Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Is There Really a "Conservative Reform" Movement in Policy?

    May 23, 2013Mike Konczal

    A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

    As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written - they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

    Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists... [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

    So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

    Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

    1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

    2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

    3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

    4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

    5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

    6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

    I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: how many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

    Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

    a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

    b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. ("Predistribution" means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

    c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

    d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

    Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

    A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

    They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

    I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: in practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

    I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

    It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

    As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written - they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

    Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists... [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

    So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different than saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

    Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

    1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word privatization is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

    2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

    3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

    4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

    5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

    6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

    I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: how many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

    Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

    a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

    b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. ("Predistribution" means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

    c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

    d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

    Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

    A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

    They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

    I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: in practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

    I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

    It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

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  • Michael Kinsley Gets It Wrong On "Austerians"

    May 23, 2013Mike Konczal

    While I was on vacation, the Internet exploded over a column by Michael Kinsley beefing with Paul Krugman and his follow-up response. The biggest problem with his attempt to reclaim the word “austerians” from its detractors is that he doesn’t provide a working definition, an argument, or even specific people or proposals for what he has in mind. He apparently takes “austerian” to mean “anti-Krugman,” and since Kinsley and others feels that they don’t line up with Krugman, they must all be austerians.

    This leads into the second biggest problem with Kinsley’s posts: he concludes that everyone is basically on the same page. It’s just a matter of how you weigh your priorities and concerns. Kinsley writes that “Krugman now says that what he is against is ‘premature’ fiscal austerity. So is everybody. They just disagree on what is ‘premature.’” Also that “[y]ou can be a right-wing Austerian, a left-wing Austerian, a right-wing Keynesian, or a left-wing Keynesian. And (as I also noted last week) the differences are not so great.” (My underlines.)

    This is wrong. I’ll quickly summarize three different approaches to the deficit, trying hard to not make straw men of them. There’s (1) Team Keynesian, which thinks that the government should increase the short-term deficit, full-stop. Extend the payroll tax cut for two years. Invest in an infrastructure bank. Mail people checks. Get to the point where the Federal Reserve has traction again on the economy before worrying about the debt.

    People in this category are all for ways to deal with the long-term deficit. But they realize that: (a) Medicare is the major driver of those costs, Obamacare needs a chance to deal with this, and it may even be working already; (b) reducing the long-term deficit should require a combination of taxes and spending, and the GOP will refuse any and all tax increases, making a deal impossible; and (c) the GOP wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare rather than bring them into a healthy long-term financial situation, so not everyone is even on the same page.

    However, people in (2) Team Barbell think that stimulus must be paired with long-term deficit reduction at the same time. For an example, there’s the original Domenici-Rivlin Restoring America's Future plan: "First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work... Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt... These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially."

    I assume when Kinsley references needing to eat spinach along with dessert as macroeconomic policy he’s referring to a need for both stimulus and deficit reduction to complement each other. Sadly for him, there’s never been a clear economic case for why these should be addressed together, and plenty of evidence that addressing the second will do little for the first.

    (Noah Smith started a conversation recently about whether elites want a slower recovery in order to do structural reform. The original Domenici-Rivlin reform quoted above basically said, “We know unemployment is devastating, and we know more upfront stimulus will help. However, we are going to need you to turn Medicare into a giant Groupon system in order to get it.”)

    These two approaches are very different than the arguments for (3) Team Austerity. The argument here is that, if done right, austerity will have a negligible effect on the economy and could even increase prosperity by restoring confidence to private capital. This is not a strawman; it’s the economic plan the GOP put forward when they took the House in 2011, which they got from AEI, which they got from Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna of Harvard.

    The 2011 GOP plan also noted, “Analyzing 20 developed countries between 1946 and 2009, Reinhart and Rogoff found a distinct threshold for gross government debt equal to 90 percent of GDP.” They believed action was needed to avoid crossing this threshold, even if it might be painful. (Thankfully, it wouldn’t be according this argument.)

