The FT's Piketty Criticism is Nothing Like the Reinhart-Rogoff Affair

May 27, 2014Mike Konczal

Several people are comparing Chris Giles’s piece in the Financial Times, which criticizes the data Thomas Piketty used in his book Capital in the 21st Century, to the Reinhart-Rogoff (R-R) incident from last year. That was when Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s paper ”Growth in a Time of Debt, which found that growth went negative above a 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold, was criticized by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP). HAP found data and methodology errors in R-R, and now Giles finds data and methodology errors in Piketty. (I wrote about Giles’s article here.)

So the critiques must be similar, right? No. They are quite different, and in fact there are at least four ways in which they are practically the opposite of each other: in their transparency; in the object of their criticism; in the severity of their critiques; and in their democratic implications.

Transparency and Accessibility of the Data

Piketty’s data is public. That is why we are debating it, because that’s how Giles went about critiquing it. R-R kept their data hidden for years as their policies shaped the international debate over austerity.

R-R based their argument on post-war debt and growth, but their site had no spreadsheet saying “here are the countries and growth rates we used for the post-war period.” Instead they offered links to various other sites for growth data, without clarifying which ones they used. If you tried to replicate the data yourself, as many did, you’d find 110 high-debt data points, but R-R only used 96. Again, it wasn’t clear which were being used.

It’s a minor point, but one worth emphasizing. I can think of at least three sets of economists who stated publicly that R-R had not released their data between 2010 and 2012 [1]. This was before Carmen Reinhart sent their raw data to an innocuous graduate student named Thomas Herndon, which formed the basis for HAP.

Attacking the Data Versus Attacking the Argument

Giles is questioning Piketty’s underlying, original data. HAP took the data that R-R provided for granted, even though it likely would have similar questions, and instead criticized what they did with said data.

A lot of people are pointing out that creating brand new data sets, especially using data that spans countries and centuries, will necessarily involve a lot of difficult calls around merging and splicing various sources. To put that a different way, it would be odd if someone went back into the raw, underlying data and didn’t find some difficult calls that could be questioned.

Critics took R-R’s underlying data for granted in the debate. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. As Bivens and Irons of EPI pointed out in their 2010 discussion, R-R use gross debt, which seems inappropriate compared to debt held by the public if the story they’re telling is about debt and economic outcomes. Yeva Nersisyan and Randy Wray argued that R-R also did a poor job of noting whether a debt was denominated in its own currency.

Those are good points, but they’re not what HAP focused on. They looked at the methodology and construction of results and took the R-R data as given instead of nitpicking the underlying data calls -- calls which are always fraught with ambiguity. Critics generally didn’t try to undermine the data R-R presented in This Time is Different; they took on a supplemental argument tacked onto that data, and the problems they found were less subjective and much more devastating.

The Actual Problems Identified Were Far Different in Scale

Giles focused his analysis on the most speculative data chapter in the book. According to Piketty, inequality in the ownership of wealth is one of the two channels that can lead to greater income inequality, but it’s the less important and far more speculative one, developed at the end of the book and added with many, many caveats by the author himself. This chapter is also at the farthest edge of the research frontier, as evidenced by the fact that new research on this topic is still breaking. Even if the whole chapter collapses, there are still very open questions about the growth of capital stock, how much of the economic pie capital will take home, the rise in labor inequality, and many other topics that comprise a much bigger part of the book.

In contrast, within 72 hours of HAP, support for the idea that there was a debt “threshold” collapsed. John Taylor said that the G20, a far cry from a group of liberal bloggers, omitted specific deficit or debt-to-GDP targets as a result of HAP’s critique. What happened?

First, the actual methodological problem was more important in R-R. It became clear that the choices made in weighting and averaging radically overstated the effects of one year from New Zealand in which R-R recorded a negative 7.6 percent change in GDP. But more generally, HAP showed that the final results were very sensitive to minor data adjustments.

This gets confused in the subsequent narrative, but R-R largely accepted the numbers of HAP. In fact, they said that the smaller numbers HAP found were in line with their new research, which found a smaller decline and correlation between debt and GDP, implicitly abandoning their 2010 paper that had become the focus of world policy. But they still argued that a negative relationship was present.

Since the data was made available by HAP, it took only 24 hours before other researchers found major problems that R-R’s response did not address. Specifically, the economist Arin Dube showed that “simple exercises suggest that the raw correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth probably reflects a fair amount of reverse causality. We can’t simply use correlations like those used by R-R (or ones presented here) to identify causal estimates.” In other words, low growth led to a higher debt-to-GDP ratio, not the other way around.

There was no convincing answer forthcoming from R-R about this issue. A month later, the economist Miles Kimball and Yichuan Wang found that they “could not find even a shred of evidence in the Reinhart and Rogoff data for a negative effect of government debt on growth.”

That no other researchers have used Giles’s findings to immediately disprove, or at least cast doubt on, Piketty’s central arguments is telling. This could still happen, so it’s important to be critical. But the general work in Capital, leaving aside the question of inequality of the ownership of capital in Chapter 10, has evolved over decades and has had its tires kicked many, many times. The debt threshold of R-R never passed peer review, and it is unlikely it could have given the obvious reverse causality issues.

The Difference in Democratic Accountability

It seems like everyone who brings up Capital in the 21st Century has to immediately remark about how impossible it would be to do anything about Piketty’s findings given our current reality. Did you hear that Piketty’s solutions in Capital are impractical? They’re impractical, you know. A global wealth tax? Impractical!

