Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • 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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  • Brooks’s Recovery Gender Swap

    Jul 17, 2013Mike Konczal

    How are men doing in our anemic economic recovery? David Brooks, after discussing his favorite Western movie, argues in his latest column, Men on the Threshold, that men are "unable to cross the threshold into the new economy." Though he'd probably argue that he's talking about generational changes, he focuses on a few data points from the current recession, including that "all the private sector jobs lost by women during the Great Recession have been recaptured, but men still have a long way to go."

    Is he right? And what are some facts we can put on the current recovery when it comes to men versus women?

    Total Employment

    Men had a harder crash during the recession, but a much better recovery, when compared with women.

    Indeed, during the first two years of the recovery expert analysis was focused on a situation that was completely reversed from Brooks' story. The question in mid-2011 was "why weren't women finding jobs?" Pew Research put out a report in July 2011 finding that "From the end of the recession in June 2009 through May 2011, men gained 768,000 jobs and lowered their unemployment rate by 1.1 percentage points to 9.5%. 1 Women, by contrast, lost 218,000 jobs during the same period, and their unemployment rate increased by 0.2 percentage points to 8.5%."

    How does that look two years later? Here's a graph of the actual level of employment by gender from the Great Recession onward:

    If you squint you can see how women's employment is flat throughout 2011, when men start gaining jobs. Since the beginning 2011, men have gotten around 65 percent of all new jobs. That rate started at 70 percent, and has declined to around 60 percent now. So it is true, as Brooks notes, that women are approaching their old level of employment. But the idea that the anemic recovery has been biased against men is harder to understand. The issue is just a weak recovery - more jobs would mean more jobs for both men and women, but also especially for men.

    Occupations

    But maybe the issue is the occupations that men are now working. As Brooks writes, "Now, thanks to a communications economy, [men] find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues." This is a world where they either can't compete, or won't. The testable hypothesis is that men are doing poorly in occupations that are traditionally female dominated.

    However the data shows that men are moving into female-dominated occupations, and taking a large majority of the new jobs there.

    How has the gendered division of occupations evolved since 2011? Here is first quarter data from 2011 and 2013 of occupations by gender from the CPS. As a reminder, your occupation is what you do, while your industry is what your employer does. Occupation data is much noiser, hence us moving to quarterly data:

    Ok that's a mess of data. What should we be looking for in this?

    First off, men are moving into occupations that have been traditionally gender-coded female. Office support jobs, which Bryce Covert and I found were a major driver of overall female employment decline from 2009-2011, are now going to men. Men have taken 95 percent of new jobs in this occupation, one that was only about 26 percent male in 2011. We also see men taking a majority of jobs in the male-minority service occupations. Men are also gaining in sales jobs even while the overall number of jobs are declining. That's a major transformation happening in real-time.

    (Meanwhile, it's not all caring work and symbolic analysts out there. There's a massive domestic energy extraction business booming in the United States, and those jobs are going to men as well. If you were to break down into suboccupations this becomes very obvious. Men took around 100 percent of the over 600,000+ new "construction and extraction" jobs, for instance.)

    It'll be interesting to see how extensive men moving into traditionally female jobs will be, and to what extent it'll challenge the nature of both them and that work. Much of the structure of service work in the United States comes from the model of Walmart, and that comes from both Southern, Christian values and a model of the role women play in kinship structures and communities.

    As Sarah Jaffe notes in her piece A Day Without Care, summarizing the work of Bethany Moreton, "Walmart...built its global empire on the backs of part-time women workers, capitalizing on the skills of white Southern housewives who’d never worked for pay before but who saw the customer service work they did at Walmart as an extension of the Christian service values they held dear. Those women didn’t receive a living wage because they were presumed to be married; today, Walmart’s workforce is much more diverse yet still expected to live on barely more than minimum wage."

    How will men react when faced with this? And how will their bosses counter?

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    How are men doing in our anemic economic recovery? David Brooks, after discussing his favorite Western movie, argues in his latest column, Men on the Threshold, that men are "unable to cross the threshold into the new economy." Though he'd probably argue that he's talking about generational changes, he focuses on a few data points from the current recession, including that "all the private sector jobs lost by women during the Great Recession have been recaptured, but men still have a long way to go."

