Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Can President Obama's New Metrics Curb College Costs?

    Aug 23, 2013Mike Konczal

    (Photo Source: White House)

    President Obama just announced a major initiative on higher education. Will it contain or reverse rising costs?

    I want to discuss the part of it that seems most tailored to containing costs, which is creating new higher education metrics to compare schools. These metrics will be created by 2015, which will be used to determine access to federal dollars such as student loans and Pell grants by 2018.

    From the fact sheet, the to-be-determined rankings will be based on three things: access, affordability, and outcomes. Access includes “percentage of students receiving Pell grants,” affordability includes “average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt,” and outcomes includes graduation rates and earnings.

    Here are my initial thoughts as I try to understand this. The tl;dr version is that it is important that these metrics are used to drive down private costs relative to public, expose administrative bloat, put pressure on the states, and bring accountability to the for-profits. If they don’t do that, they’re a waste on the cost-containment front. Now, here are six more detailed points to consider about how the metrics will be implemented and what effects they will have:

    1. The Goals Will Run Counter to Each Other. The efforts to increase graduation rates and have better post-graduation outcomes may require more spending by colleges. Some colleges in each of the meta-categories are likely to be booted for bad performance, or the metrics will make attending the worst-performing colleges so expensive as to drag them into a death spiral. Good as that may be for education, it will collapse the supply of higher education in the short term, putting more price pressure on existing institutions.

    Which is to say that we should distinguish efforts to increase quality through access and outcomes from efforts to contain costs. Students graduating on time will make colleges de facto more affordable, and perhaps that is mainly what the president is looking for.  But that is not entirely cost containment.

    2. The Student-Consumer or the Government? What’s different here? As Sara Goldrick-Rab and others argue, one reason cost containment has failed in the past “may stem from the financial aid system’s strong focus on the behaviors of ‘student-consumers’ rather than education providers.”

    It’s not clear to me why empowering these “student-consumers,” who go about rationally analyzing disclosed data in the marketplace for education, would give them the ability to make the demands necessary to contain costs at universities as a whole. One could see them driving out obviously underperforming institutions from the landscape, but it’s much harder to imagine them forcing institutions to contain costs, at least without political struggle.

    Students themselves are quite aware of the increasing costs in the past few years, with endless “click here to know what you are borrowing” measures that likely don’t do much. There’s really little evidence that an additional range of disclosures would make the institutions here more accountable or force them to contain their costs.

    Which is to say that we should focus less on disclosure and the consumer regime for cost containment, and more on how the government will force changes itself by making aid less available unless an affordability metric is met.

    3 The Obvious Information to Disclose. Talking about “the problem of higher education costs” is a major category error, as they vary by institution. The factors that cause community colleges to raise tuition (decreasing public support) are different than those facing for-profits (maximizing aid extraction) or private not-for-profits (maximizing prestige and consumer experience).

    Consistent across all of these is the idea that increasing administrative costs are a major driver of costs. This strikes me as the obvious, and perhaps only, metric where the consumer-student could force containment and best practices.

    So a very obvious thing to inform consumers of is “how much of my tuition goes to instruction?” If consumer-students want to force down football coach salaries and investment in extravagant non-instructional benefits, this is the most obvious way to do it and can be plastered across every disclosure form.

    (Another question I think is important, which would be great to deal with for-profits, is to disclose “how much of my tuition will be paid out to shareholders?” Consumers may or may not be happy with paying extra to build a more gigantic football stadium; they are probably not happy paying money that leaves the educational institution entirely.)

    4. Taking on Private Universities. It’s worth noting here that these metrics will be applied to private schools as well, using all of the government’s Title IV money (grants and student loans and everything else) as the leverage. And this is probably the major challenge, as private schools will not like this, and they have a lot of political coverage. Who among the elite hasn’t gone to a prominent private university?

    In a recent editorial on these new metrics, Sara Goldrick-Rab notes the danger that President Obama will “cave to the private higher-education lobby.” For if private higher education’s “expenses are so merited, we should see bigger gains at private elites than at we do at less-expensive institutions, not just higher graduation rates. None of that is happening now.”

    I’m curious how the metrics will “compare colleges with similar missions.” Will they compare public schools and private schools on the issue of cost containment at a given a level of quality? They should, as directly funded public options can drive down the costs of privately allocated goods, but if they do, that will necessarily put a lot of pressure on private schools.

    Interestingly, this could lead to a situation where private universities just leave the federal support system. Harvard, for instance, could just say “forget you” to the federal government and fund whatever aid it wants out of its own endowment. This move might split reformers, even though it would likely be for the best.

    5. Taking on the States. This is the most incoherent part of Obama’s pitch about the metrics. In the fact sheet, President Obama noted that “[d]eclining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs; tuition has almost doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years from 25 percent to 47 percent.” Yet at the same time he talks about bloat and waste as drivers. Both could be true, but if the first is a main driver then individual rankings of schools will have a problem.

    One way to balance this would be to rank states themselves alongside schools. Demos proposes “an additional ratings system: why don’t we rate state legislatures on their per-student investment in higher education?” This could be useful in giving people in different states a much better sense of what their public higher education looks like. Crucially, it would also adjust for the fact that state education systems function as a continuum with multiple levels and transfers up and down the educational ladder.

    6. Political Battles. A lot of commentators are arguing this is a battle between President Obama and liberal professors, so it is unlikely to trigger GOP opposition. I’m not sure about that. The real people who will disproportionately end up in the crosshairs if this is done well, as listed above, are (a) administrators taking inflated salaries, (b) private and flagship schools that provided little value at very high costs, and c) for-profits.

