26 Oct 2009

Who’s Being Dogmatic?

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My op ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune generated some hate mail. The best was this:

Mr. Murphy, in your article published in the San Diego Union Sunday Oct. 25,2009 the first conclusion you come to is that the Obama economic stimulus was a failure and you use the predictions of the administration to support this conclusion. Predictions of anyone do not substantiate anything other that the predictions were wrong. Your second point was that TARP was not needed because business loan activity decreased after Oct 2008 when the rescue was initiated. Oct. 2008 was when the banking almost came to a complete halt whether tarp was introduced or not, so it seem obvious that loan activity would decline, that fact doesn’t tell us anything about TARP. I think you come to your conclusions from a dogma and no real interest in the truth. Any small understanding of the great depression will give you actual facts of what government intervention does. I get tired of reading editorials in the Union Tribune with no real facts to support the opinion.

I put the bold in the above. What’s funny is that in my op ed, I pointed out:

(1) After passage of the Obama stimulus package, unemployment is now higher than they predicted (a) with the stimulus and even (b) without the stimulus. In other words, we are now in a situation that is even worse than what Obama’s economic team used to scare people into supporting the stimulus.

(2) Even though TARP was pushed through with the promise of getting banks lending again, lending was at an all-time high when TARP was passed, and since has plummeted 12% in less than a year.

I didn’t mention this in the op ed, but since he brought it up:

(3) As far as the Great Depression goes, we see that the period of the greatest federal intervention into the US economy (at least during peacetime) was also by far the worst economic performance in US history.

So my question is this: What would the empirical evidence have to look like, in order for my pessimism about government intervention to be well-founded, rather than dogmatic?

And notice that for my correspondent, he uses a priori theory to explain away the ostensible failure of the stimulus and TARP. He relies on the trusty counterfactual: Even though the objective measures got worse after his programs passed, nonetheless he is confident that things would have been even worse had the government done nothing.

Maybe the guy is right; I’m certainly not knocking a priori theory in economics. But it’s a bit absurd for him to criticize me for clinging to dogma in this case.

26 Oct 2009

Is the Recession Really Ending?

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My answer is “no” in the San Diego Union-Tribune. I’ve gotten some hate mail on this one. My favorite so far was a guy telling me to read up on the Great Depression so I’d see the beneficial effects of government intervention. An excerpt:

The government and media analysts should stop talking as if the “success” of these programs [TARP and Obama stimulus] is self-evident. A simple look at the facts suggests that the interventions have been abject failures. Instead of cheerleading a bogus rescue, media analysts should tackle the obvious question: If this weak performance doesn’t cause proponents of massive deficit spending and corporate handouts to doubt themselves, what would?

Would a more free-market approach have yielded better results? Americans don’t know because neither the Bush nor Obama administrations considered that option. The next administration to tackle a recession should look to the market more than intervention. There is still time for the Obama administration, because the current recession, contrary to news reports, may not be over after all.

25 Oct 2009

Elijah Speaks Truth to Power

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Last week I noted that Solomon’s son tried to exact higher taxes from the Israelites, leading them to revolt and split the kingdom in two.

From there it was all downhill. The two Books of Kings just chronicle successor after successor who was even worse than the last guy. And I don’t mean they cheat on their wives and start wars; I’m talking about building shrines to pagan gods. Yikes.

(Incidentally, this is part of the reason for my prediction of a very bad decade for the US. In politics, things often cycle lower and lower. I remember when a lot of conservatives and libertarians thought Bill Clinton was just about the worst president imaginable. Still think so, guys? And after Republicans have festered during the Obama Administration, can you imagine how reckless they will be when their guy finally gets back in the White House? It’s not going to be pretty. George W. Bush may look like a camp counselor in comparison.)

Left to their own devices, the Israelites probably would have imploded. But there was always a prophet who would emerge from obscurity to tell the king what was up. Now you ask, “Well why would these awful kings give a flip what some self-righteous guy said to them? How many divisions did Elijah have?”

You don’t need earthly force when you are communicating the word of the Lord: “1 And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.”” (1 Kings 17:1)

So Elijah is not too popular right about then, and the Lord tells him to get out of there pronto. He also tells Elijah where to camp so that he can drink from a brook, and reassures him that ravens will bring him bread and meat.