    Is he right? And what are some facts we can put on the current recovery when it comes to men versus women?

    Total Employment

    Men had a harder crash during the recession, but a much better recovery, when compared with women.

    Indeed, during the first two years of the recovery expert analysis was focused on a situation that was completely reversed from Brooks' story. The question in mid-2011 was "why weren't women finding jobs?" Pew Research put out a report in July 2011 finding that "From the end of the recession in June 2009 through May 2011, men gained 768,000 jobs and lowered their unemployment rate by 1.1 percentage points to 9.5%. 1 Women, by contrast, lost 218,000 jobs during the same period, and their unemployment rate increased by 0.2 percentage points to 8.5%."

    How does that look two years later? Here's a graph of the actual level of employment by gender from the Great Recession onward:

    If you squint you can see how women's employment is flat throughout 2011, when men start gaining jobs. Since the beginning 2011, men have gotten around 65 percent of all new jobs. That rate started at 70 percent, and has declined to around 60 percent now. So it is true, as Brooks notes, that women are approaching their old level of employment. But the idea that the anemic recovery has been biased against men is harder to understand. The issue is just a weak recovery - more jobs would mean more jobs for both men and women, but also especially for men.

    Occupations

    But maybe the issue is the occupations that men are now working. As Brooks writes, "Now, thanks to a communications economy, [men] find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues." This is a world where they either can't compete, or won't. The testable hypothesis is that men are doing poorly in occupations that are traditionally female dominated.

    However the data shows that men are moving into female-dominated occupations, and taking a large majority of the new jobs there.

    How has the gendered division of occupations evolved since 2011? Here is first quarter data from 2011 and 2013 of occupations by gender from the CPS. As a reminder, your occupation is what you do, while your industry is what your employer does. Occupation data is much noiser, hence us moving to quarterly data:

    Ok that's a mess of data. What should we be looking for in this?

    First off, men are moving into occupations that have been traditionally gender-coded female. Office support jobs, which Bryce Covert and I found were a major driver of overall female employment decline from 2009-2011, are now going to men. Men have taken 95 percent of new jobs in this occupation, one that was only about 26 percent male in 2011. We also see men taking a majority of jobs in the male-minority service occupations. Men are also gaining in sales jobs even while the overall number of jobs are declining. That's a major transformation happening in real-time.

    (Meanwhile, it's not all caring work and symbolic analysts out there. There's a massive domestic energy extraction business booming in the United States, and those jobs are going to men as well. If you were to break down into suboccupations this becomes very obvious. Men took around 100 percent of the over 600,000+ new "construction and extraction" jobs, for instance.)

    It'll be interesting to see how extensive men moving into traditionally female jobs will be, and to what extent it'll challenge the nature of both them and that work. Much of the structure of service work in the United States comes from the model of Walmart, and that comes from both Southern, Christian values and a model of the role women play in kinship structures and communities.

    As Sarah Jaffe notes in her piece A Day Without Care, summarizing the work of Bethany Moreton, "Walmart...built its global empire on the backs of part-time women workers, capitalizing on the skills of white Southern housewives who’d never worked for pay before but who saw the customer service work they did at Walmart as an extension of the Christian service values they held dear. Those women didn’t receive a living wage because they were presumed to be married; today, Walmart’s workforce is much more diverse yet still expected to live on barely more than minimum wage."

    How will men react when faced with this? And how will their bosses counter?

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  • Mirowski on the Vacuum and Obscurity of Current Economics

    Jul 9, 2013Mike Konczal

    I just finished reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. It’s fantastic, wonderfully dense, packed with ideas running from Foucault through how game theorists botched the TARP auction design. It provides a stunningly detailed summary of topics economic bloggers would be interested in, ranging from the debate on the Efficient Market Hypothesis after the crisis, the structure of the Mont Pelerin Society, to the way conservatives spread the idea that the GSEs caused the financial crisis. If you like Mirowski’s other works, you'll love this. Mirowski is an economist and a historian, and has a knack for showing the evolving arguments and justifications and contexts for economic ideas and approaches. I'm writing a longer review of it, but I'll be bringing up pieces of it here.

