

So, if there are people who would like to rejoin the labor market, why not return to normal and lift US government spending up to where it was before the crisis? That surely would create unemployment and since the US government cannot go broke anyway it would not do any harm to future generations either.

Posted by: Dirk | November 18, 2016

Eurozone: The Stability and Growth Pact is dead.

As Reuters reported two days ago, the EU has decided not to punish the government of Spain and Portugal respectively for running deficits that were higher than the EU demanded:

The European Commission said on Wednesday it will not suspend EU funds for Spain and Portugal next year following their breach of EU budget rules, as it also called for looser fiscal policy across the euro zone.

The European Union’s executive Commission has the power to impose fines and to suspend EU funds for countries that run deficits above 3 percent of their gross domestic product and do not take measures to correct their excessive gaps.

Spain and Portugal were found in breach of EU fiscal rules last year, but the Commission has concluded there is no need to sanction them as they have taken sufficient measures to correct their imbalances, Commission vice president Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference.

So, it should not come as a surprise that European politics is, well, political. Greece is now the only country where the rules are applied harshly (and unfairly, I think), whereas the others seem to be free to increase government spending. Any future punishments can now be attacked by referring to what happened (or rather not happened) to Spain and Portugal.

Finally, Keynesian thought has replaced neoclassical thought at Brussels! Austerity in times of crisis is, was and always will be a bad idea, if you have no outside option to export lots of stuff to other trade partners. However, not everybody thinks like this. Daniel Gros,Director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, at Project Syndicate had noticed the death of the Stability and Growth Pact a few weeks ago, writing:

But the decline in support for European fiscal rules carries serious risks. If the most concrete elements of the eurozone’s governance framework are not applied rigorously, what will compel member states to undertake reforms and stabilize their debt levels? Vague exhortations will not work. It seems that the crisis, and the untenably large risk premia for highly indebted governments that followed, has already been forgotten.

Officially, the Commission is still working to realize the blueprint for a “genuine” Economic and Monetary Union. But in the wake of the Commission’s decision not to enforce the SGP, this effort has become meaningless. It is now clearer than ever that EU member states prioritize domestic political imperatives over common rules – and Europe’s common good.

I do not agree with these statements at all. Stabilizing public debt levels is not a feasible economic policy at all, because in the pursuit of one number – public debt to GDP – you lose sight of the real world. In Spain, an old lady died this week after a candle started a fire at her place and she fell down when trying to run away. Why was she using a candle? Because the electricity company had cut her off for not paying her bills. So, in Western Europe we have households now that have no electricity. That is ridiculous! Are we so poor that we cannot afford to provide electricity to the elderly? No, we are not. This is a political choice, and the decision that caused this was to cut government spending because of this sad ideology of expansionary austerity.

“Untenably large risk premia for highly indebted governments”? That was a mistake, and it has been corrected. Now the ECB will make sure that bond yields will not rise if “the market” starts to doubt a government. It was wrong to give so much power to financial markets and to let them punish governments. In the end, they would have punished all governments and driven them into bankruptcy if during the crisis we would not have interfered with the market by changing the governance of the eurozone.

EU member states, as I see, prioritize meaningful domestic political imperatives like fighting unemployment over meaningless common rules like the Stability and Growth Pact, which only have been put in place to increase the power of the financial sector.

The death of the Stability and Growth Pact is a good thing. However, it is only the first step in the right direction. More will have to follow before the next recession hits the eurozone and destroys the single currency.

Posted by: Dirk | November 15, 2016

Stock-flow consistent (SFC) model for beginners

A while ago I created the SIM(mple) model as a graphical tool on InsightMaker, which is a really great software that runs on the web for free and allows users to play around with the models and also copy them. Today I received an email informing me that the model has had 100 views – wow! It is originally from the book by Godley and Lavoie (not anymore) available here. The good thing about Insightmaker is that you can try out the model with different parameter choices and hence experience it without having to use some mathematical software. I hope that more people will get to know this really easy way of understanding the mechanisms behind the very simple SFC model.

Posted by: Dirk | November 9, 2016

Was FDR a populist? (Was New Labour populist?)