Later on, Elijah comes back to meet the king and remind everyone who brought their forefathers out of Egypt. If you don’t believe all this stuff, just appreciate it as a good story. This is pretty cool:

 1 And it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth.”
2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab; and there was a severe famine in Samaria. (1 Kings 18:1-2, New King James Version)

17 Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?”
18 And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and have followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”   
20 So Ahab sent for all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I alone am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. 23 Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. 24 Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”
So all the people answered and said, “It is well spoken.”
25 Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.
26 So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made.
27 And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. 29 And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31 And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” 32 Then with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD; and he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood, and said, “Fill four waterpots with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time,” and they did it a second time; and he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. 35 So the water ran all around the altar; and he also filled the trench with water.
36 And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. 37 Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.”
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!”
40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and executed them there.   
41 Then Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; then he bowed down on the ground, and put his face between his knees, 43 and said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.”
So he went up and looked, and said, “There is nothing.” And seven times he said, “Go again.”
44 Then it came to pass the seventh time, that he said, “There is a cloud, as small as a man’s hand, rising out of the sea!” So he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you.’”
45 Now it happened in the meantime that the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain. So Ahab rode away and went to Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:17-45, New King James Version)

If you think Elijah was a formidable figure, just wait till we meet Elisha.

24 Oct 2009

The Problem With Pigou

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From an email I wrote to a group of colleagues who were arguing over whether it was really true that fossil fuel use only had negative externalities. (One of the guys was arguing that cheap energy confers benefits on society, just as surely as an opera house.)

Sorry I’m late replying to this; swamped with work. Consumer surplus
refers to the benefit consumers get from the availability of certain
markets, because presumably you keep buying units until the marginal
benefit of the next unit is lower than the unit price. So the idea is
that you gain a surplus on each of the inframarginal units. A lot of
people don’t see how a voluntary trade makes both people better off.
If a gallon of gas has a price of $2.50, then the consumer buys it and
at best is “even” because he swapped out $2.50 in cash for something
that is “worth” $2.50. But obviously that is wrong.

A positive externality means your actions shower benefits on other
people who aren’t in the actual market transaction. Textbook examples
are things like schooling and vaccination. An individual presumably
decides to learn to read, and get vaccinated (or at least his parents
force him to do these things) because the personal benefits outweigh
the personal costs. But it’s in my interest if other people become
literate and vaccinate themselves. (Let’s stipulate that we’re talking
about an effective vaccine. I know a lot of people don’t like the H1N1
vaccine.)

The problem with externalities is that if you push it, just about
every action you take has a million positive and a million negative
externalities. E.g. if I put on smelly socks before going to work,
that’s a negative externality and the government ought to fine me, in
principle. Oh but maybe the odor causes others to think about
workplace odor, causing 5 people to use anti-perspirant who otherwise
wouldn’t have. Thus my wearing of smelly socks confers a positive
externality, and the government should subsidize me, in principle.

So [Mr. Colleague] is definitely right that there are positive externalities
from fossil fuel use, if only because I can dream up positive
externalities from any activity X.

24 Oct 2009

Corporatists 237, Bob Murphy 3

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Wow I’m sorry that I missed this, loyal readers. I really need to stop outsourcing my financial news gathering to places like CNBC. It was only after watching a video interview with “special master for executive compensation” (that’s actually his title, which is hardly less worrisome than “pay czar”) Ken Feinberg that I realized his “90% pay cuts” actually are only pro rated to November and December. (I believe Tokyo Tom in the comments of my knee jerk post was trying to point this out, when he said the decision wasn’t a clawback.) Furthermore, as Feinberg says in the video, everything is back on the table starting in January 2010. (However, some news reports have Feinberg saying the rules will be in place for 2010. The only thing worse than having a pay czar chop your pay by 90%, is not knowing if the pay czar will chop your pay by 90%.)

Don’t get me wrong, I still stand by the general theme of my first reaction: This is a horrible precedent, and will make it all the easier for the government to regulate all financial compensation packages down the road, so long as it gives some bogus finding of “systemic risk.”