    No Pain, No Gain?

    Kinsley’s misdiagnosis that the policy disagreements are all a matter of relative priorities then leads him to believe that more weight on short-term pain will lead to better long-term conclusions: “I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be...The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians.”

    This set the Internet on fire. I’m genuinely not sure what he’s referencing here when he mentions the middle-class. Is Kinsley at the point where he doesn’t get editors? I’m going to rewrite this for him: “During the 2000s, the middle class borrowed way too much, speculating on housing and using fake home equity to go on a spending spree. Now that this bubble has burst, the middle class needs to spend less and save more. There will be, yes, suffering, but they should have been saving more all along. Americans didn’t save enough, and now they have to save more and work off all the bad debts.”

    And here’s how I would have responded to that better argument: “Yes, but two things. The first is that everyone can’t all save at the same time. If everyone is saving, nobody is spending, and we start to hit some major problems. Second, the bad debts to be worked off aren’t set in stone. If unemployment is higher, or wage growth slower, or inflation is under-target, that means the pile of bad debts is even greater. Since they are greater, people save more, and then there are even more problems. So even if you have a strongly moralistic tone about what needs to be done, or read this as a pox on our middle class, stimulus in the short term is crucial.”

    Because austerity won’t even do the job Kinsley is proposing it will do. In 1933, John Maynard Keynes said, “You will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income.” He argued this because he was a childless gay hedonist saw that austerity won’t even function to reduce the debt load, because a weaker GDP will eliminate any debt savings. This is precisely what is happening in Europe, and it could happen here if we suffocate the recovery too early.

     

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    While I was on vacation, the Internet exploded over a column by Michael Kinsley beefing with Paul Krugman and his follow-up response. The biggest problem with his attempt to reclaim the word “austerians” from its detractors is that he doesn’t provide a working definition, an argument, or even specific people or proposals for what he has in mind. He apparently takes “austerian” to mean “anti-Krugman,” and since Kinsley and others feels that they don’t line up with Krugman, they must all be austerians.

    This leads into the second biggest problem with Kinsley’s posts: he concludes that everyone is basically on the same page. It’s just a matter of how you weigh your priorities and concerns. Kinsley writes that “Krugman now says that what he is against is ‘premature’ fiscal austerity. So is everybody. They just disagree on what is ‘premature.’” Also that “[y]ou can be a right-wing Austerian, a left-wing Austerian, a right-wing Keynesian, or a left-wing Keynesian. And (as I also noted last week) the differences are not so great.” (My underlines.)

    This is wrong. I’ll quickly summarize three different approaches to the deficit, trying hard to not make straw men of them. There’s (1) Team Keynesian, which thinks that the government should increase the short-term deficit, full-stop. Extend the payroll tax cut for two years. Invest in an infrastructure bank. Mail people checks. Get to the point where the Federal Reserve has traction again on the economy before worrying about the debt.

    People in this category are all for ways to deal with the long-term deficit. But they realize that: (a) Medicare is the major driver of those costs, Obamacare needs a chance to deal with this, and it may even be working already; (b) reducing the long-term deficit should require a combination of taxes and spending, and the GOP will refuse any and all tax increases, making a deal impossible; and (c) the GOP wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare rather than bring them into a healthy long-term financial situation, so not everyone is even on the same page.

    However, people in (2) Team Barbell think that stimulus must be paired with long-term deficit reduction at the same time. For an example, there’s the original Domenici-Rivlin Restoring America's Future plan: "First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work... Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt... These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially."

    I assume when Kinsley references needing to eat spinach along with dessert as macroeconomic policy he’s referring to a need for both stimulus and deficit reduction to complement each other. Sadly for him, there’s never been a clear economic case for why these should be addressed together, and plenty of evidence that addressing the second will do little for the first.