    I think Josh Barro misses that for-profit schools are a major GOP constituency. George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, Sally Stroup, was a former University of Phoenix lobbyist, and led a successful effort to remove restrictions on for-profit schools. On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney name-dropped a for-profit school that happened to donate to him. Insofar as the Obama administration will try to use these metrics to get a second bite at curbing the for-profit industry as it failed to do in its first term, that will set off alarm bells.

    Meanwhile, as noted above, basically every elite within 100 yards of D.C. politics, particularly in elite media and Democratic politics (e.g. “He was my professor actually at Harvard”), functions like a member of a private higher education lobby. How will they react if the hammer comes down there?

    There’s a lot of emphasis on getting poor students on Pell grants into high-end schools. That is a good goal. However, the issues with costs and higher education go far beyond this and affect families who are not rich but don’t qualify for means-tested aid. They are the ones who will increasingly demand cost containment.

    Something will eventually give. The question remains as to whether or not these metrics will be used to drive down private costs relative to public, expose administrative bloat, put pressure on the states, and bring accountability to the for-profits. If they do, it’s a positive sign; if not, a waste or worse when it comes to cost containment.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    (Photo Source: White House)

    President Obama just announced a major initiative on higher education. Will it contain or reverse rising costs?

    I want to discuss the part of it that seems most tailored to containing costs, which is creating new higher education metrics to compare schools. These metrics will be created by 2015, which will be used to determine access to federal dollars such as student loans and Pell grants by 2018.

    From the fact sheet, the to-be-determined rankings will be based on three things: access, affordability, and outcomes. Access includes “percentage of students receiving Pell grants,” affordability includes “average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt,” and outcomes includes graduation rates and earnings.

    Here are my initial thoughts as I try to understand this. The tl;dr version is that it is important that these metrics are used to drive down private costs relative to public, expose administrative bloat, put pressure on the states, and bring accountability to the for-profits. If they don’t do that, they’re a waste on the cost-containment front. Now, here are six more detailed points to consider about how the metrics will be implemented and what effects they will have:

    1. The Goals Will Run Counter to Each Other. The efforts to increase graduation rates and have better post-graduation outcomes may require more spending by colleges. Some colleges in each of the meta-categories are likely to be booted for bad performance, or the metrics will make attending the worst-performing colleges so expensive as to drag them into a death spiral. Good as that may be for education, it will collapse the supply of higher education in the short term, putting more price pressure on existing institutions.

    Which is to say that we should distinguish efforts to increase quality through access and outcomes from efforts to contain costs. Students graduating on time will make colleges de facto more affordable, and perhaps that is mainly what the president is looking for.  But that is not entirely cost containment.

    2. The Student-Consumer or the Government? What’s different here? As Sara Goldrick-Rab and others argue, one reason cost containment has failed in the past “may stem from the financial aid system’s strong focus on the behaviors of ‘student-consumers’ rather than education providers.”

    It’s not clear to me why empowering these “student-consumers,” who go about rationally analyzing disclosed data in the marketplace for education, would give them the ability to make the demands necessary to contain costs at universities as a whole. One could see them driving out obviously underperforming institutions from the landscape, but it’s much harder to imagine them forcing institutions to contain costs, at least without political struggle.

    Students themselves are quite aware of the increasing costs in the past few years, with endless “click here to know what you are borrowing” measures that likely don’t do much. There’s really little evidence that an additional range of disclosures would make the institutions here more accountable or force them to contain their costs.

    Which is to say that we should focus less on disclosure and the consumer regime for cost containment, and more on how the government will force changes itself by making aid less available unless an affordability metric is met.

    3 The Obvious Information to Disclose. Talking about “the problem of higher education costs” is a major category error, as they vary by institution. The factors that cause community colleges to raise tuition (decreasing public support) are different than those facing for-profits (maximizing aid extraction) or private not-for-profits (maximizing prestige and consumer experience).

    Consistent across all of these is the idea that increasing administrative costs are a major driver of costs. This strikes me as the obvious, and perhaps only, metric where the consumer-student could force containment and best practices.

    So a very obvious thing to inform consumers of is “how much of my tuition goes to instruction?” If consumer-students want to force down football coach salaries and investment in extravagant non-instructional benefits, this is the most obvious way to do it and can be plastered across every disclosure form.

    (Another question I think is important, which would be great to deal with for-profits, is to disclose “how much of my tuition will be paid out to shareholders?” Consumers may or may not be happy with paying extra to build a more gigantic football stadium; they are probably not happy paying money that leaves the educational institution entirely.)

    4. Taking on Private Universities. It’s worth noting here that these metrics will be applied to private schools as well, using all of the government’s Title IV money (grants and student loans and everything else) as the leverage. And this is probably the major challenge, as private schools will not like this, and they have a lot of political coverage. Who among the elite hasn’t gone to a prominent private university?

    In a recent editorial on these new metrics, Sara Goldrick-Rab notes the danger that President Obama will “cave to the private higher-education lobby.” For if private higher education’s “expenses are so merited, we should see bigger gains at private elites than at we do at less-expensive institutions, not just higher graduation rates. None of that is happening now.”

    I’m curious how the metrics will “compare colleges with similar missions.” Will they compare public schools and private schools on the issue of cost containment at a given a level of quality? They should, as directly funded public options can drive down the costs of privately allocated goods, but if they do, that will necessarily put a lot of pressure on private schools.