But once again I was snookered by the progressive rhetoric, in contrast to the corporatist reality: Thus far 25×7 = 175 people have had two months’ of their salaries altered, after living large on the taxpayer’s dime the first ten months of the year.

This is the real danger of listening to Rush Limbaugh et al.: It’s not that it will turn you into a racist, but rather that it will make you actually believe the progressive rhetoric coming out of the White House. For example, Rush actually think Obama is getting ready to pull all the US troops out of Afghanistan. Riiiight.

Incidentally, I noticed at least three humongous lies in the short Feinberg video linked above. For example, he says there are no plans to move beyond this, and yet I have heard audio–on Rush’s show I believe–where Feinberg says his next task is to figure out the compensation for the #26 – #100 people in each of these companies. He also says that neither the White House nor the Treasury exerted any input at all into his decisions. Well (a) that’s obviously a lie and (b) it would be absurd if they didn’t! Do we really want to believe that Obama would allow one guy unfettered power over seven huge companies?!

24 Oct 2009

Most Days, It’s Embarrassing To Be an Economist

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Silas Barta has a good takedown of this goofy blog post from an economics professor, Daniel Hamermesh, and his attempt to impart the lessons of economics to his students:

Each year in my 500-student principles class I gather a group of eight students and tell them that I will auction a $20 bill to the highest bidder. If two or more students bid the same thing, the difference between $20 and their joint bid will be divided among the winning bidders. They can collude to fix the price just like oligopolists who violate antitrust laws, but they must mark down their bids in secret.

Today seven of the students stuck to the collusive agreement, and each bid $.01. They figured they would split the $20 eight ways, netting $2.49 each. Ashley, bless her heart, broke the agreement, bid $0.05, and collected $19.95. The other 7 students booed her, but I got the class to join me in applauding her, as she was the only one who understood the game.

No one disputes that the collusive agreement does not constitute a Nash equilibrium. No one disputes that, with no other mechanisms in place, it might be naive to assume that everyone would follow through with an agreement, especially as the number of players increased.

But so what? The parts I put in bold above do not follow from pure game theoretic considerations. There is nothing that says we ought to bless or congratulate others for playing a narrowly defined best response; indeed, if you want to go that route, we should be chastising her because it’s in each of our narrow self-interest to make everyone else feel guilty for defecting in cases like this. So this professor can’t have it both ways: He wants to be “non-selfish” by congratulating someone else for something that doesn’t help him personally, and yet the very thing he is congratulating is the student’s unwillingness to be so gracious herself.

I realize I may sound wishy washy and anti-rigorous here; let me assure the casual reader that I “get” game theory. It was my field (analogous to a major) at NYU, the program of which was renowned for its bona fides in this area. The professor telling the above anecdote fits the stereotype that other social scientists have of economists. Economists defend themselves and say, “Hey, our discipline doesn’t tell people to be selfish; we just view the world as it is, not as the sociologists want it to be.” But no, Hamermesh just gave the game away. He was applauding a student for reneging on an agreement in order to benefit herself and screw over her classmates. Moreover, he implies that the other students were stupid and that’s the only reason they too didn’t try to stab each other in the back. It wasn’t that they were naive or too trustworthy; nope, they must not have understood the game.

For what it’s worth, I too used a technique similar to this, when I taught cartels in microeconomics. I would show the class $50 in cash, and say:

OK everyone, I want you to take out a small slip of paper, and put your name on one side. Then on the other side, without letting anyone else see, write a “C” or “D.” Then fold it up, and I’ll collect them. Then I’ll go through and show the class the letters one at a time. After it’s all done, here’s what I’ll do: If there are all Cs, then you all split the money evenly. [There would normally be about 20 kids in the room.] If there is one D, that person gets $40 him or herself, and everyone else gets nothing. If there are two Ds, they each get $15 and everyone else gets nothing. If there are 3 Ds, they each get $8. Finally, if there are 4 or more Ds, nobody gets anything. I’m going to leave the room for 10 minutes and let you discuss it, and then when I come back I want you to write your answer. Don’t write your answer until I come back. Last thing, I won’t ever reveal who the people writing ‘D’ were. I will pay them outside of class.

