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“Rock Bottom Economics”: The Inflation And Rising Interest Rates That Never Showed Up

Six years ago the Federal Reserve hit rock bottom. It had been cutting the federal funds rate, the interest rate it uses to steer the economy, more or less frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to get ahead of the recession and financial crisis. But it eventually reached the point where it could cut no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero. On Dec. 16, 2008, the Fed set its interest target between 0 and 0.25 percent, where it remains to this day.

The fact that we’ve spent six years at the so-called zero lower bound is amazing and depressing. What’s even more amazing and depressing, if you ask me, is how slow our economic discourse has been to catch up with the new reality. Everything changes when the economy is at rock bottom — or, to use the term of art, in a liquidity trap (don’t ask). But for the longest time, nobody with the power to shape policy would believe it.

What do I mean by saying that everything changes? As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.

This may all sound wild and radical, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s what mainstream economic analysis says will happen once interest rates hit zero. And it’s also what history tells us. If you paid attention to the lessons of post-bubble Japan, or for that matter the U.S. economy in the 1930s, you were more or less ready for the looking-glass world of economic policy we’ve lived in since 2008.

But as I said, nobody would believe it. By and large, policy makers and Very Serious People in general went with gut feelings rather than careful economic analysis. Yes, they sometimes found credentialed economists to back their positions, but they used these economists the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. And what the guts of these serious people have told them, year after year, is to fear — and do — exactly the wrong things.

Thus we were told again and again that budget deficits were our most pressing economic problem, that interest rates would soar any day now unless we imposed harsh fiscal austerity. I could have told you that this was foolish, and in fact I did, and sure enough, the predicted interest rate spike never happened — but demands that we cut government spending now, now, now have cost millions of jobs and deeply damaged our infrastructure.

We were also told repeatedly that printing money — not what the Fed was actually doing, but never mind — would lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” The Fed, to its credit, stood up to this pressure, but other central banks didn’t. The European Central Bank, in particular, raised rates in 2011 to head off a nonexistent inflationary threat. It eventually reversed course but has never gotten things back on track. At this point European inflation is far below the official target of 2 percent, and the Continent is flirting with outright deflation.

But are these bad calls just water under the bridge? Isn’t the era of rock-bottom economics just about over? Don’t count on it.

It’s true that with the U.S. unemployment rate dropping, most analysts expect the Fed to raise interest rates sometime next year. But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Europe looks further than ever from economic liftoff, while Japan is still struggling to escape from deflation. Oh, and China, which is starting to remind some of us of Japan in the late 1980s, could join the rock-bottom club sooner than you think.

So the counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.

This bodes ill for the future. What people in power don’t know, or worse what they think they know but isn’t so, can very definitely hurt us.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 23, 2014

November 28, 2014 Posted by | Deficits, Economic Recovery, Inflation | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Silliness And Hysteria”: Gripes About Excessive Regulations And Taxes Often Are Baseless

In the last couple of months we have seen the country whipped up into near hysteria over the virtually nonexistent threat of Ebola.

While the only people who contracted the disease in this country were those who treated a man who died of the disease, tens of millions of people became convinced they were in danger on airplanes and public buses and even routine visits to the supermarket.

Politicians have sought to exploit the same sort of fears with their rants about regulations and high taxes sinking the economy. These complaints have as much foundation in reality as the Ebola threat.

The regulation screed usually focuses on the number of pages in bills like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. While lengthy bills are unfortunate from the standpoint of the trees cut down for the paper, the length bears no relationship to the amount of regulation.

To take one example, the Volcker Rule, which prohibits banks with government insured deposits from engaging in risky speculation, ended up more than three times its original length as the industry carved out an array of exceptions. The greater length was associated with less regulation, not more.

Dodd-Frank was about curbing the sorts of abuses that gave us the financial crisis. Is the argument that we need corrupt banks to foster growth?

The screams over the ACA are equally misguided. The rules have little impact on large firms, the vast majority of whom already offered insurance that met ACA requirements. It might have been expected to affect mid-sized firms that did not previously offer insurance, but none of the complainers has yet presented any evidence that these mid-sized firms have been especially hard hit in the last few years.

The tax complaints require some serious amnesia. Tax rates were higher for most people in the 1990s when we saw the strongest growth in almost three decades. We then lowered taxes in 2001 and saw a weak recovery followed by the collapse in 2008.

The explanation for the continuing weakness is not a surprise to those of us who warned of the housing bubble before the crisis. The bubble had been driving the economy both directly through its impact on construction and indirectly through the impact that $8 trillion of housing bubble wealth had on consumption. When the bubble burst, the economy lost its driving force.

The building boom of the bubble years lead to enormous overbuilding of housing. When the bubble burst, construction didn’t just fall back to normal. It fell to the lowest levels in 50 years, costing the economy more than four percentage points of GDP, amounting to $700 billion annually in lost demand. The loss of housing wealth meant that consumption fell back to more normal levels.

While both housing and construction are up from their low-points in the recession, they are not going to return to bubble peaks, at least not without another bubble. This means that the economy continues to have a huge shortfall in demand. Cutting taxes and reducing regulation will not magically fill this gap in demand.