But some people, when they act, create their own reality. Even though it had never been replicated, R-R’s paper was immediately moved to the center of elite discussion. It was one of the most cited pieces of evidence during the Great Recession. It became a justification for austerity, and it was one of the central economic arguments for the Ryan Plan, the budget that Mitt Romney would have tried to put into place had he won the 2012 election.

Some people want to argue that the R-R Excel error was no big deal. And in an econometric sense, they might have a point. But in a political sense, it mattered. It showed that hundreds of millions of people’s lives were being guided by a piece of research with an error that literally anyone would have found if R-R had let another set of human eyeballs look at it.

This is why democratic accountability is so important with economics. It’s good to see Piketty checked here, even if the concerns are overplayed; as Piketty says, the distribution of wealth “is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing.” Indeed it is, just as austerity and government budgets are.

[1] First, “Government Debt and Economic Growth.” Bivens and Irons of EPI, July 2010, footnote 5: “The actual data used in the [R-R] study have not been made available to the public by the authors.”

Second, “Not Following Professional Ethics Matters Also.” Dean Baker, July 2010: “Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart have declined to adhere to standard ethics within the economics profession and have refused to share the data on which they base their conclusion with other researchers.”

Third, “Is High Public Debt Always Harmful to Economic Growth?” Minea and Parent, Feburary 2012, footnote 4: “Our efforts for obtaining the database used by RR were...unfortunately unsuccessful.”

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Several people are comparing Chris Giles’s piece in the Financial Times, which criticizes the data Thomas Piketty used in his book Capital in the 21st Century, to the Reinhart-Rogoff (R-R) incident from last year. That was when Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s paper ”Growth in a Time of Debt, which found that growth went negative above a 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold, was criticized by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP). HAP found data and methodology errors in R-R, and now Giles finds data and methodology errors in Piketty. (I wrote about Giles’s article here.)

So the critiques must be similar, right? No. They are quite different, and in fact there are at least four ways in which they are practically the opposite of each other: in their transparency; in the object of their criticism; in the severity of their critiques; and in their democratic implications.

Transparency and Accessibility of the Data

Piketty’s data is public. That is why we are debating it, because that’s how Giles went about critiquing it. R-R kept their data hidden for years as their policies shaped the international debate over austerity.

R-R based their argument on post-war debt and growth, but their site had no spreadsheet saying “here are the countries and growth rates we used for the post-war period.” Instead they offered links to various other sites for growth data, without clarifying which ones they used. If you tried to replicate the data yourself, as many did, you’d find 110 high-debt data points, but R-R only used 96. Again, it wasn’t clear which were being used.

It’s a minor point, but one worth emphasizing. I can think of at least three sets of economists who stated publicly that R-R had not released their data between 2010 and 2012 [1]. This was before Carmen Reinhart sent their raw data to an innocuous graduate student named Thomas Herndon, which formed the basis for HAP.

Attacking the Data Versus Attacking the Argument

Giles is questioning Piketty’s underlying, original data. HAP took the data that R-R provided for granted, even though it likely would have similar questions, and instead criticized what they did with said data.

A lot of people are pointing out that creating brand new data sets, especially using data that spans countries and centuries, will necessarily involve a lot of difficult calls around merging and splicing various sources. To put that a different way, it would be odd if someone went back into the raw, underlying data and didn’t find some difficult calls that could be questioned.

Critics took R-R’s underlying data for granted in the debate. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. As Bivens and Irons of EPI pointed out in their 2010 discussion, R-R use gross debt, which seems inappropriate compared to debt held by the public if the story they’re telling is about debt and economic outcomes. Yeva Nersisyan and Randy Wray argued that R-R also did a poor job of noting whether a debt was denominated in its own currency.

Those are good points, but they’re not what HAP focused on. They looked at the methodology and construction of results and took the R-R data as given instead of nitpicking the underlying data calls -- calls which are always fraught with ambiguity. Critics generally didn’t try to undermine the data R-R presented in This Time is Different; they took on a supplemental argument tacked onto that data, and the problems they found were less subjective and much more devastating.

The Actual Problems Identified Were Far Different in Scale

Giles focused his analysis on the most speculative data chapter in the book. According to Piketty, inequality in the ownership of wealth is one of the two channels that can lead to greater income inequality, but it’s the less important and far more speculative one, developed at the end of the book and added with many, many caveats by the author himself. This chapter is also at the farthest edge of the research frontier, as evidenced by the fact that new research on this topic is still breaking. Even if the whole chapter collapses, there are still very open questions about the growth of capital stock, how much of the economic pie capital will take home, the rise in labor inequality, and many other topics that comprise a much bigger part of the book.

In contrast, within 72 hours of HAP, support for the idea that there was a debt “threshold” collapsed. John Taylor said that the G20, a far cry from a group of liberal bloggers, omitted specific deficit or debt-to-GDP targets as a result of HAP’s critique. What happened?

First, the actual methodological problem was more important in R-R. It became clear that the choices made in weighting and averaging radically overstated the effects of one year from New Zealand in which R-R recorded a negative 7.6 percent change in GDP. But more generally, HAP showed that the final results were very sensitive to minor data adjustments.