    (Noah Smith started a conversation recently about whether elites want a slower recovery in order to do structural reform. The original Domenici-Rivlin reform quoted above basically said, “We know unemployment is devastating, and we know more upfront stimulus will help. However, we are going to need you to turn Medicare into a giant Groupon system in order to get it.”)

    These two approaches are very different than the arguments for (3) Team Austerity. The argument here is that, if done right, austerity will have a negligible effect on the economy and could even increase prosperity by restoring confidence to private capital. This is not a strawman; it’s the economic plan the GOP put forward when they took the House in 2011, which they got from AEI, which they got from Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna of Harvard.

    The 2011 GOP plan also noted, “Analyzing 20 developed countries between 1946 and 2009, Reinhart and Rogoff found a distinct threshold for gross government debt equal to 90 percent of GDP.” They believed action was needed to avoid crossing this threshold, even if it might be painful. (Thankfully, it wouldn’t be according this argument.)

    No Pain, No Gain?

    Kinsley’s misdiagnosis that the policy disagreements are all a matter of relative priorities then leads him to believe that more weight on short-term pain will lead to better long-term conclusions: “I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be...The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians.”

    This set the Internet on fire. I’m genuinely not sure what he’s referencing here when he mentions the middle-class. Is Kinsley at the point where he doesn’t get editors? I’m going to rewrite this for him: “During the 2000s, the middle class borrowed way too much, speculating on housing and using fake home equity to go on a spending spree. Now that this bubble has burst, the middle class needs to spend less and save more. There will be, yes, suffering, but they should have been saving more all along. Americans didn’t save enough, and now they have to save more and work off all the bad debts.”

    And here’s how I would have responded to that better argument: “Yes, but two things. The first is that everyone can’t all save at the same time. If everyone is saving, nobody is spending, and we start to hit some major problems. Second, the bad debts to be worked off aren’t set in stone. If unemployment is higher, or wage growth slower, or inflation is under-target, that means the pile of bad debts is even greater. Since they are greater, people save more, and then there are even more problems. So even if you have a strongly moralistic tone about what needs to be done, or read this as a pox on our middle class, stimulus in the short term is crucial.”

    Because austerity won’t even do the job Kinsley is proposing it will do. In 1933, John Maynard Keynes said, “You will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income.” He argued this because he was a childless gay hedonist saw that austerity won’t even function to reduce the debt load, because a weaker GDP will eliminate any debt savings. This is precisely what is happening in Europe, and it could happen here if we suffocate the recovery too early.

     

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  • Beta: Universal Basic Income Calculator

    May 14, 2013Mike Konczal

    Click here to try a new Universal Basic Income calculator. You can click on which programs you'd like to turn into a UBI, and what taxes you'd be willing to put into motion, and it will tell you how large of a UBI can be supported with those resources. You can also type in your own numbers if you are interested.

    Over the weekend I wrote a column for Wonkblog on why a Universal Basic Income would be a good idea. At the same time, Jesse Myerson and Alexis Goldstein discussed the topic in the first episode of their new podcast, Beyond the Pale. Matt Bruenig and Peter Frase discussed whether a UBI is Utopian, and have a fascinating exchange about the idea of a UBI and policy and strategy.

    The calculator is in a beta-test mode, and it isn't nice looking, but it might be a useful exercise in how the numbers might actually work. I'll say that playing with the numbers makes me more sympathetic with Barbara Bergmann's point that a “fully developed welfare state deserves priority over Basic Income because it accomplishes what Basic Income does not: it guarantees that certain specific human needs will be met.” You have to jettison a lot of the welfare state, raise taxes a significant amount, or phase it out aggressive and remove the universal component, to get to numbers like $10,000. On the other hand, it isn't that hard to get to the $2,000-$3,000 range.