    Interestingly, this could lead to a situation where private universities just leave the federal support system. Harvard, for instance, could just say “forget you” to the federal government and fund whatever aid it wants out of its own endowment. This move might split reformers, even though it would likely be for the best.

    5. Taking on the States. This is the most incoherent part of Obama’s pitch about the metrics. In the fact sheet, President Obama noted that “[d]eclining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs; tuition has almost doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years from 25 percent to 47 percent.” Yet at the same time he talks about bloat and waste as drivers. Both could be true, but if the first is a main driver then individual rankings of schools will have a problem.

    One way to balance this would be to rank states themselves alongside schools. Demos proposes “an additional ratings system: why don’t we rate state legislatures on their per-student investment in higher education?” This could be useful in giving people in different states a much better sense of what their public higher education looks like. Crucially, it would also adjust for the fact that state education systems function as a continuum with multiple levels and transfers up and down the educational ladder.

    6. Political Battles. A lot of commentators are arguing this is a battle between President Obama and liberal professors, so it is unlikely to trigger GOP opposition. I’m not sure about that. The real people who will disproportionately end up in the crosshairs if this is done well, as listed above, are (a) administrators taking inflated salaries, (b) private and flagship schools that provided little value at very high costs, and c) for-profits.

    I think Josh Barro misses that for-profit schools are a major GOP constituency. George W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, Sally Stroup, was a former University of Phoenix lobbyist, and led a successful effort to remove restrictions on for-profit schools. On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney name-dropped a for-profit school that happened to donate to him. Insofar as the Obama administration will try to use these metrics to get a second bite at curbing the for-profit industry as it failed to do in its first term, that will set off alarm bells.

    Meanwhile, as noted above, basically every elite within 100 yards of D.C. politics, particularly in elite media and Democratic politics (e.g. “He was my professor actually at Harvard”), functions like a member of a private higher education lobby. How will they react if the hammer comes down there?

    There’s a lot of emphasis on getting poor students on Pell grants into high-end schools. That is a good goal. However, the issues with costs and higher education go far beyond this and affect families who are not rich but don’t qualify for means-tested aid. They are the ones who will increasingly demand cost containment.

    Something will eventually give. The question remains as to whether or not these metrics will be used to drive down private costs relative to public, expose administrative bloat, put pressure on the states, and bring accountability to the for-profits. If they do, it’s a positive sign; if not, a waste or worse when it comes to cost containment.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

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  • Denialism and Bad Faith in Policy Arguments

    Aug 14, 2013Mike Konczal

    Here’s the thing about Allan Meltzer: he knows. Or at least he should know. It’s tough to remember that he knows when he writes editorials like his latest, "When Inflation Doves Cry." This is a mess of an editorial, a confused argument about why huge inflation is around the corner. “Instead of continuing along this futile path, the Fed should end its open-ended QE3 now... Those who believe that inflation will remain low should look more thoroughly and think more clearly. ”

    But he knows. Because here’s Meltzer in 1999 with "A Policy for Japanese Recovery": “Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Bank of Japan and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations.”

    He knows that there’s an actual debate, with people who are “thinking clearly,” about monetary policy at the zero lower bound as a result of Japan. He participated in it. So he must have been aware of Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman, Michael Woodford, and Lars Svensson all also debating it at the same time. But now he’s forgotten it. In fact, his arguments for Japan are the exact opposite of what they are now for the United States.

    This is why I think the Smithian “Derp” concept needs fleshing out as a diagnosis of our current situation. (I’m not a fan of the word either, but I’ll use it for this post.) For those not familiar with the term, Noah Smith argues that a major problem in our policy discussions is “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.” But if that was the only issue, Meltzer would support more expansion like he did for Japan!

    Simply blaming reiteration of priors is missing something. The problem here isn’t that Meltzer may have changed his mind on his advice for Japan. If that’s the case, I’d love to read about what led to that change. The problem is one of denialism, where the person refuses to acknowledge the actually existing debate, and instead pantomimes a debate with a shadow. It involves the idea of a straw man, but sometimes it’s simply not engaging at all. For Meltzer, the extensive debate about monetary policy at the zero lower bound is simply excised from the conversation, and people who only read him will have no clue that it was ever there.

    There’s also another dimension that I think is even more important, which is whether or not the argument, conclusions, or suggestions are in good faith. Eventually, this transcends the “reiteration of strong priors” and becomes an updating of the case but a reiteration of the conclusion. Throughout 2010 and 2011, an endless series of arguments about how a long-term fiscal deal would help with the current recession were made, without any credible evidence that this would help our short-term economy. But that’s what people want to do, and so they acknowledge the fresh problem but simply plug in their wrong solutions. The same was true with Mitt Romney’s plan for the economy, which wasn’t specific to 2012 in any way.

    Bad faith solutions don’t have to be about things you wanted to do anyway. Phillip Mirowski’s new book makes a fascinating observation about conservative think tanks when it comes to global warming. On the one hand, they have an active project arguing global warming isn’t happening. But on the other hand, they also have an active project arguing global warming can be solved through geoengineering the atmosphere. (For an example, here’s AEI arguing worries over climate change are overblown, but also separately hosting a panel on geoengineering.)

    So global warming isn’t real, but if it is, heroic atmospheric entrepreneurs will come in at the last minute and save the day. Thus, you can have denialism and bad-faith solutions in play at the same time.

    The fact that we can get to the denial and bad-faith corner makes me think this can be made generalizable and charted on a grid, but I still feel it’s missing some dimensions. What Smith identifies is real, but I’m not sure how to place it on these axes. What do you make of it?