What’s interesting is that I almost never had to pay any money; in fact I think maybe I never paid any, but I’m not sure. However, after a few semesters of this pattern, I switched it up and used bonus points on the next exam as the reward. The payoff structure was the same: It was weakly dominant (note not strictly dominant, and hence this actually wasn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma) to write a D, because there were scenarios where that would garner you more bonus points, and it would never hurt you to write D. And yet just about always, everyone in the class wrote C when it was points, not money. Presumably this was due to (a) kids felt worse about stealing points from their friends, and (b) the football players threatened to literally beat up defectors when there were exam points on the line.

Anyway, my problem isn’t with Hamermash’s use of a game to keep the class interested. My problem is with him applauding students for defecting, and telling them that’s the right thing to do. Does Hamermash leave a tip in a restaurant when he’s on a road trip at a place he’s not likely to visit again within a year? If so, what a moron! He clearly doesn’t understand the rules of restaurant pricing.

(For more on the problems with typical popularizing of game theory, see my article complaining about Hal Varian’s discussion of the movie A Beautiful Mind.)

UPDATE: I used to put this as a bonus question on the next exam, so I’ll do it here as well, inasmuch as there are some serious econ geeks who frequent these pages: There actually exists a Nash equilibrium in which I pay out money, given the rules described above. So if a class of students had realized it and assigned people the various strategies to play, it would be self-enforcing, at least if we assume that each kid only cares about maximizing how much money he or she gets from me. What is the equilibrium?

23 Oct 2009

A Scary Jim Manzi Post on the Economy

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I hate to see what he writes on Halloween:

WHISTLING PAST THE GRAVEYARD

Some good news from Wall Street:

The improvement in sentiment in Wall Street may be traced almost directly to the encouraging reports which the financial community is receiving from the leading industries of the country, according to investment trust executives. They say that the current rise in security prices is firmly grounded on the improvement in business conditions that began in December.

New York Times
February 14, 1930

Two months later the Dow hit a level it would not see again for about 25 years. Happy Valentine’s Day, pal.

In the Crash of 1929, the Dow lost 48% of its value. Six months later it rallied back 48% (because this was from a starting point half as high, this meant it got back 52% of the loss from the Crash). In 2007 – 2009, the Dow lost 54% of its value. It has now rallied back 54%, or in other words, it has regained 45% of this loss in value.

Japan has gone through a similar process of dealing with an exploded real estate bubble. The Nikkei hit a peak of about 39,000 in 1989. It has moved downwards in a sawtooth pattern for the past 20 years, with big rallies in 95 – 96, 98 – 99 and 03 – 07. Today, 20 years after its peak, the Nikkei is at about 10,000.

It…seems slightly surreal to me to read newspaper trend stores about people getting bored with the incredible austerity of the past, oh, 10 months. Similarly, political debates around cap-and-trade, health care, entitlements, the $100 billion of new schools spending in the stimulus bill with no obvious prospects for improving reading or math skills, and so on that causally describe reducing U.S. economic output or efficiency in support of some lofty goal strike me as entirely detached from the reality of how harsh the real choices in front of us are likely to be.

In case my recent apologetic post on price inflation left some readers without a rudder, let me be clear: Even though I jumped the gun on my prediction of sharp price increases, I still think: (a) The real economy is going to be in the toilet for years, and (b) We are going to see the worst price inflation in US history. I am open to the possibility that (b) is wrong, but I am as confident in (a) as I could be for a general macroeconomic prediction.

Consequently, I personally am using the extra breathing room as a gift. I am currently carrying a lot more credit card debt than I’d like, and–given my views–I really need to redouble my efforts to get serious and start hacking it away.

If I’m right and we are now in the third bubble of the 2000s–first dot-com, then housing market, now US Treasurys–the eventual bust will be worse, the longer the delusion persists. But on the bright side, it gives those of us who see it coming, longer to protect our own households.

When trying to time a bubble, it’s much better to err on the side of leaving too soon.

23 Oct 2009

I’m Glad The Conservatives Are There to Protect the Legacy of the Founders

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A few months ago, Glenn Beck confidently stated that Thomas Paine was an atheist. No, he was a Deist. It’s true that in The Age of Reason Paine was very harsh on the Christian God, but Paine was so offended because he thought the Christian worldview mocked the grandeur of the true Creator of the universe. Does this sound like a quote from an atheist?