    But I'm interested in what you think of it.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Click here to try a new Universal Basic Income calculator. You can click on which programs you'd like to turn into a UBI, and what taxes you'd be willing to put into motion, and it will tell you how large of a UBI can be supported with those resources. You can also type in your own numbers if you are interested.

    Over the weekend I wrote a column for Wonkblog on why a Universal Basic Income would be a good idea. At the same time, Jesse Myerson and Alexis Goldstein discussed the topic in the first episode of their new podcast, Beyond the Pale. Matt Bruenig and Peter Frase discussed whether a UBI is Utopian, and have a fascinating exchange about the idea of a UBI and policy and strategy.

    The calculator is in a beta-test mode, and it isn't nice looking, but it might be a useful exercise in how the numbers might actually work. I'll say that playing with the numbers makes me more sympathetic to Barbara Bergmann's point that a “fully developed welfare state deserves priority over Basic Income because it accomplishes what Basic Income does not: it guarantees that certain specific human needs will be met.” You have to jettison a lot of the welfare state, raise taxes a significant amount, or phase it out aggressively and remove the universal component to get to numbers like $10,000. On the other hand, it isn't that hard to get to the $2,000-$3,000 range.

    But I'm interested in what you think of it.

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  • Liberal Wonk Blogging Could Be Your Life

    May 9, 2013Mike Konczal

    As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

    I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

    1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

    Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

    We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

    That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

    It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

    It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

    1.a What Creates Wonks?

    We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

    But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

    Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

    Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

    This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

    But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

    Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

    1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

    Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

    Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

    So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

    It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

    2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

    As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

    In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

    But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

    Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

    What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

    In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

    Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

    But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

    I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

    1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

    Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

    We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

    That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

    It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

    It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

    1.a What Creates Wonks?

    We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

    But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

    Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

    Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

    This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

    But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

    Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

    1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

    Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

    Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

    So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

    It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

    2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

    As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

    In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

    But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

    Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

    What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

    In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

    Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

    But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Share This

  • What Would the "Financial Instability" Argument Look Like For Any Other Industry?

    May 7, 2013Mike Konczal

    It’s becoming a surprisingly influential argument given that it hasn’t been well presented or argued, much less vetted and challenged. What is it? The argument that we should raise interest rates or otherwise contract monetary policy in order to preserve “financial stability.”

    Brad Delong says critiquing this idea is “PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA,” while Nick Rowe argues that this idea “may be influential. And that idea is horribly wrong.”

    Here’s one version of the argument, from a recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota:

    “On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis—a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives.”

    Tim Duy and Ryan Avent commented on this speech, which essentially argued that that raising rates would certainly cause a problem, but rates at their current value could cause even bigger problems.

    Let’s be clear on the terms: should we risk another immediate recession (“lower employment and prices”) to preserve a thing called “financial stability?” Five immediate problems jump out from this argument. Nick Rowe emphasized tackling this on an abstract level; I’m going to focus on practical stuff.

    1. This whole story seems predicated on the idea that expansionary monetary policy was behind the housing bubble and collapse. I think there’s very little hard evidence for that. Also, the basic stories surrounding interest rates, as JW Mason mentioned in a guest post here, being too low for too long have some serious contradictions. (For instance, if the problem is a “global savings glut,” expansionary monetary policy should push against that by reducing capital inflows.) So if the idea is to risk another recession in order to not repeat the 2000s, we should work with a clearer story about what went wrong in the housing bubble.

    2. The term “reaching for yield” is often deployed in these arguments. Low rates means that traders have to take on bigger risks in order to earn a rate of return that is acceptable. (Is there a minimum level of profit that finance must make on lending? And should we throw people out of work to make sure they make it? I hadn’t heard of that, but sounds like a nice gig.)

    But either way, it isn’t clear that low rates drive reaching for yield. Yields are the difference between lending and funding rates. And as JW Mason again writes in an important post, banks’ funding costs are also affected by the policy rate. “Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates -- in other words, a one point increase in spreads.” If anything, the story is the opposite of what people are arguing.