    I wanted to include this part on the issue of the vacuousness within economics at this moment. Mirowski:

    “Third, it would appear that the corporeal solidity of a live intellectual discipline would be indicated by consensus reference text that help define what it means to be an advocate of that discipline. Here, I would insist that undergraduate textbooks should not count, since they merely project the etiolated public face of the discipline to the world. But if we look at contemporary orthodox economics, where is the John Stuart Mill, the Alfred Marshall, the Paul Samuelson, the Tjalling Koopmans, or the David Kreps of the early twenty-first century? The answer is that, in macroeconomics, there is none. And in microeconomics, the supposed gold standard is Andrew Mas-Collel, Michael Whinston, and Jerry Green (Microeconomic Theory), at its birth a baggy compendium lacking clear organizing principles, but now slipping out of data and growing a bit long in the tooth. Although often forced to take econometrics as part of the core, there is no longer any consensus that econometrics is situated at the heart of economic empiricism in the modern world. Beyond the graduate textbooks, the profession is held together by little more than a few journals that are designated indispensable by some rather circular bibliometrics measures, and the dominance of a few highly ranked departments, rather than any clear intellectual standards. Indeed, graduates are socialized and indoctrinated by forcing them to read articles from those journals with a half-life of five years: and so the disciplinary center of gravity wanders aimlessly, without vision or intentionality. The orthodoxy, so violent quarantined and demarcated from outside pretenders, harbors a vacuum within its perimeter.

    Fourth, and finally, should one identify specific models as paradigmatic for neoclassical economics, then they are accompanied by formal proofs of impeccable logic which demonstrate that the model does not underwrite the seeming solidity of the textbooks. Neoclassical theory is itself the vector of its own self-abnegation. If one cites the canonical Arrow-Debreu model of general equilibrium, then one can pair it with the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorems, which point out that the general Arrow-Debreu model places hardly any restrictions at all on the functions that one deems “basic economics,” such as excess demand functions. Or, alternatively, if one lights on the Nash equilibrium in game theory, you can pair that with the so-called folk theorem, which states that under generic conditions, almost anything can qualify as a Nash equilibrium. Keeping with the wonderful paradoxes of “strategic behavior,” the Milgrom-Stokey “No Trade theorem” suggests that if everyone really were as suspicious and untrusting as the Nash theory makes out, then no one would engage in any market exchange whatsoever in a neoclassical world. The Modigliani-Miller theorem states that the level of debt relative to equity in a bank’s balance sheet should not matter one whit for market purposes, even though finance theory is obsessed with debt. Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that, if one models the polity on the pattern of a neoclassical model, then democratic politics is essentially impotent to achieve political goals. Markets are now assert to be marvelous information processors, but the Grossman-Stiglitz results suggest that there are no incentives for anyone to invest in the development and refinement of information in the first place. The list just goes on and on. It is the fate of the Delphic oracles to deal in obscurity.” (p. 24-26)

    Konczal here. The entire book is that intense. A few thoughts:

    - To put the first point a different way, the complaint I hear most when it comes to the major graduate textbooks is that they function as cookbooks, or books full of simple recipes each designed to do a single thing. Beyond micro, this is especially true for the major texts in macroeconomics and econometrics. The macroeconomics piece gives the sense that it’s designed to pull attention away from the major visions and towards little puzzle pieces that don’t connect into any kind of bigger picture.

    Scanning the "What's New?" part of the new 2012 edition of the standard, entry-level graduate macro text, it seems like there's nothing new for the crisis. (If it is mentioned, I didn't see it.) If you are an energetic, smart graduate student who really wants to dissect the economic crisis, you essentially have to sit out the first half of your macroeconomic coursework before you get to something that has to do with a recession as a regular person would understand it. It's clear what has priority within the education of new economists.

    I wonder how much the move to empirical methods and experiments are less about access to computing power and data sets (or, ha, issues of falsification), and more about the fact that the ability to innovate on the theory side has broken and it is now impossible to break new ground. How many enfante terribles in economics are theorists these days? I assume any substantial break from standing theory is immediate exclusion from tenure-setting journals.