But in Deism our reason and our belief become happily united. The wonderful structure of the universe, and everything we behold in the system of the creation, prove to us, far better than books can do, the existence of a God, and at the same time proclaim His attributes.

It is by the exercise of our reason that we are enabled to contemplate God in His works, and imitate Him in His ways. When we see His care and goodness extended over all His creatures, it teaches us our duty toward each other, while it calls forth our gratitude to Him. It is by forgetting God in His works, and running after the books of pretended revelation, that man has wandered from the straight path of duty and happiness, and become by turns the victim of doubt and the dupe of delusion.

Except in the first article in the Christian creed, that of believing in God, there is not an article in it but fills the mind with doubt as to the truth of it, the instant man begins to think. Now every article in a creed that is necessary to the happiness and salvation of man, ought to be as evident to the reason and comprehension of man as the first article is, for God has not given us reason for the purpose of confounding us, but that we should use it for our own happiness and His glory.

I was going to let this one go, except that Glenn Beck doubled down the other day and went on at length with his sidekick along the lines of, “Now look, I’m not saying we all have to agree with everything about the Founding Fathers. For example, Thomas Paine was an atheist. OK, I’m not, I believe in God, but I still think he was right in his description of A-mer-ica.” (Not an exact quote but definitely the spirit of what Beck said.)

Tell you what, Mr. Beck, you don’t know the first thing about Thomas Paine, even though you tell your listeners how avid a historian you are when it comes to the colonial period. I would also venture to say that Thomas Paine knew the Christian Bible better than you (or me); he wrote the first part of Age of Reason from his French prison cell from memory, when he was on the guillotine death row for the shocking crime of saying they shouldn’t kill the deposed king, Louis XVI. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, readers, you should read up on Thomas Paine. He was so freaking cool.)

OK, then just the other day I heard an ad from the Heritage Foundation during Rush Limbaugh’s show. Again, not an exact quote, but it went something like this: First the narrator read a really cool quote, one that makes you want to throw a Nobama! sticker on your bumper. Then the narrator says, “That was Samuel Adams, one of the patriots who founded our country. And Sam Adams’ weapon was the Constitution. Join the Heritage Foundation today, and receive a free pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution–the liberals in DC don’t want you to know what it says.”

So that sounded a little fishy to me. All the “patriotic” stuff Sam Adams did (and which the British people would rightly have classified as terrorist acts of insurgency) happened before the Constitution was ratified. So I was pretty sure the people who wrote that Heritage ad were bluffing. I checked Wikipedia to see how bad it was, and yep, it’s pretty bad:

Shays’s Rebellion contributed to the belief that the Articles of Confederation needed to be revised. In 1787, delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, instead of revising the Articles, created a new United States Constitution with a much stronger national government. When the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, Adams expressed his displeasure. “I confess,” he wrote to Richard Henry Lee in 1787, “as I enter the Building I stumble at the Threshold. I meet with a National Government, instead of a Federal Union of States.”[195] Adams was one of those derisively labeled “Anti-Federalists” by proponents of the new Constitution, who called themselves “Federalists”.[196] Adams was elected to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, which met in January 1788. Despite his reservations, Adams rarely spoke at the convention, and listened carefully to the arguments rather than raising objections.[197] Adams and John Hancock, who had reconciled, finally agreed to give their support for the Constitution, with the proviso that some amendments be added later.[198] Even with the support of Hancock and Adams, the Massachusetts convention narrowly ratified the Constitution by a vote of 187 to 168.[199]

Concerned about the new Constitution, Adams made an attempt to reenter national politics. He allowed his name to be put forth as a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in the December 1788 election, but lost to Fisher Ames, apparently because Ames was a stronger supporter of the Constitution, a more popular position.[202] Despite his defeat, Adams continued to work for amendments to the Constitution, a movement that ultimately resulted in the addition of a Bill of Rights in 1791.[203] With these amendments, and the possibility of more, Adams subsequently became a firm supporter of the Constitution.

What do you think, kids? Were the Heritage scriptwriters aware of all the above? Did Glenn Beck know full well the nuances of Thomas Paine’s position on the existence of God? I must confess I am skeptical.