This gets confused in the subsequent narrative, but R-R largely accepted the numbers of HAP. In fact, they said that the smaller numbers HAP found were in line with their new research, which found a smaller decline and correlation between debt and GDP, implicitly abandoning their 2010 paper that had become the focus of world policy. But they still argued that a negative relationship was present.

Since the data was made available by HAP, it took only 24 hours before other researchers found major problems that R-R’s response did not address. Specifically, the economist Arin Dube showed that “simple exercises suggest that the raw correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth probably reflects a fair amount of reverse causality. We can’t simply use correlations like those used by R-R (or ones presented here) to identify causal estimates.” In other words, low growth led to a higher debt-to-GDP ratio, not the other way around.

There was no convincing answer forthcoming from R-R about this issue. A month later, the economist Miles Kimball and Yichuan Wang found that they “could not find even a shred of evidence in the Reinhart and Rogoff data for a negative effect of government debt on growth.”

That no other researchers have used Giles’s findings to immediately disprove, or at least cast doubt on, Piketty’s central arguments is telling. This could still happen, so it’s important to be critical. But the general work in Capital, leaving aside the question of inequality of the ownership of capital in Chapter 10, has evolved over decades and has had its tires kicked many, many times. The debt threshold of R-R never passed peer review, and it is unlikely it could have given the obvious reverse causality issues.

The Difference in Democratic Accountability

It seems like everyone who brings up Capital in the 21st Century has to immediately remark about how impossible it would be to do anything about Piketty’s findings given our current reality. Did you hear that Piketty’s solutions in Capital are impractical? They’re impractical, you know. A global wealth tax? Impractical!

But some people, when they act, create their own reality. Even though it had never been replicated, R-R’s paper was immediately moved to the center of elite discussion. It was one of the most cited pieces of evidence during the Great Recession. It became a justification for austerity, and it was one of the central economic arguments for the Ryan Plan, the budget that Mitt Romney would have tried to put into place had he won the 2012 election.

Some people want to argue that the R-R Excel error was no big deal. And in an econometric sense, they might have a point. But in a political sense, it mattered. It showed that hundreds of millions of people’s lives were being guided by a piece of research with an error that literally anyone would have found if R-R had let another set of human eyeballs look at it.

This is why democratic accountability is so important with economics. It’s good to see Piketty checked here, even if the concerns are overplayed; as Piketty says, the distribution of wealth “is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing.” Indeed it is, just as austerity and government budgets are.

[1] First, “Government Debt and Economic Growth.” Bivens and Irons of EPI, July 2010, footnote 5: “The actual data used in the [R-R] study have not been made available to the public by the authors.”

Second, “Not Following Professional Ethics Matters Also.” Dean Baker, July 2010: “Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart have declined to adhere to standard ethics within the economics profession and have refused to share the data on which they base their conclusion with other researchers.”

Third, “Is High Public Debt Always Harmful to Economic Growth?” Minea and Parent, Feburary 2012, footnote 4: “Our efforts for obtaining the database used by RR were...unfortunately unsuccessful.”

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The FT Gets Piketty's Capital Argument Wrong

May 24, 2014Mike Konczal

Chris Giles at the FT just wrote a critique of the data in Thomas Piketty's Capital. Many people will rightfully debate the empirics of what Giles has found, which he believes shows that inequality of the ownership of wealth - how much of wealth is held by the top 1% - isn't increasing, but it's important to understand how it fits into the larger argument.

Their Problem With the Theory

Giles writes: "The central theme of Prof Piketty’s work is that wealth inequalities are heading back up to levels last seen before the first world war."

This is incorrect, or at least badly stated. Piketty's central theme is not that inequality of the ownership of wealth is going to skyrocket. If you look at the text [1], he's somewhat agnostic about this, but it's not determinative. The central theme is that the 1% already owns a lot of the capital stock, and the capital stock is going to get gigantic relative to the rest of the economy.

Inequality expert Branko Milan also tweeted this point, but let's go through it and break down the theory Piketty puts forward. I used three dominos in my Boston Review writeup, and I'm adding a fourth here to make Giles' critique explicit. Let's describe Piketty's argument as four dominos falling into each other:

1. The return on capital is greater than the growth rate. The infamous "r > g" inequality. Meanwhile growth begins to slow, perhaps because of demographics.

2. The amount of capital, or private wealth, relative to the size of the economy will begin to grow rapidly as growth slows. This is the “past tends to devour the future” line. The size and role of wealth of the past will take on a greater relevance to the everyday economy.

3. If the rate of return doesn't fall, or doesn't fall that quickly, the capital share of income will increase. More of our economic pie will go to people who own capital.

4. The ownership of capital is very concentrated, historically and across a wide variety of countries. It is unlikely to fall quickly, much less spontaneously democratize itself, in response to these trends. So the income and power of capital owners will skyrocket.

So right away, rising inequality in the ownership of capital is not the necessary, major driver of the worries of the book. It isn't that the 1% will own a larger share of capital going forward. It's that the size and importance of capital is going to go big. If the 1% own a consistent amount of the capital stock, they have more income and power as the size of the capital stock increases relative to the economy, and as it takes home a larger slice. However, obviously, if inequality in wealth ownership goes up, it will make the situation worse. (It's noteworthy that these numbers Giles is analyzing aren't introduced until Chapter 10, after Piketty has gone through the growth of capital stock and the returns to capital at length in previous chapters.)