    - I love this magic trick analogy from Mirowski for frictions within DSGE: “By thrusting the rabbit into the hat, then pulling it back out with a different hand, the economist merely creates a model more awkward, arbitrary, and unprepossessing [that also] violate[] the Lucas critique in a more egregious fashion than the earlier Keynesian models these macroeconomists love to hate” (p. 284).

    - The mention of the “excess demand function” reminded me whether stability issues are covered anymore. The book The Assumptions Economists Make makes a big deal about the lack of stability analysis in how economists discuss general equilibrium (also see Alejandro Nadal here).

    To clarify in English, have you ever heard of the “Invisible Hand” metaphor? Markets equilibrate supply and demand with prices across the whole economy. Stability is the question of “under what circumstances (if any) does a competitive economy converge to equilibrium, and, if it does, how quickly does this happen?”

    Will these concerns come back into graduate education and discussion with the crisis? I got a chance to check out the new 2011 Advanced Microeconomic Theory by Jehle and Reny, which seems to be the new, more mathematically tight, alternative to Mas-Collel (1995) for graduate microeconomics.

    One the first page of their chapter for general equilibrium: “These are questions of existence, uniqueness, and stability of general competitive equilibrium. All are deep and important, but we will only address the first.” Wow. That’s a massive forgetting from Mas-Collel, which covers these issues, even if superficially, to give student an understanding that they are there.

    Going forward, if you ask a new economist “could the economy just stay this way forever?” or “could more commodity trading push prices further away from a true price?” (pretty important questions!) you will probably get a smug “we’ve proven the Invisible Hand handles this decades ago.” Little will he or she know that a gigantic, inconclusive debate occurred about these issues, but they’ve simply been excised down the memory hole.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    I just finished reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. It’s fantastic, wonderfully dense, packed with ideas running from Foucault through how game theorists botched the TARP auction design. It provides a stunningly detailed summary of topics economic bloggers would be interested in, ranging from the debate on the Efficient Market Hypothesis after the crisis, the structure of the Mont Pelerin Society, to the way conservatives spread the idea that the GSEs caused the financial crisis. If you like Mirowski’s other works, you'll love this. Mirowski is an economist and a historian, and has a knack for showing the evolving arguments and justifications and contexts for economic ideas and approaches. I'm writing a longer review of it, but I'll be bringing up pieces of it here.

    I wanted to include this part on the issue of the vacuousness within economics at this moment. Mirowski:

    “Third, it would appear that the corporeal solidity of a live intellectual discipline would be indicated by consensus reference text that help define what it means to be an advocate of that discipline. Here, I would insist that undergraduate textbooks should not count, since they merely project the etiolated public face of the discipline to the world. But if we look at contemporary orthodox economics, where is the John Stuart Mill, the Alfred Marshall, the Paul Samuelson, the Tjalling Koopmans, or the David Kreps of the early twenty-first century? The answer is that, in macroeconomics, there is none. And in microeconomics, the supposed gold standard is Andrew Mas-Collel, Michael Whinston, and Jerry Green (Microeconomic Theory), at its birth a baggy compendium lacking clear organizing principles, but now slipping out of data and growing a bit long in the tooth. Although often forced to take econometrics as part of the core, there is no longer any consensus that econometrics is situated at the heart of economic empiricism in the modern world. Beyond the graduate textbooks, the profession is held together by little more than a few journals that are designated indispensable by some rather circular bibliometrics measures, and the dominance of a few highly ranked departments, rather than any clear intellectual standards. Indeed, graduates are socialized and indoctrinated by forcing them to read articles from those journals with a half-life of five years: and so the disciplinary center of gravity wanders aimlessly, without vision or intentionality. The orthodoxy, so violent quarantined and demarcated from outside pretenders, harbors a vacuum within its perimeter.