At the 2017 EAEPE conference in Manchester last week the British “New Labour” politician Lord Peter Mandelson offered the participants to gather in a room and discuss the question of “becoming an economist in times of populism”. Lord Mandelson was very nice and we had a very good exchange of ideas, open enough that different positions were voiced and respected. It was not so clearcut what populism is in term of policy, and also in terms of politicians. Coincidentally, I had the last question to Lord Mandelson and I asked whether he thought that Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), Democrat presidential candidate in 1932, was a populist? To get some idea of his policies, here is an excerpt form his first inaugural address:

Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

That, I think, was not a surprise speech that shocked voters, but rather a confirmation that FDR was serious about the economy and the unemployment problems. So, was FDR a populist? Lord Mandelson said no, because FDR listened to the right people when it mattered. I am not exactly happy with that answer. Instead of making my point by writing up my own ideas, let me just show you an excerpt of a 2001 speech by Tony Blair (New Labour):

But globalisation is a fact and, by and large, it is driven by people.

Not just in finance, but in communication, in technology, increasingly in culture, in recreation. In the world of the internet, information technology and TV, there will be globalisation. And in trade, the problem is not there’s too much of it; on the contrary there’s too little of it.

The issue is not how to stop globalisation.

The issue is how we use the power of community to combine it with justice. If globalisation works only for the benefit of the few, then it will fail and will deserve to fail.

But if we follow the principles that have served us so well at home – that power, wealth and opportunity must be in the hands of the many, not the few – if we make that our guiding light for the global economy, then it will be a force for good and an international movement that we should take pride in leading.

So, is this populism, then? Globalisation is a fact? It can’t be stopped? There is no alternative? But if it can’t be channeled into more benefits for everybody, it will fail? (And then…?)

I believe that the problem we face today is that we need to think very hard about who is populist and who isn’t. We also need to think about whether change will come from the populists or the non-populists. Obviously, Germans elected a populist madman in 1933, but that was much clearer with hindsight than back then. If FDR is judged to have been a populist, then he was no a madman and probably a good choice. What we need now is more public debate about policies and parties, not only in the US, but also in Europe and elsewhere.

(This is not geared toward the US elections so that I’ve scheduled this article to appear on Wednesday, Nov 9, noon European time.)

The so-called elephant chart (see here) has been discussed a lot recently. It shows that change in real income was very nice for those people on this planet who were neither really poor nor belonged to Western middle class during the period of 1988-2008. The chart was first made popular by Branko Milanovic.

The question that comes to mind automatically is: if we had positive rates of economic growth in the western world from 1988-2008 (and we had!), then were did all that income go? And the answer, at least for the US, you find in another chart, taken from page 62 of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s report:

compensation Any more questions?

The above quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, and it is a typical one following Einstein’s motto “as simple as you can, but not simpler!” So, how could we describe the economy? Would we need to take into account the line by Einstein and be careful about descriptions that are technically correct but lose the essence somewhere along the way, or can we just start and describe physical things and the transformations of inputs into outputs without having to stop for some reflection?

I strongly believe the latter is the case. The economy is something in which goods are produced and then exchanged, but there is a lot more to it than this description would make you think. What about social justice in a system where workers specialise in certain tasks and this receive a money wage? What about the uncertainty for the entrepreneur who first pays workers and then gets his production process started? What is the role of money and banking in this process? Who has the power and why? What about individual rights and duties? Who protects the weak, and who is watching the watchmen?

Having just attended a conference which celebrated an economic journal, I believe that with the problems that we face today we need to rethink economics as the academic discipline. Nine years after the start of the sub-prime crisis, there were still presentations about DSGE models (nothing about SFC models), about government spending that would pay for itself (whereas the government cannot go bankrupt if it issues debt in its own currency), about a Cobb-Douglas production function that assumed that you can give a price to capital (here the alternatives are harder to imagine, but classical economists like Smith and Marx would come to mind). Where is the new economic thinking?

Let me slightly rephrase the quote by Einstein:

“It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a capitalist process of development as an accumulation of capital and labour.”

Just as with Beethoven, the single parts and the whole have to be seen from completely different angles. Whereas there are many ways to listen to Beethoven, there is still only one academically correct way of “doing economics”, which is neoclassical economics. This is wrong and this needs to be corrected. One of the publications that celebrated its birthday today will shortly publish an article on the need for a Pluralist economics. Just as the last 100 years, the next will surely be intellectually stimulating!

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