The way that Giles could put a serious dent into Piketty's theory through this analysis is by showing that inequality of wealth ownership is falling in the recent past. This is not what Giles finds. He mostly finds what Piketty finds, except in England, where it's flat instead of slightly growing in the recent past.

From the four dominos, we can also see what flaws in the data would make people believe that Piketty's argument is fundamentally unsound. Remember that Piketty has constructed data for each of these trends, not just the fourth one. Piketty and Zucman's data on private wealth and national income, for instance, is here. But to really dent the theory you need to take down one of the dominos. Most have been fighting about the third one - that either the rate of return on wealth will fall quickly, or that it is determined by institutional factors that are politically created.

But the idea that the ownership of capital will become more concentrated isn't an essential part of the theory. Though obviously if it does grow, then it's an even greater problem.

Notes on the Empirical Arguments

I'm not blown away by the criticism so far, but I hope Piketty responds to the individual issues. Especially what's going on in Britain, because this could be a good learning experience. A few quick points from me, will hopefully have more later. The two major criticisms outside Britain are:

Weighing Sweden

Giles argues that when comparing Britain, France and Sweden, Piketty should weigh by population, instead of equally. Why? Because weighing the countries equally "is questionable, as it gives every Swedish person roughly seven times the weight of every French or British person."

But weighing here, as always, depends on what you are trying to examine. I'd say the variable is the system of laws and economies that produce a consistent output among a group defined by space over time - i.e. the nation-state. And, especially if you want the variable not to be size but different economic systems, you have a collector's set of what Gøsta Esping-Andersen calls The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism between England (liberal), France (corporatist) and Sweden (social democratic). If none of them are producing a fall in wealth inequality, that's a remarkable fact. Weighing them by economic system makes sense. I'd be happy to be convinced otherwise, but Giles makes no such deep argument.

USA Data Missings?

Giles states that "it is not possible to say anything much about the top 10 per cent share between 1870 and 1960, as the data for the US simply does not exist." However, as Matt Bruenig points out, since Piketty's book came out there's been significant new work by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman telling us exactly that. Check out the slides, they are awesome. Well respected work that fills in the makeshift gaps Piketty had to use to make the wealth inequality data for the United States in this period. This is a sign of a good work - subsequent work is bearing out its results.

And this new work points to wealth inequality increasing in the United States. Dramatically. Go figure.

[1] Piketty's conclusion from Chapter 10, which is when he introduces inequality in the ownership of wealth: "To sump up: the fact that wealth is noticeably less concentrated in Europe today than it was in the Belle Epoque is largely a consequence of accidentlal events...and specific institutions. If those institutions were ultimately destroyed, there would be a high risk of seeing inequalities of wealth close to those observed in the past....Nothing is certain: inequality can move in either direction....it is an illusion to think that somthing about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequaity of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved."

It's fair to say that this isn't the only worrisome sign he points out in the book.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Chris Giles at the FT just wrote a critique of the data in Thomas Piketty's Capital. Many people will rightfully debate the empirics of what Giles has found, which he believes shows that inequality of the ownership of wealth - how much of wealth is held by the top 1% - isn't increasing, but it's important to understand how it fits into the larger argument.

Their Problem With the Theory

Giles writes: "The central theme of Prof Piketty’s work is that wealth inequalities are heading back up to levels last seen before the first world war."

This is incorrect, or at least badly stated. Piketty's central theme is not that inequality of the ownership of wealth is going to skyrocket. If you look at the text [1], he's somewhat agnostic about this, but it's not determinative. The central theme is that the 1% already owns a lot of the capital stock, and the capital stock is going to get gigantic relative to the rest of the economy.

Inequality expert Branko Milan also tweeted this point, but let's go through it and break down the theory Piketty puts forward. I used three dominos in my Boston Review writeup, and I'm adding a fourth here to make Giles' critique explicit. Let's describe Piketty's argument as four dominos falling into each other:

1. The return on capital is greater than the growth rate. The infamous "r > g" inequality. Meanwhile growth begins to slow, perhaps because of demographics.

2. The amount of capital, or private wealth, relative to the size of the economy will begin to grow rapidly as growth slows. This is the “past tends to devour the future” line. The size and role of wealth of the past will take on a greater relevance to the everyday economy.

3. If the rate of return doesn't fall, or doesn't fall that quickly, the capital share of income will increase. More of our economic pie will go to people who own capital.

4. The ownership of capital is very concentrated, historically and across a wide variety of countries. It is unlikely to fall quickly, much less spontaneously democratize itself, in response to these trends. So the income and power of capital owners will skyrocket.

So right away, rising inequality in the ownership of capital is not the necessary, major driver of the worries of the book. It isn't that the 1% will own a larger share of capital going forward. It's that the size and importance of capital is going to go big. If the 1% own a consistent amount of the capital stock, they have more income and power as the size of the capital stock increases relative to the economy, and as it takes home a larger slice. However, obviously, if inequality in wealth ownership goes up, it will make the situation worse. (It's noteworthy that these numbers Giles is analyzing aren't introduced until Chapter 10, after Piketty has gone through the growth of capital stock and the returns to capital at length in previous chapters.)

The way that Giles could put a serious dent into Piketty's theory through this analysis is by showing that inequality of wealth ownership is falling in the recent past. This is not what Giles finds. He mostly finds what Piketty finds, except in England, where it's flat instead of slightly growing in the recent past.