    Fourth, and finally, should one identify specific models as paradigmatic for neoclassical economics, then they are accompanied by formal proofs of impeccable logic which demonstrate that the model does not underwrite the seeming solidity of the textbooks. Neoclassical theory is itself the vector of its own self-abnegation. If one cites the canonical Arrow-Debreu model of general equilibrium, then one can pair it with the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorems, which point out that the general Arrow-Debreu model places hardly any restrictions at all on the functions that one deems “basic economics,” such as excess demand functions. Or, alternatively, if one lights on the Nash equilibrium in game theory, you can pair that with the so-called folk theorem, which states that under generic conditions, almost anything can qualify as a Nash equilibrium. Keeping with the wonderful paradoxes of “strategic behavior,” the Milgrom-Stokey “No Trade theorem” suggests that if everyone really were as suspicious and untrusting as the Nash theory makes out, then no one would engage in any market exchange whatsoever in a neoclassical world. The Modigliani-Miller theorem states that the level of debt relative to equity in a bank’s balance sheet should not matter one whit for market purposes, even though finance theory is obsessed with debt. Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that, if one models the polity on the pattern of a neoclassical model, then democratic politics is essentially impotent to achieve political goals. Markets are now assert to be marvelous information processors, but the Grossman-Stiglitz results suggest that there are no incentives for anyone to invest in the development and refinement of information in the first place. The list just goes on and on. It is the fate of the Delphic oracles to deal in obscurity.” (p. 24-26)

    Konczal here. The entire book is that intense. A few thoughts:

    - To put the first point a different way, the complaint I hear most when it comes to the major graduate textbooks is that they function as cookbooks, or books full of simple recipes each designed to do a single thing. Beyond micro, this is especially true for the major texts in macroeconomics and econometrics. The macroeconomics piece gives the sense that it’s designed to pull attention away from the major visions and towards little puzzle pieces that don’t connect into any kind of bigger picture.

    Scanning the "What's New?" part of the new 2012 edition of the standard, entry-level graduate macro text, it seems like there's nothing new for the crisis. (If it is mentioned, I didn't see it.) If you are an energetic, smart graduate student who really wants to dissect the economic crisis, you essentially have to sit out the first half of your macroeconomic coursework before you get to something that has to do with a recession as a regular person would understand it. It's clear what has priority within the education of new economists.

    I wonder how much the move to empirical methods and experiments are less about access to computing power and data sets (or, ha, issues of falsification), and more about the fact that the ability to innovate on the theory side has broken and it is now impossible to break new ground. How many enfante terribles in economics are theorists these days? I assume any substantial break from standing theory is immediate exclusion from tenure-setting journals.

    - I love this magic trick analogy from Mirowski for frictions within DSGE: “By thrusting the rabbit into the hat, then pulling it back out with a different hand, the economist merely creates a model more awkward, arbitrary, and unprepossessing [that also] violate[] the Lucas critique in a more egregious fashion than the earlier Keynesian models these macroeconomists love to hate” (p. 284).

    - The mention of the “excess demand function” reminded me whether stability issues are covered anymore. The book The Assumptions Economists Make makes a big deal about the lack of stability analysis in how economists discuss general equilibrium (also see Alejandro Nadal here).

    To clarify in English, have you ever heard of the “Invisible Hand” metaphor? Markets equilibrate supply and demand with prices across the whole economy. Stability is the question of “under what circumstances (if any) does a competitive economy converge to equilibrium, and, if it does, how quickly does this happen?”

    Will these concerns come back into graduate education and discussion with the crisis? I got a chance to check out the new 2011 Advanced Microeconomic Theory by Jehle and Reny, which seems to be the new, more mathematically tight, alternative to Mas-Collel (1995) for graduate microeconomics.

    One the first page of their chapter for general equilibrium: “These are questions of existence, uniqueness, and stability of general competitive equilibrium. All are deep and important, but we will only address the first.” Wow. That’s a massive forgetting from Mas-Collel, which covers these issues, even if superficially, to give student an understanding that they are there.

    Going forward, if you ask a new economist “could the economy just stay this way forever?” or “could more commodity trading push prices further away from a true price?” (pretty important questions!) you will probably get a smug “we’ve proven the Invisible Hand handles this decades ago.” Little will he or she know that a gigantic, inconclusive debate occurred about these issues, but they’ve simply been excised down the memory hole.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Share This

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