    3. The best empirical evidence at understanding the “reach for yield” phenomenon I’ve seen comes from Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina from Harvard University, “Reaching for Yield in the Bond Market.” Here’s a Voxeu summary, and here’s the research pdf. They look at holdings of insurance companies, and find that, “conditional on credit ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds...It is also more pronounced for firms with poor corporate governance and for which regulatory capital requirement is more binding.”

    This comes across as portfolio managers juking and manipulating capital requirements and the ratings agencies. The authors note that this is a major agency problem for insurance agencies. It was the strongest at the peak of the cycle, but went away during the recession.

    Now if I told you we should keep the economy in a permanent recession because senior managers at insurance companies aren’t good at their basic job of monitoring mid-level portfolio managers you’d probably think I was crazy. And I would be. Especially since it seems that “reach for yield” is tied less to monetary policy and more to gaming ratings-based capital requirements.

    4. If this is a serious problem, people should be talking about more serious forms of financial regulation. As a starter platform, we can raise capital requirements. Much of this “reach for yield” looks to be a regulatory arbitrage on ratings-based capital requirements, so, say, tripling the leverage requirement should net out the importance of the ratings agencies in capital requirements.

    This is why a more coherent story about what we are concerned about when we think about “financial stability” would help. If we need to make the financial system less complex and prone to abusive practices, requiring parties of a derivatives contract to hold a stake in the underlying asset would do a lot. Are we worried about contagion? In that case, force banks to hold more capital as well as convertible instruments. About bad debts holding back the economy? Then reform the bankruptcy code, dropping the 2005 “reforms.” Some people are demanding more jail sentences, not only for the benefit of the public but for boards and shareholders who can’t keep their workers in line.

    5. Because imagine this argument in the context of any other industry. Right now the interest rate is above where it needs to be to guarantee full employment. People are arguing that we should raise rates because banks might make loans, even though that is what the financial sector is supposed to do. (As Daniel Davies notes, “If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone's main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans.”)

    Now imagine the government was going to take some land it owns containing oil and sell it to an oil company. Could you imagine someone saying, “We shouldn’t do this, because we can’t assume that oil companies are capable of drilling, refining and selling that oil” as a valid concern? Not concerns about random spills or global warming? But instead expressing concerns about whether the industry is capable of executing its most basic function.

    Or take immigration. Imagine if a common response to letting a large number of high-skilled immigrants into the country would be “but we can’t assume that the labor market is capable of matching people with skills who want to work with employers who are willing to pay to complete jobs.” It’s tantamount to saying, “we shouldn’t assume that the labor market can do its basic function.”

    It’s hard not to read the financial stability arguments as saying “look, we can’t trust the financial sector to accomplish its most basic goals.” If true, that’s a very significant problem that should cause everyone a lot of concern. It should make us ask why we even have a financial system if we can’t expect it to function, or function only by putting the entire economy at risk.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    It’s becoming a surprisingly influential argument given that it hasn’t been well presented or argued, much less vetted and challenged. What is it? The argument that we should raise interest rates or otherwise contract monetary policy in order to preserve “financial stability.”

    Brad Delong says critiquing this idea is “PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA,” while Nick Rowe argues that this idea “may be influential. And that idea is horribly wrong.”

    Here’s one version of the argument, from a recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota:

    “On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis—a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives.”

    Tim Duy and Ryan Avent commented on this speech, which essentially argued that that raising rates would certainly cause a problem, but rates at their current value could cause even bigger problems.

    Let’s be clear on the terms: should we risk another immediate recession (“lower employment and prices”) to preserve a thing called “financial stability?” Five immediate problems jump out from this argument. Nick Rowe emphasized tackling this on an abstract level; I’m going to focus on practical stuff.