There are essentially two ways to increase demand. One is directly through more government spending. This is currently taboo in Washington since we are all supposed to hate budget deficits.

The other is by reducing the trade deficit. The way to reduce the trade deficit is to make U.S. goods more competitive with a lower-valued dollar. Talk of a lower dollar is also taboo in political circles.

In short, it is not difficult to find ways to boost the economy; the problem is that politics prevents them from being discussed. Instead we get silliness about taxes and regulation.

 

By: Dean Baker, Co-Founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research; The National Memo, November 20, 2014

November 23, 2014 Posted by | Economy, Federal Regulations, Tax Cuts | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Systemic Problem Of Enabling The Rich”: Growing Income Gap Is Ripping The Social Fabric

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that one man’s act of altruism has attracted national attention. Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State University, has given up more than $90,000 of his annual salary in order to boost pay for the lowest-paid workers at the college, some of whom earn as little as the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. His donation will bump their wages to $10.25.

Burse has noted that his sacrifice will hardly leave him impoverished. He is a retired General Electric executive (as well as a former president of the college) with good benefits, as he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. While his job as interim president is “not a hobby, in terms of the people who do the hard work and heavy lifting, they are at the lower pay scale,” he said.

Yet, Burse is not Mitt Romney rich, and he could easily have kept his entire $349,869 annual paycheck without raising an eyebrow among his peers. As acting head of a historically black institution, he’s not in the growing circle of college presidents whose annual compensation tops a million bucks. Still, his act of generosity shines a spotlight on the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, the well-off and the working stiffs, the 1 percent and the rest of us.

The nation’s growing income inequality is one of its biggest challenges, a widening rip in the social fabric. The United States is not held together by a common religion or language or ethnicity, but by its promise of equal opportunity for all. While that’s always been a bit exaggerated, the nation has generally made good on the ideal that those who work hard can at least provide for their families.

But that notion has been less and less true since the 1980s, as globalization and technology starting stealing the factory jobs that paid good wages and gave average workers a toehold in the middle class. Then came the financial meltdown of 2008, which sped the decline. It’s no wonder that 49 percent of Americans, according to a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, think the country is still in a recession.

The Great Recession, though, just put rocket-boosters on a trend evident for decades. The problem is systemic. We’ve managed to create an economy that makes the rich richer while most others struggle to get by. Those with college degrees generally fare better than those with high school diplomas, but there are lots of twenty-something college grads working part-time jobs and living with their parents. They can’t afford to rent an apartment.

The economic climate isn’t the fault of Congress or the president. This globe-shaking dislocation is a mega-trend — the sort of frightening reordering of the universe that shook millions at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that thousands of bank tellers, for example, are slowly being replaced by smart ATMs, but it does signal the disappearance of jobs that paid a decent wage.

Most Americans, however, aren’t buying the mega-trend explanation. They place the blame for their economic decline squarely on the shoulders of their elected leaders. The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, conducted late last month, found that “seven in 10 adults blamed the malaise more on Washington leaders than on any deeper economic trends,” the Journal said.

That is easy enough to understand. Even if political leaders didn’t instigate a tectonic shift in the economy, they have done next to nothing to ease the dislocations. Indeed, a dysfunctional Republican Party, now comfortable in its role as enabler to the rich, will barely acknowledge the growing income gap.

Democrats, for their part, have recognized the problem but present few long-term solutions. Yes, raising the minimum wage would help, but it’s just a start. The nation needs an overhaul of its educational system, cheaper college costs and a public works program that pays a decent wage.

Burse’s noble sacrifice could help a few workers, but it’s not clear that it will stay in effect after he leaves. Still, his gesture is a step in the right direction. Too few men and women in his position have even noticed the plight of their poorly paid workers.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Visiting Professor, The University of Georgia; The National Memo, August 9, 2014

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Middle Class, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Beliefs, Facts And Money”: Conservative Delusions About Inflation

On Sunday The Times published an article by the political scientist Brendan Nyhan about a troubling aspect of the current American scene — the stark partisan divide over issues that should be simply factual, like whether the planet is warming or evolution happened. It’s common to attribute such divisions to ignorance, but as Mr. Nyhan points out, the divide is actually worse among those who are seemingly better informed about the issues.

The problem, in other words, isn’t ignorance; it’s wishful thinking. Confronted with a conflict between evidence and what they want to believe for political and/or religious reasons, many people reject the evidence. And knowing more about the issues widens the divide, because the well informed have a clearer view of which evidence they need to reject to sustain their belief system.

As you might guess, after reading Mr. Nyhan I found myself thinking about the similar state of affairs when it comes to economics, monetary economics in particular.

Some background: On the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators — and quite a few economists — had a worldview that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Such people were briefly rocked back on their heels by the revelation that the “bubbleheads” who warned about housing were right, and the further revelation that unregulated financial markets are dangerously unstable. But they quickly rallied, declaring that the financial crisis was somehow the fault of liberals — and that the great danger now facing the economy came not from the crisis but from the efforts of policy makers to limit the damage.