From the four dominos, we can also see what flaws in the data would make people believe that Piketty's argument is fundamentally unsound. Remember that Piketty has constructed data for each of these trends, not just the fourth one. Piketty and Zucman's data on private wealth and national income, for instance, is here. But to really dent the theory you need to take down one of the dominos. Most have been fighting about the third one - that either the rate of return on wealth will fall quickly, or that it is determined by institutional factors that are politically created.

But the idea that the ownership of capital will become more concentrated isn't an essential part of the theory. Though obviously if it does grow, then it's an even greater problem.

Notes on the Empirical Arguments

I'm not blown away by the criticism so far, but I hope Piketty responds to the individual issues. Especially what's going on in Britain, because this could be a good learning experience. A few quick points from me, will hopefully have more later. The two major criticisms outside Britain are:

Weighing Sweden

Giles argues that when comparing Britain, France and Sweden, Piketty should weigh by population, instead of equally. Why? Because weighing the countries equally "is questionable, as it gives every Swedish person roughly seven times the weight of every French or British person."

But weighing here, as always, depends on what you are trying to examine. I'd say the variable is the system of laws and economies that produce a consistent output among a group defined by space over time - i.e. the nation-state. And, especially if you want the variable not to be size but different economic systems, you have a collector's set of what Gøsta Esping-Andersen calls The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism between England (liberal), France (corporatist) and Sweden (social democratic). If none of them are producing a fall in wealth inequality, that's a remarkable fact. Weighing them by economic system makes sense. I'd be happy to be convinced otherwise, but Giles makes no such deep argument.

USA Data Missings?

Giles states that "it is not possible to say anything much about the top 10 per cent share between 1870 and 1960, as the data for the US simply does not exist." However, as Matt Bruenig points out, since Piketty's book came out there's been significant new work by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman telling us exactly that. Check out the slides, they are awesome. Well respected work that fills in the makeshift gaps Piketty had to use to make the wealth inequality data for the United States in this period. This is a sign of a good work - subsequent work is bearing out its results.

And this new work points to wealth inequality increasing in the United States. Dramatically. Go figure.

[1] Piketty's conclusion from Chapter 10, which is when he introduces inequality in the ownership of wealth: "To sump up: the fact that wealth is noticeably less concentrated in Europe today than it was in the Belle Epoque is largely a consequence of accidentlal events...and specific institutions. If those institutions were ultimately destroyed, there would be a high risk of seeing inequalities of wealth close to those observed in the past....Nothing is certain: inequality can move in either direction....it is an illusion to think that somthing about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequaity of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved."

It's fair to say that this isn't the only worrisome sign he points out in the book.

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The New Conservative Reformers Still Don't Have a Plan for Wall Street

May 23, 2014Mike Konczal

There’s a certain liberal fascination with the idea of conservative “reformers” showing up and recalibrating the Republican Party toward policies that would benefit working Americans and lead to potential bipartisan solutions. This fascination is on display in the reaction to the new Room to Grow report, available for free online, by the YG Network. Already being covered by liberals, this volume features various reform conservative writers addressing a range of innovative economic policy ideas, with the hope that Republicans lawmakers will pay attention.

But if this is the best the new wave of conservatives can do on financial reform, it’s probably not the biggest worry that elected Republicans aren’t listening. The chapter that focuses on Dodd-Frank and the regulation of the financial markets after the crisis is by American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis. It’s billed as “financial reforms to combat cronyism,” but it offers little in terms of reform. The reformers should, at the very least, explain what they would repeal or replace in Dodd-Frank (a tension that exists with Obamacare as well), and this is left unclear.

The problems start with Pethokoukis’s take on the story of what went wrong in the first place. But he also glosses over the key issues facing policymakers today. The general idea of attacking “cronyism” and promoting competition tells us nothing about what needs to be done, making it so this report is a poor guide to the actual ongoing debates happening in financial reform. And this silence on contentious matters is so deafening that it bodes poorly for any kind of genuine positive agenda for the right or bipartisan alignment with liberal reformers. Understanding where Pethokoukis goes wrong, however, can tell us why conservatives are going to have a hard time dealing with actual reform in the age of Dodd-Frank.

The Story of What Went Wrong

For Pethokoukis, a lack of competition in the financial markets led to the crisis of 2008. To whatever extent there were problems, those problems existed because of the government’s safety net and backstopping of deposits and commercial banks.

A quick glance at most accounts of the financial crisis argues otherwise. The whole point of deregulation in the financial markets was to increase competition. The book that made the case for repealing Glass-Steagall argued for “an enhanced role for competition.” Economists associated with the Clinton administration also believed deregulation would lead to more competition and fix the financial sector. There was an explicit assumption that private entities like the ratings agencies would act as better regulators because they faced competition, and they explain how those agencies became so pivotal to the entire system.

So what went wrong? All these new types of “shadow” banks turned out to have the same problems as any other banking sector. They had massive conflicts of interest, were capable of generating panics and runs with no lender-of-last-resort to fall back on, and there were no regulatory tools to wind them down. The goal of Dodd-Frank, in this version of the story, is to extend the core, tried-and-tested methods of financial reform to this shadow banking sector. Under these new regulations, the FDIC can take down shadow banks, derivatives have to be traded in an exchange, the CFPB provides transparency and accountability for consumers, and so on. Perhaps this narrative is wrong, or perhaps these are terrible policy goals that follow from it, but it goes entirely undiscussed in Pethokoukis’s account.