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Here’s the thing about Allan Meltzer: he knows. Or at least he should know. It’s tough to remember that he knows when he writes editorials like his latest, "When Inflation Doves Cry." This is a mess of an editorial, a confused argument about why huge inflation is around the corner. “Instead of continuing along this futile path, the Fed should end its open-ended QE3 now... Those who believe that inflation will remain low should look more thoroughly and think more clearly. ”

    But he knows. Because here’s Meltzer in 1999 with "A Policy for Japanese Recovery": “Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Bank of Japan and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations.”

    He knows that there’s an actual debate, with people who are “thinking clearly,” about monetary policy at the zero lower bound as a result of Japan. He participated in it. So he must have been aware of Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Milton Friedman, Michael Woodford, and Lars Svensson all also debating it at the same time. But now he’s forgotten it. In fact, his arguments for Japan are the exact opposite of what they are now for the United States.

    This is why I think the Smithian “Derp” concept needs fleshing out as a diagnosis of our current situation. (I’m not a fan of the word either, but I’ll use it for this post.) For those not familiar with the term, Noah Smith argues that a major problem in our policy discussions is “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.” But if that was the only issue, Meltzer would support more expansion like he did for Japan!

    Simply blaming reiteration of priors is missing something. The problem here isn’t that Meltzer may have changed his mind on his advice for Japan. If that’s the case, I’d love to read about what led to that change. The problem is one of denialism, where the person refuses to acknowledge the actually existing debate, and instead pantomimes a debate with a shadow. It involves the idea of a straw man, but sometimes it’s simply not engaging at all. For Meltzer, the extensive debate about monetary policy at the zero lower bound is simply excised from the conversation, and people who only read him will have no clue that it was ever there.

    There’s also another dimension that I think is even more important, which is whether or not the argument, conclusions, or suggestions are in good faith. Eventually, this transcends the “reiteration of strong priors” and becomes an updating of the case but a reiteration of the conclusion. Throughout 2010 and 2011, an endless series of arguments about how a long-term fiscal deal would help with the current recession were made, without any credible evidence that this would help our short-term economy. But that’s what people want to do, and so they acknowledge the fresh problem but simply plug in their wrong solutions. The same was true with Mitt Romney’s plan for the economy, which wasn’t specific to 2012 in any way.

    Bad faith solutions don’t have to be about things you wanted to do anyway. Phillip Mirowski’s new book makes a fascinating observation about conservative think tanks when it comes to global warming. On the one hand, they have an active project arguing global warming isn’t happening. But on the other hand, they also have an active project arguing global warming can be solved through geoengineering the atmosphere. (For an example, here’s AEI arguing worries over climate change are overblown, but also separately hosting a panel on geoengineering.)

    So global warming isn’t real, but if it is, heroic atmospheric entrepreneurs will come in at the last minute and save the day. Thus, you can have denialism and bad-faith solutions in play at the same time.

    The fact that we can get to the denial and bad-faith corner makes me think this can be made generalizable and charted on a grid, but I still feel it’s missing some dimensions. What Smith identifies is real, but I’m not sure how to place it on these axes. What do you make of it?

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  • Whatever Happened to the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index?

    Aug 6, 2013Mike Konczal

    Jim Tankersley has been doing the Lord’s work by following up on questionable arguments people have made about our current economic weakness being something other than a demand crisis. First, he asked Alberto Alesina about how all that expansionary austerity is working out from the vantage point of this year. Now he looks at the Economic Policy Uncertainty (EPU) index (Baker, Bloom, Davis) as it stands halfway into 2013.

    And it has collapsed. The EPU index has been falling at rapid speeds, hitting 2008 levels. Yet the recovery doesn’t seem to be speeding up at all. Wasn’t that supposed to happen?

    I’ve been meaning to revisit this index from when I looked at it last fall, and this is a good time to do so. It’s worth unpacking what actually drove the increase in EPU during the past five years, and understanding why there was little reason to believe it reflected uncertainty causing a weak economy. If anything, the relationship is clearly the other way around.

    Let’s make sure we understand the uncertainty argument: the increase in EPU “slowed the recovery from the recession by leading businesses and households to postpone investment, hiring and consumption expenditure.” (To give you a sense, in 2011 the authors argued in editorials that this index showed that the NLRB, Obamacare and "harmful rhetorical attacks on business and millionaires" were the cause of prolongued economic weakness.)

    As commenters pointed out, it would be easy to construct an index that gets the causation to be spurious or even go the other way. If weak growth could cause the Economic Policy Uncertainty index to skyrocket, then it’s not clear the narrative holds up as well. “There’s uncertainty over whether or not Congress and the Federal Reserve will aggressively fight the downturn” isn’t what the index is trying to measure, but that’s what it seems to be doing.

    Let’s take a look at the graph of EPU. When most people discuss this, they argue that the peaks tell them the index is onto something, as it peaks during periods of major confusion (9/11, Lehman bankruptcy, debt ceiling showdown).

    But what is worth noting, and what drives the results in a practical way, is the increase in the level during this time period. And that happens immediately in January 2009:

    How does economic policy uncertainty jump the first day in 2009? The index has three parts. The first is a newspaper search of people using the phrase “economic policy uncertainty.” I discussed that last fall, arguing that it was mostly capturing Republican talking points and the discipline of the GOP machine rather than actual analysis.

    The second is relevant here, and that’s the number of tax provisions set to expire in the near future. (In the first version of the paper this was total number of tax provisions, while in the current version it’s total dollar amount of those provisions.) It’s heavily discounted, so tax cuts that are expiring in a year or two are weighted at a much higher level than those that are further in the future.