Above all, there were many dire warnings about the evils of “printing money.” For example, in May 2009 an editorial in The Wall Street Journal warned that both interest rates and inflation were set to surge “now that Congress and the Federal Reserve have flooded the world with dollars.” In 2010 a virtual Who’s Who of conservative economists and pundits sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning that his policies risked “currency debasement and inflation.” Prominent politicians like Representative Paul Ryan joined the chorus.

Reality, however, declined to cooperate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course — its balance sheet has grown to more than $4 trillion, up fivefold since the start of the crisis — inflation stayed low. For the most part, the funds the Fed injected into the economy simply piled up either in bank reserves or in cash holdings by individuals — which was exactly what economists on the other side of the divide had predicted would happen.

Needless to say, it’s not the first time a politically appealing economic doctrine has been proved wrong by events. So those who got it wrong went back to the drawing board, right? Hahahahaha.

In fact, hardly any of the people who predicted runaway inflation have acknowledged that they were wrong, and that the error suggests something amiss with their approach. Some have offered lame excuses; some, following in the footsteps of climate-change deniers, have gone down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, claiming that we really do have soaring inflation, but the government is lying about the numbers (and by the way, we’re not talking about random bloggers or something; we’re talking about famous Harvard professors.) Mainly, though, the currency-debasement crowd just keeps repeating the same lines, ignoring its utter failure in prognostication.

You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn’t the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?

Well, it turns out that money is indeed a kind of theological issue. Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money,” the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent. Also, let’s not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Mr. Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.

And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it’s obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.

Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they’re ever more marginalized. And that’s just what Mr. Nyhan’s article would lead us to expect. When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn’t stand a chance.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 6, 2014

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Conspiracy Theories, Economic Policy | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Jobs And Skills And Zombies”: Skills Gap, An Idea That Should Have Been Killed By Evidence But Refuses To Die

A few months ago, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, the chief executive of Jobs for the Future, published an article in Politico titled “Closing the Skills Gap.” They began portentously: “Today, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. Yet, at the same time, 4 million jobs sit unfilled” — supposedly demonstrating “the gulf between the skills job seekers currently have and the skills employers need.”

Actually, in an ever-changing economy there are always some positions unfilled even while some workers are unemployed, and the current ratio of vacancies to unemployed workers is far below normal. Meanwhile, multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

And it does a lot of harm. Before we get there, however, what do we actually know about skills and jobs?

Think about what we would expect to find if there really were a skills shortage. Above all, we should see workers with the right skills doing well, while only those without those skills are doing badly. We don’t.

Yes, workers with a lot of formal education have lower unemployment than those with less, but that’s always true, in good times and bad. The crucial point is that unemployment remains much higher among workers at all education levels than it was before the financial crisis. The same is true across occupations: workers in every major category are doing worse than they were in 2007.

Some employers do complain that they’re finding it hard to find workers with the skills they need. But show us the money: If employers are really crying out for certain skills, they should be willing to offer higher wages to attract workers with those skills. In reality, however, it’s very hard to find groups of workers getting big wage increases, and the cases you can find don’t fit the conventional wisdom at all. It’s good, for example, that workers who know how to operate a sewing machine are seeing significant raises in wages, but I very much doubt that these are the skills people who make a lot of noise about the alleged gap have in mind.

And it’s not just the evidence on unemployment and wages that refutes the skills-gap story. Careful surveys of employers — like those recently conducted by researchers at both M.I.T. and the Boston Consulting Group — similarly find, as the consulting group declared, that “worries of a skills gap crisis are overblown.”

The one piece of evidence you might cite in favor of the skills-gap story is the sharp rise in long-term unemployment, which could be evidence that many workers don’t have what employers want. But it isn’t. At this point, we know a lot about the long-term unemployed, and they’re pretty much indistinguishable in skills from laid-off workers who quickly find new jobs. So what’s their problem? It’s the very fact of being out of work, which makes employers unwilling even to look at their qualifications.

So how does the myth of a skills shortage not only persist, but remain part of what “everyone knows”? Well, there was a nice illustration of the process last fall, when some news media reported that 92 percent of top executives said that there was, indeed, a skills gap. The basis for this claim? A telephone survey in which executives were asked, “Which of the following do you feel best describes the ‘gap’ in the U.S. workforce skills gap?” followed by a list of alternatives. Given the loaded question, it’s actually amazing that 8 percent of the respondents were willing to declare that there was no gap.

The point is that influential people move in circles in which repeating the skills-gap story — or, better yet, writing about skill gaps in media outlets like Politico — is a badge of seriousness, an assertion of tribal identity. And the zombie shambles on.

Unfortunately, the skills myth — like the myth of a looming debt crisis — is having dire effects on real-world policy. Instead of focusing on the way disastrously wrongheaded fiscal policy and inadequate action by the Federal Reserve have crippled the economy and demanding action, important people piously wring their hands about the failings of American workers.

Moreover, by blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses even as employment and wages stagnate. Of course, that may be another reason corporate executives like the myth so much.

So we need to kill this zombie, if we can, and stop making excuses for an economy that punishes workers.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 30, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Skills Gap, Unemployed | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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