No Conservative Answer to Too Big To Fail

The problems become more obvious when you consider two of the most debated parts of Dodd-Frank: the FDIC’s ability to create a death panel for failing banks, known as resolution authority; and the Federal Reserve’s power to act as a “lender of last resort” in periods of crisis. Pethokoukis only obliquely addresses these issues, though they go to the core of Too Big To Fail.

He argues that Dodd-Frank “explicitly permits bailouts through its resolution authority provision.” What he is referencing is sadly not cited, because Dodd-Frank in fact requires "that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim.” (If Pethokoukis would argue that the power to differentiate payments is a de facto bailout, then all of bankruptcy is a permanent bailout, as those powers look just like critical vendor orders or other parts of the bankruptcy process in the proposed FDIC rules.)

Pethokoukis also argues against any type of lender-of-last-resort functionality for the non-commercial banking sector. Awkwardly, this in turn functions as a defense of the 2007 status quo. Take an investment bank, allow it to be subject to market panics, and have no resolution process in place other than tossing it into bankruptcy. This is the exact experiment we did with Lehman Brothers.

In supporting materials, Pethokoukis argues that conservative reformers “have ideas to end Too Big To Fail once and for all,” but it’s not clear what they actually are, or even what they could look like. He doesn’t engage in the debate over resolution authority, and he doesn’t mention various conservative replacements to Dodd-Frank that involve a special bankruptcy code. Maybe that’s because the leading proposals make it purposely difficult to lend in a crisis by penalizing lenders, an approach that violates the wisdom of economists going back to Bagehot.

Not a Roadmap for Our Current Debates

Now granted, the report is about messaging and priorities rather than the intricacies of specific reforms. But even here Pethokoukis’s general guiding star of pro-competition and anti-cronyism doesn’t tell us anything about what we need to know to assess the problems on the ground.

Derivative reforms are notably missing from this paper. I’d argue that forcing price transparency in the derivatives market is pro-competition because it leads to better information and an even playing field, and that pushing for aggressive international enforcement of those rules is anti-cronyism, because Wall Street shouldn’t get to flout the rules by cleverly housing its operations somewhere. Would conservative reformers agree? Based on this report, I have no idea.

Is the fact that Wall Street has such an extensive presence in commodities like aluminum a cause for concern? Do we want to push back on the market mediated complex credit chains that comprise shadow banking? Did Dodd-Frank not go far enough in restructuring the financial system, or did it already go too far with the Volcker Rule and concentration limits? The fact that the conservative reformers’ framework is incapable of guiding us in any plausible direction on these major unfolding issues is very problematic. It points to an absolute void in reform conservative policy on the practical regulatory challenges of the day.

The most promising thing in Pethokoukis’s piece is the call for higher capital requirements, perhaps on the order of 15 percent. Though a very good idea, this won’t end Too Big To Fail. And again this doesn’t engage with the current debates over capital, which involve how to balance multiple needs of capital. If you have a straight leverage requirement by itself, won’t that be gamed by firms taking on big risks? If you have a lot of capital but no liquidity, won’t you be subject to runs? Should banks hold long-term, unsecured debt, perhaps engineered to turn into equity during a failure? People often seek a silver bullet here, but one of the points of Basel is to try and balance all these needs against each other. Pethokoukis is correct that requirements should be higher, but unclear on this balancing act.

Mediating Institutions Require Regulations

Capital requirements aside, it’s surprising how unsurprised I am by the supposedly bold new thinking on financial reform contained in this report. The report is ideologically focused on using the government to build the spaces between the individual and state, the space of mediating institutions that include the market. But one of the best ways we can do that is by enforcing transparency and accountability among people participating in a market. Indeed, arguably the biggest blow to cronyism in 2014 has been the disclosure by the SEC of serious, widespread breaches in the private equity market – breaches that are reportable because of Dodd-Frank.

Here’s an example of a policy I’d love to see the right embrace: fiduciary requirements updated for a landscape of 401(k)s, IRAs, and all the other personal, private, tax-exempt savings accounts that people have to deal with. The Department of Labor is trying to do this right now, in fact, and the House Tea Party is trying to stop them.

One might expect that conservatives thinking in terms of civil society would support fiduciary requirements. They’ve existed since antiquity, going back to the Code of Hammurabi, Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese law, and, a bonus for the right, centuries of common law. Using the state to set a guidepost for ethical norms that have existed across time and place, and thereby boosting people’s ability to take responsibility for their investments, is remarkably consistent with a richer civil society. But it’s not there in this report.

I hope these reformers succeed in checking the furthest right-wing elements of their party, although the rehabilitation of Bush-era “compassionate conservatism” (a term whose absence is conspicuous) is a far heavier lift given the libertarian focus of today’s conservatism. But if this vision is going to be centered on mediating institutions rather than direct state action, it will be essential for reformers to understand how the state creates the market, and how it sets the terms for enforcing consumers interests, for private agents to get access to information, and for trading, prices, and risk to move throughout the economy. The core balance of transparency, accountability, stability, and innovation is not something that can simply be waved away by appeals to a “free” market as is done here.