    What does this look like over the past few years?

    So what happened starting in early 2009? The stimulus, of course. And the stimulus was in large part tax provisions that were set to expire in two years. This mechanically increased economic policy uncertainty, even though it was a policy response designed to boost automatic stabilizers. Also, the Bush tax cuts were approaching their endgame, and the algorithm gave a disproportionate weight to them as they entered their last two years.

    Then, in late 2010, the Bush tax cuts and some tax provisions from the stimulus were extended to provide additional stimulus to the economy while it was still weak.

    Here’s how the creators of the index describe this move: “Congress often decides whether to extend them at the last minute, undermining stability of and certainty about the future path of the tax code... Similarly, the 2010 Payroll Tax Cut was a large tax decrease initially set to expire in 1 year but was twice extended just weeks before its expiration.”

    But this decision was not orthogonal to the state of the economy. A major reason the administration waited and then extended the Bush Tax Cuts and the payroll tax cut was the fact that the economy was still weak, and they wanted to boost demand. The only policy uncertainty here was how aggressive and successful the administration would be in securing additional stimulus, which itself was a function of the weakness of the economy. To retroactively argue that the government’s actions in securing additional demand were creating the crisis they are trying to fight requires an additional level of argument not present.

    The third part of their index has the same issue. They draw on a literature (e.g. here) that uses disagreements (dispersion of predictions) among professional forecasters as a proxy for uncertainty -- disagreements about the predicted growth in inflation, and predictions of both state and federal spending, one year in advance.

    The problem comes from trying to push their definition of EPU onto these disagreements. Debates over how much the federal government will spend through stimulus, how rough the austerity will be at the state level, or how well Bernanke will be able to hit his inflation target, which drives this index, are really debates about the reaction to the crisis. The dispersion will increase if people can’t figure out how aggressively the state will respond to a major collapse in spending. But this is a function of a collapsing economy and how well the government responds to it, not the other way around.

    This is why we should ultimately be careful with studies that take this index and plop it into, say, a Beveridge Curve analysis. As Tankersley notes, the government decided to fight a major downturn with stimulus, and the subsequent move away from stimulus before full employment hasn’t helped the economy. In other breaking news, if you carry an umbrella because it is raining, and then toss the umbrella, it doesn’t make it stop raining.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Jim Tankersley has been doing the Lord’s work by following up on questionable arguments people have made about our current economic weakness being something other than a demand crisis. First, he asked Alberto Alesina about how all that expansionary austerity is working out from the vantage point of this year. Now he looks at the Economic Policy Uncertainty (EPU) index (Baker, Bloom, Davis) as it stands halfway into 2013.

    And it has collapsed. The EPU index has been falling at rapid speeds, hitting 2008 levels. Yet the recovery doesn’t seem to be speeding up at all. Wasn’t that supposed to happen?

    I’ve been meaning to revisit this index from when I looked at it last fall, and this is a good time to do so. It’s worth unpacking what actually drove the increase in EPU during the past five years, and understanding why there was little reason to believe it reflected uncertainty causing a weak economy. If anything, the relationship is clearly the other way around.

    Let’s make sure we understand the uncertainty argument: the increase in EPU “slowed the recovery from the recession by leading businesses and households to postpone investment, hiring and consumption expenditure.” (To give you a sense, in 2011 the authors argued in editorials that this index showed that the NLRB, Obamacare and "harmful rhetorical attacks on business and millionaires" were the cause of prolongued economic weakness.)

    As commenters pointed out, it would be easy to construct an index that gets the causation to be spurious or even go the other way. If weak growth could cause the Economic Policy Uncertainty index to skyrocket, then it’s not clear the narrative holds up as well. “There’s uncertainty over whether or not Congress and the Federal Reserve will aggressively fight the downturn” isn’t what the index is trying to measure, but that’s what it seems to be doing.

    Let’s take a look at the graph of EPU. When most people discuss this, they argue that the peaks tell them the index is onto something, as it peaks during periods of major confusion (9/11, Lehman bankruptcy, debt ceiling showdown).

    But what is worth noting, and what drives the results in a practical way, is the increase in the level during this time period. And that happens immediately in January 2009:

    How does economic policy uncertainty jump the first day in 2009? The index has three parts. The first is a newspaper search of people using the phrase “economic policy uncertainty.” I discussed that last fall, arguing that it was mostly capturing Republican talking points and the discipline of the GOP machine rather than actual analysis.

    The second is relevant here, and that’s the number of tax provisions set to expire in the near future. (In the first version of the paper this was total number of tax provisions, while in the current version it’s total dollar amount of those provisions.) It’s heavily discounted, so tax cuts that are expiring in a year or two are weighted at a much higher level than those that are further in the future.

    What does this look like over the past few years?

    So what happened starting in early 2009? The stimulus, of course. And the stimulus was in large part tax provisions that were set to expire in two years. This mechanically increased economic policy uncertainty, even though it was a policy response designed to boost automatic stabilizers. Also, the Bush tax cuts were approaching their endgame, and the algorithm gave a disproportionate weight to them as they entered their last two years.

    Then, in late 2010, the Bush tax cuts and some tax provisions from the stimulus were extended to provide additional stimulus to the economy while it was still weak.

    Here’s how the creators of the index describe this move: “Congress often decides whether to extend them at the last minute, undermining stability of and certainty about the future path of the tax code... Similarly, the 2010 Payroll Tax Cut was a large tax decrease initially set to expire in 1 year but was twice extended just weeks before its expiration.”