    1. This whole story seems predicated on the idea that expansionary monetary policy was behind the housing bubble and collapse. I think there’s very little hard evidence for that. Also, the basic stories surrounding interest rates, as JW Mason mentioned in a guest post here, being too low for too long have some serious contradictions. (For instance, if the problem is a “global savings glut,” expansionary monetary policy should push against that by reducing capital inflows.) So if the idea is to risk another recession in order to not repeat the 2000s, we should work with a clearer story about what went wrong in the housing bubble.

    2. The term “reaching for yield” is often deployed in these arguments. Low rates means that traders have to take on bigger risks in order to earn a rate of return that is acceptable. (Is there a minimum level of profit that finance must make on lending? And should we throw people out of work to make sure they make it? I hadn’t heard of that, but sounds like a nice gig.)

    But either way, it isn’t clear that low rates drive reaching for yield. Yields are the difference between lending and funding rates. And as JW Mason again writes in an important post, banks’ funding costs are also affected by the policy rate. “Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates -- in other words, a one point increase in spreads.” If anything, the story is the opposite of what people are arguing.

    3. The best empirical evidence at understanding the “reach for yield” phenomenon I’ve seen comes from Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina from Harvard University, “Reaching for Yield in the Bond Market.” Here’s a Voxeu summary, and here’s the research pdf. They look at holdings of insurance companies, and find that, “conditional on credit ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds...It is also more pronounced for firms with poor corporate governance and for which regulatory capital requirement is more binding.”

    This comes across as portfolio managers juking and manipulating capital requirements and the ratings agencies. The authors note that this is a major agency problem for insurance agencies. It was the strongest at the peak of the cycle, but went away during the recession.

    Now if I told you we should keep the economy in a permanent recession because senior managers at insurance companies aren’t good at their basic job of monitoring mid-level portfolio managers you’d probably think I was crazy. And I would be. Especially since it seems that “reach for yield” is tied less to monetary policy and more to gaming ratings-based capital requirements.

    4. If this is a serious problem, people should be talking about more serious forms of financial regulation. As a starter platform, we can raise capital requirements. Much of this “reach for yield” looks to be a regulatory arbitrage on ratings-based capital requirements, so, say, tripling the leverage requirement should net out the importance of the ratings agencies in capital requirements.

    This is why a more coherent story about what we are concerned about when we think about “financial stability” would help. If we need to make the financial system less complex and prone to abusive practices, requiring parties of a derivatives contract to hold a stake in the underlying asset would do a lot. Are we worried about contagion? In that case, force banks to hold more capital as well as convertible instruments. About bad debts holding back the economy? Then reform the bankruptcy code, dropping the 2005 “reforms.” Some people are demanding more jail sentences, not only for the benefit of the public but for boards and shareholders who can’t keep their workers in line.

    5. Because imagine this argument in the context of any other industry. Right now the interest rate is above where it needs to be to guarantee full employment. People are arguing that we should raise rates because banks might make loans, even though that is what the financial sector is supposed to do. (As Daniel Davies notes, “If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone's main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans.”)

    Now imagine the government was going to take some land it owns containing oil and sell it to an oil company. Could you imagine someone saying, “We shouldn’t do this, because we can’t assume that oil companies are capable of drilling, refining and selling that oil” as a valid concern? Not concerns about random spills or global warming? But instead expressing concerns about whether the industry is capable of executing its most basic function.

    Or take immigration. Imagine if a common response to letting a large number of high-skilled immigrants into the country would be “but we can’t assume that the labor market is capable of matching people with skills who want to work with employers who are willing to pay to complete jobs.” It’s tantamount to saying, “we shouldn’t assume that the labor market can do its basic function.”

    It’s hard not to read the financial stability arguments as saying “look, we can’t trust the financial sector to accomplish its most basic goals.” If true, that’s a very significant problem that should cause everyone a lot of concern. It should make us ask why we even have a financial system if we can’t expect it to function, or function only by putting the entire economy at risk.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

      

     

    Share This

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