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There’s a certain liberal fascination with the idea of conservative “reformers” showing up and recalibrating the Republican Party toward policies that would benefit working Americans and lead to potential bipartisan solutions. This fascination is on display in the reaction to the new Room to Grow report, available for free online, by the YG Network. Already being covered by liberals, this volume features various reform conservative writers addressing a range of innovative economic policy ideas, with the hope that Republicans lawmakers will pay attention.

But if this is the best the new wave of conservatives can do on financial reform, it’s probably not the biggest worry that elected Republicans aren’t listening. The chapter that focuses on Dodd-Frank and the regulation of the financial markets after the crisis is by American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis. It’s billed as “financial reforms to combat cronyism,” but it offers little in terms of reform. The reformers should, at the very least, explain what they would repeal or replace in Dodd-Frank (a tension that exists with Obamacare as well), and this is left unclear.

The problems start with Pethokoukis’s take on the story of what went wrong in the first place. But he also glosses over the key issues facing policymakers today. The general idea of attacking “cronyism” and promoting competition tells us nothing about what needs to be done, making it so this report is a poor guide to the actual ongoing debates happening in financial reform. And this silence on contentious matters is so deafening that it bodes poorly for any kind of genuine positive agenda for the right or bipartisan alignment with liberal reformers. Understanding where Pethokoukis goes wrong, however, can tell us why conservatives are going to have a hard time dealing with actual reform in the age of Dodd-Frank.

The Story of What Went Wrong

For Pethokoukis, a lack of competition in the financial markets led to the crisis of 2008. To whatever extent there were problems, those problems existed because of the government’s safety net and backstopping of deposits and commercial banks.

A quick glance at most accounts of the financial crisis argues otherwise. The whole point of deregulation in the financial markets was to increase competition. The book that made the case for repealing Glass-Steagall argued for “an enhanced role for competition.” Economists associated with the Clinton administration also believed deregulation would lead to more competition and fix the financial sector. There was an explicit assumption that private entities like the ratings agencies would act as better regulators because they faced competition, and they explain how those agencies became so pivotal to the entire system.

So what went wrong? All these new types of “shadow” banks turned out to have the same problems as any other banking sector. They had massive conflicts of interest, were capable of generating panics and runs with no lender-of-last-resort to fall back on, and there were no regulatory tools to wind them down. The goal of Dodd-Frank, in this version of the story, is to extend the core, tried-and-tested methods of financial reform to this shadow banking sector. Under these new regulations, the FDIC can take down shadow banks, derivatives have to be traded in an exchange, the CFPB provides transparency and accountability for consumers, and so on. Perhaps this narrative is wrong, or perhaps these are terrible policy goals that follow from it, but it goes entirely undiscussed in Pethokoukis’s account.

No Conservative Answer to Too Big To Fail

The problems become more obvious when you consider two of the most debated parts of Dodd-Frank: the FDIC’s ability to create a death panel for failing banks, known as resolution authority; and the Federal Reserve’s power to act as a “lender of last resort” in periods of crisis. Pethokoukis only obliquely addresses these issues, though they go to the core of Too Big To Fail.

He argues that Dodd-Frank “explicitly permits bailouts through its resolution authority provision.” What he is referencing is sadly not cited, because Dodd-Frank in fact requires "that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim.” (If Pethokoukis would argue that the power to differentiate payments is a de facto bailout, then all of bankruptcy is a permanent bailout, as those powers look just like critical vendor orders or other parts of the bankruptcy process in the proposed FDIC rules.)

Pethokoukis also argues against any type of lender-of-last-resort functionality for the non-commercial banking sector. Awkwardly, this in turn functions as a defense of the 2007 status quo. Take an investment bank, allow it to be subject to market panics, and have no resolution process in place other than tossing it into bankruptcy. This is the exact experiment we did with Lehman Brothers.

In supporting materials, Pethokoukis argues that conservative reformers “have ideas to end Too Big To Fail once and for all,” but it’s not clear what they actually are, or even what they could look like. He doesn’t engage in the debate over resolution authority, and he doesn’t mention various conservative replacements to Dodd-Frank that involve a special bankruptcy code. Maybe that’s because the leading proposals make it purposely difficult to lend in a crisis by penalizing lenders, an approach that violates the wisdom of economists going back to Bagehot.

Not a Roadmap for Our Current Debates

Now granted, the report is about messaging and priorities rather than the intricacies of specific reforms. But even here Pethokoukis’s general guiding star of pro-competition and anti-cronyism doesn’t tell us anything about what we need to know to assess the problems on the ground.

Derivative reforms are notably missing from this paper. I’d argue that forcing price transparency in the derivatives market is pro-competition because it leads to better information and an even playing field, and that pushing for aggressive international enforcement of those rules is anti-cronyism, because Wall Street shouldn’t get to flout the rules by cleverly housing its operations somewhere. Would conservative reformers agree? Based on this report, I have no idea.

Is the fact that Wall Street has such an extensive presence in commodities like aluminum a cause for concern? Do we want to push back on the market mediated complex credit chains that comprise shadow banking? Did Dodd-Frank not go far enough in restructuring the financial system, or did it already go too far with the Volcker Rule and concentration limits? The fact that the conservative reformers’ framework is incapable of guiding us in any plausible direction on these major unfolding issues is very problematic. It points to an absolute void in reform conservative policy on the practical regulatory challenges of the day.