    But this decision was not orthogonal to the state of the economy. A major reason the administration waited and then extended the Bush Tax Cuts and the payroll tax cut was the fact that the economy was still weak, and they wanted to boost demand. The only policy uncertainty here was how aggressive and successful the administration would be in securing additional stimulus, which itself was a function of the weakness of the economy. To retroactively argue that the government’s actions in securing additional demand were creating the crisis they are trying to fight requires an additional level of argument not present.

    The third part of their index has the same issue. They draw on a literature (e.g. here) that uses disagreements (dispersion of predictions) among professional forecasters as a proxy for uncertainty -- disagreements about the predicted growth in inflation, and predictions of both state and federal spending, one year in advance.

    The problem comes from trying to push their definition of EPU onto these disagreements. Debates over how much the federal government will spend through stimulus, how rough the austerity will be at the state level, or how well Bernanke will be able to hit his inflation target, which drives this index, are really debates about the reaction to the crisis. The dispersion will increase if people can’t figure out how aggressively the state will respond to a major collapse in spending. But this is a function of a collapsing economy and how well the government responds to it, not the other way around.

    This is why we should ultimately be careful with studies that take this index and plop it into, say, a Beveridge Curve analysis. As Tankersley notes, the government decided to fight a major downturn with stimulus, and the subsequent move away from stimulus before full employment hasn’t helped the economy. In other breaking news, if you carry an umbrella because it is raining, and then toss the umbrella, it doesn’t make it stop raining.

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  • What did FDR Write Inside His Copy of the Proto-Keynesian Road to Plenty?

    Aug 2, 2013Mike Konczal

    File under: Marginalia Fridays.

    In 1928 William Foster and Waddill Catchings wrote The Road to Plenty. A university president and a Goldman Sachs financier, respectively, these two had a serious interest in studying business cycles, and had an idea of what they thought might be happening. This book presented a theory that was proto-Keynesian eight years before the General Theory.

    Let's get a summary of that book from Elliot A. Rosen's Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Economics of Recovery: "[The Road to Prosperity] claimed that sustained production required sustained consumer demand, a counter to Say's law of market, or classical theory, which held that consumer demand followed automatically from capital consumption. Foster and Catchings explained underconsumption partly in terms of consumer reluctance to spend when prices fell and also in terms of price distortions, maldistribution of income, and the tendency of business to finance capital requirements from earnings, thus sterilizing savings. The result was industrial overcapacity as consumer purchasing power declined. Public works would be required periodically to stimuluate purchasing power."

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before he was President, had a copy of the book. What did he write in his copy of the book in 1928, right as the Great Depression was gearing up?

    Thankfully, our friends at the FDR Presidential Library, who do an excellent job of keeping the records of the 20th Century's greatest President, were able to snap a picture and sent it to me:

    FDR's writing:

    In case you can't see it, it says "Too good to be true - you can't get something for nothing." Hmmm.

    Though Roosevelt didn't buy it at first, he thankfully later evolved on the issue. One lucky reason is because a big fan of the book was a Utah banker who read it intensely starting in 1931, when the Depression seemed like it would never end, much less recover. That man's name was Marriner Stoddard Eccles. The rest, as they say, is history. (Except it's not, because we are currently fighting this all over again.)

    The book itself is a series of conversations among strangers on a Pullman-car over what is going on in the economy. A typical page:

    'But I cannot see,' objected the Professor, 'how the savings, either of corporations or of individuals, cause the shortage of which you speak. The money which industry receives from consumers and retains as undsitributed profits is not locked up in strong boxes. Most of it is deposited in banks, where other men may borrow it and pay it out. So it flows on to consumers. [....] Once you take account of the fact that money invested is money spent, you see that both individuals and corporations can save all they please without causing consumer buying to lag behind the production of consumers' goods.'

    'Yes,' the Business Man replied, 'I am familiar with that contention, but it seems to me unsound. Of course it is true that a considerable part of money savings are deposited in banks, where the money is available for borrowers. But the fact that somebody may borrow the money and pay it out as wages, is immaterial as long as nobody does borrow it. Such money is no more a stimulus to business than is gold in the bowels of the earth.'

    (Seem familiar?)

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    File under: Marginalia Fridays.

    In 1928 William Foster and Waddill Catchings wrote The Road to Plenty. A university president and a Goldman Sachs financier, respectively, these two had a serious interest in studying business cycles, and had an idea of what they thought might be happening. This book presented a theory that was proto-Keynesian eight years before the General Theory.

    Let's get a summary of that book from Elliot A. Rosen's Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and the Economics of Recovery: "[The Road to Prosperity] claimed that sustained production required sustained consumer demand, a counter to Say's law of market, or classical theory, which held that consumer demand followed automatically from capital consumption. Foster and Catchings explained underconsumption partly in terms of consumer reluctance to spend when prices fell and also in terms of price distortions, maldistribution of income, and the tendency of business to finance capital requirements from earnings, thus sterilizing savings. The result was industrial overcapacity as consumer purchasing power declined. Public works would be required periodically to stimuluate purchasing power."

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before he was President, had a copy of the book. What did he write in his copy of the book in 1928, right as the Great Depression was gearing up?

    Thankfully, our friends at the FDR Presidential Library, who do an excellent job of keeping the records of the 20th Century's greatest President, were able to snap a picture and sent it to me:

    FDR's writing:

    In case you can't see it, it says "Too good to be true - you can't get something for nothing." Hmmm.

    Though Roosevelt didn't buy it at first, he thankfully later evolved on the issue. One lucky reason is because a big fan of the book was a Utah banker who read it intensely starting in 1931, when the Depression seemed like it would never end, much less recover. That man's name was Marriner Stoddard Eccles. The rest, as they say, is history. (Except it's not, because we are currently fighting this all over again.)

    The book itself is a series of conversations among strangers on a Pullman-car over what is going on in the economy. A typical page:

    'But I cannot see,' objected the Professor, 'how the savings, either of corporations or of individuals, cause the shortage of which you speak. The money which industry receives from consumers and retains as undsitributed profits is not locked up in strong boxes. Most of it is deposited in banks, where other men may borrow it and pay it out. So it flows on to consumers. [....] Once you take account of the fact that money invested is money spent, you see that both individuals and corporations can save all they please without causing consumer buying to lag behind the production of consumers' goods.'

    'Yes,' the Business Man replied, 'I am familiar with that contention, but it seems to me unsound. Of course it is true that a considerable part of money savings are deposited in banks, where the money is available for borrowers. But the fact that somebody may borrow the money and pay it out as wages, is immaterial as long as nobody does borrow it. Such money is no more a stimulus to business than is gold in the bowels of the earth.'

    (Seem familiar?)

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  • Yellen, Summers and Rebuilding After the Fire

    Jul 24, 2013Mike Konczal

    There is no Bernanke Consensus. This is important to remember about our moment, and about how to evaluate what comes next for the Federal Reserve. What we have instead is the Bernanke Improvisation, a series of emergency procedures to try to keep the economy from falling apart, and perhaps even guide it back to full employment, after normal monetary policy hit a wall.

    With the rumor mill circulating that Larry Summers could be the next Federal Reserve chair instead of Janet Yellen, it’s worth understanding where the Fed is. Bernanke has been like a fireman trying to put out a fire since 2008. What comes next is the rebuilding. What building codes will we have? What precautions will we take to prevent the next fire, and what are the tradeoffs?

    This makes the next FOMC chair extremely important. While you are inside a burning building, what the fireman is doing is everything. But deciding how to rebuild will ultimately make the big difference for the next 30 years.

    The next FOMC chair will have three major issues to deal with during his or her tenure. The first is to determine when to start pushing on the brakes, and thus where we’ll hit “full employment.” The second is to decide how aggressively to enforce financial reform rules [1]. Those are pretty important things!

    But the new FOMC chair has an even bigger responsibility. He or she will also have to figure out a way to rebuild monetary policy and the Federal Reserve so that we won’t have a repeat of our current crisis. And in case you’ve missed the half-a-lost-decade we’ve already gone through, this couldn’t be more important.

    Monetary policy itself could be rebuilt in a number of directions. It could give up on unemployment, perhaps keeping the economy permanently in a quasi-recession to somehow boost a notion of “financial stability” instead. Or it could evolve in a direction designed to avoid the prolonged recession we just had, which could involve a higher inflation target or targeting something like nominal GDP.

    But the default, like many things in life, is that inertia will win out, and some form of muddling forward will continue on indefinitely. The Federal Reserve will maintain a low inflation target that it always falls short of, and the economy will never run at its peak capacity. Attempts at better communications and priorities will be abandoned. And even minor recessions will run the risk of hitting the liquidity trap, making them far worse than they need to be.

    The inertia problem is why having a consensus builder and convincer in charge is key, and it is a terrible development that these traits are being coded as feminine and thus weak. As a new governor in 1996, Janet Yellen argued the evidence to convince Alan Greenspan that targeting zero percent inflation was a bad idea. (Could you imagine this recession if inflation was already hovering at a little above zero in 2007?) The next governor will be asked to gather much more complicated evidence to make even harder decisions about the future of the economy - and Yellen has a proven track record here.

    Yellen has been at the forefront of all these debates. As Cardiff Garcia writes, she runs the subcommittee on communications and has spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how these unorthodox policies impact the economy. The debate about what constitutes full employment has become muted among liberal economists because unemployment has been so high, but it will come back to the fore after the taper hits. Yellen has been thinking about this all along. Crucially, she has come the closest of any high-ranking Fed official to endorsing a major shift of current policy - in this case, to something like a nominal spending target. This will become important to however we rebuild after this crisis.

    As a quick history lesson, there were two major points where a large battle broke out on monetary stimulus. The first was the spring and summer of 2010, when there were serious worries about a double-dip recession. This ended when Bernanke announced QE2, which immediately collapsed market expectations of deflation. The second was in the first half of 2012, when an intellectual consensus was built around tying monetary policy to future conditions, ending with the adoption of the Evans Rule.

    I can’t find Larry Summers commenting on either of these situations, either in high-end academic debates or in the wide variety of op-eds he’s written. The commenters at The Money Illusion couldn’t find a single instance of Summers suggesting that monetary policy was too tight in the past five years. Summers was simply missing in action for the most important monetary policy debates of the past 30 years, while Yellen was leading them. And trying to shift from those debates into a new status quo will be the responsibility of the next FOMC chair.

     

     

    [1] Given what this blog normally covers, I’d be remiss to not mention housing and financial reform. During the Obama transition, Larry Summers promised “substantial resources of $50-100B to a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis” as well as “reforming our bankruptcy laws.” This letter was crucial in securing votes from Democrats like Jeff Merkley for the second round of TARP bailouts. A recent check showed that the administration ended up using only $4.4 billion on foreclosure mitigation through the awful HAMP program, while Summers reportedly was not supportive of bankruptcy reform.

    And as Bill McBride notes, Yellen was making the correct calls on the housing bubble and its potential damage while Summers was attacking those who thought financial innovation could increase the risks of a panic and crash.

    It’s difficult to overstate how important the Federal Reserve is to financial regulation. Did you catch how the Federal Reserve needs to decide about the future of finance and physical commodities soon, with virtually no oversight or accountability? Even if you think Summers gets a bum rap for deregulation in the 1990s, you must believe that his suspicion of skepticism about finance - for instance, the reporting on his opposition on the Volcker Rule - is not what our real economy needs while Dodd-Frank is being implemented.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    There is no Bernanke Consensus. This is important to remember about our moment, and about how to evaluate what comes next for the Federal Reserve. What we have instead is the Bernanke Improvisation, a series of emergency procedures to try to keep the economy from falling apart, and perhaps even guide it back to full employment, after normal monetary policy hit a wall.

    With the rumor mill circulating that Larry Summers could be the next Federal Reserve chair instead of Janet Yellen, it’s worth understanding where the Fed is. Bernanke has been like a fireman trying to put out a fire since 2008. What comes next is the rebuilding. What building codes will we have? What precautions will we take to prevent the next fire, and what are the tradeoffs?

    This makes the next FOMC chair extremely important. While you are inside a burning building, what the fireman is doing is everything. But deciding how to rebuild will ultimately make the big difference for the next 30 years.

    The next FOMC chair will have three major issues to deal with during his or her tenure. The first is to determine when to start pushing on the brakes, and thus where we’ll hit “full employment.” The second is to decide how aggressively to enforce financial reform rules [1]. Those are pretty important things!

    But the new FOMC chair has an even bigger responsibility. He or she will also have to figure out a way to rebuild monetary policy and the Federal Reserve so that we won’t have a repeat of our current crisis. And in case you’ve missed the half-a-lost-decade we’ve already gone through, this couldn’t be more important.

    Monetary policy itself could be rebuilt in a number of directions. It could give up on unemployment, perhaps keeping the economy permanently in a quasi-recession to somehow boost a notion of “financial stability” instead. Or it could evolve in a direction designed to avoid the prolonged recession we just had, which could involve a higher inflation target or targeting something like nominal GDP.

    But the default, like many things in life, is that inertia will win out, and some form of muddling forward will continue on indefinitely. The Federal Reserve will maintain a low inflation target that it always falls short of, and the economy will never run at its peak capacity. Attempts at better communications and priorities will be abandoned. And even minor recessions will run the risk of hitting the liquidity trap, making them far worse than they need to be.

    The inertia problem is why having a consensus builder and convincer in charge is key, and it is a terrible development that these traits are being coded as feminine and thus weak. As a new governor in 1996, Janet Yellen argued the evidence to convince Alan Greenspan that targeting zero percent inflation was a bad idea. (Could you imagine this recession if inflation was already hovering at a little above zero in 2007?) The next governor will be asked to gather much more complicated evidence to make even harder decisions about the future of the economy - and Yellen has a proven track record here.

    Yellen has been at the forefront of all these debates. As Cardiff Garcia writes, she runs the subcommittee on communications and has spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how these unorthodox policies impact the economy. The debate about what constitutes full employment has become muted among liberal economists because unemployment has been so high, but it will come back to the fore after the taper hits. Yellen has been thinking about this all along. Crucially, she has come the closest of any high-ranking Fed official to endorsing a major shift of current policy - in this case, to something like a nominal spending target. This will become important to however we rebuild after this crisis.

    As a quick history lesson, there were two major points where a large battle broke out on monetary stimulus. The first was the spring and summer of 2010, when there were serious worries about a double-dip recession. This ended when Bernanke announced QE2, which immediately collapsed market expectations of deflation. The second was in the first half of 2012, when an intellectual consensus was built around tying monetary policy to future conditions, ending with the adoption of the Evans Rule.

    I can’t find Larry Summers commenting on either of these situations, either in high-end academic debates or in the wide variety of op-eds he’s written. The commenters at The Money Illusion couldn’t find a single instance of Summers suggesting that monetary policy was too tight in the past five years. Summers was simply missing in action for the most important monetary policy debates of the past 30 years, while Yellen was leading them. And trying to shift from those debates into a new status quo will be the responsibility of the next FOMC chair.

     

     

    [1] Given what this blog normally covers, I’d be remiss to not mention housing and financial reform. During the Obama transition, Larry Summers promised “substantial resources of $50-100B to a sweeping effort to address the foreclosure crisis” as well as “reforming our bankruptcy laws.” This letter was crucial in securing votes from Democrats like Jeff Merkley for the second round of TARP bailouts. A recent check showed that the administration ended up using only $4.4 billion on foreclosure mitigation through the awful HAMP program, while Summers reportedly was not supportive of bankruptcy reform.

    And as Bill McBride notes, Yellen was making the correct calls on the housing bubble and its potential damage while Summers was attacking those who thought financial innovation could increase the risks of a panic and crash.

    It’s difficult to overstate how important the Federal Reserve is to financial regulation. Did you catch how the Federal Reserve needs to decide about the future of finance and physical commodities soon, with virtually no oversight or accountability? Even if you think Summers gets a bum rap for deregulation in the 1990s, you must believe that his suspicion of skepticism about finance - for instance, the reporting on his opposition on the Volcker Rule - is not what our real economy needs while Dodd-Frank is being implemented.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

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