The most promising thing in Pethokoukis’s piece is the call for higher capital requirements, perhaps on the order of 15 percent. Though a very good idea, this won’t end Too Big To Fail. And again this doesn’t engage with the current debates over capital, which involve how to balance multiple needs of capital. If you have a straight leverage requirement by itself, won’t that be gamed by firms taking on big risks? If you have a lot of capital but no liquidity, won’t you be subject to runs? Should banks hold long-term, unsecured debt, perhaps engineered to turn into equity during a failure? People often seek a silver bullet here, but one of the points of Basel is to try and balance all these needs against each other. Pethokoukis is correct that requirements should be higher, but unclear on this balancing act.

Mediating Institutions Require Regulations

Capital requirements aside, it’s surprising how unsurprised I am by the supposedly bold new thinking on financial reform contained in this report. The report is ideologically focused on using the government to build the spaces between the individual and state, the space of mediating institutions that include the market. But one of the best ways we can do that is by enforcing transparency and accountability among people participating in a market. Indeed, arguably the biggest blow to cronyism in 2014 has been the disclosure by the SEC of serious, widespread breaches in the private equity market – breaches that are reportable because of Dodd-Frank.

Here’s an example of a policy I’d love to see the right embrace: fiduciary requirements updated for a landscape of 401(k)s, IRAs, and all the other personal, private, tax-exempt savings accounts that people have to deal with. The Department of Labor is trying to do this right now, in fact, and the House Tea Party is trying to stop them.

One might expect that conservatives thinking in terms of civil society would support fiduciary requirements. They’ve existed since antiquity, going back to the Code of Hammurabi, Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese law, and, a bonus for the right, centuries of common law. Using the state to set a guidepost for ethical norms that have existed across time and place, and thereby boosting people’s ability to take responsibility for their investments, is remarkably consistent with a richer civil society. But it’s not there in this report.

I hope these reformers succeed in checking the furthest right-wing elements of their party, although the rehabilitation of Bush-era “compassionate conservatism” (a term whose absence is conspicuous) is a far heavier lift given the libertarian focus of today’s conservatism. But if this vision is going to be centered on mediating institutions rather than direct state action, it will be essential for reformers to understand how the state creates the market, and how it sets the terms for enforcing consumers interests, for private agents to get access to information, and for trading, prices, and risk to move throughout the economy. The core balance of transparency, accountability, stability, and innovation is not something that can simply be waved away by appeals to a “free” market as is done here.

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Paul Ryan and the Voluntarism Fantasy

Apr 28, 2014Mike Konczal

When I wrote a long piece about the Voluntarism Fantasy at Democracy Journal, several people accused me of attacking a strawman. My argument was that there's an influential, yet never clearly articulated, position on the conservative right that we jettison much of the federal government's role in providing for economic security. In response, private charities, churches and "civil society" will rush in and do a better job. Who, complained conservatives, actually argues this?

Well, here's McKay Coppins with a quite flattering 7,000 word piece on how Paul Ryan has a "newfound passion for the poor." What is the animating core and idea of his new passion?

Ryan’s broad vision for curing American poverty is one that conservatives have been championing for the last half-century, more or less. He imagines a diverse network of local churches, charities, and service organizations doing much of the work the federal government took on in the 20th century. Rather than supplying jobless Americans with a never-ending stream of unemployment checks, for example, Ryan thinks the federal government should funnell resources toward community-based work programs like Pastor Webster’s.

Many are rightfully pointing out that this doesn't square with his budget, which plans to eliminate a lot of spending on the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the rich. But in the same way that budget shenanigans like dynamic scoring is supposed to make his numbers work, there's an invisible work of charity that will simply fill in however much that is cut from the federal budget.
 
There's a dead giveaway here. Note the "in the 20th century" rather than the normal "since the War on Poverty" as when things went wrong. Ryan doesn't think the War on Poverty is a problem, or doesn't just think that. He thinks the evolution of the state during the entire 20th century is the problem, and wants to return to the freer and better 19th century.
 
But as I emphasized in the piece, this idea is not true in history, theory or practice. The state has always played a role in providing economic security through things like poorhouses and soldier pensions well before the New Deal. When the Great Depression happened, the old system collapsed. Service organizations called on the government to take over things like old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and income support because they realized they couldn't do it themselves. Freed of the heavy lifting of these major pieces of social insurance, they could focus in a more nimble manner on individual and targeted needs.
 
And the reasons this doesn't work out are quite clear - charity is uncoordinated, very vulnerable to stress (charitable giving fell in the recession just as it was most needed), and tied to the whims and interests of the rich. And charitable organizations aren't calling for the Ryan Budget, and they don't think that they'll run better and with better resources if Ryan's cuts happen. They know firsthand they won't have the resources to balance out the gigantic increase in need that would result.
 
(Elizabeth Stoker has more on attempts to link this this fantasy up with Christianity broadly and Catholic subsidiarity specifically.)
 
Ideas have consequences. The fact that Ryan's are fundamentally flawed on so many levels will have consequences too for the poor if they come to pass.
 
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When I wrote a long piece about the Voluntarism Fantasy at Democracy Journal, several people accused me of attacking a strawman. My argument was that there's an influential, yet never clearly articulated, position on the conservative right that we jettison much of the federal government's role in providing for economic security. In response, private charities, churches and "civil society" will rush in and do a better job. Who, complained conservatives, actually argues this?

Well, here's McKay Coppins with a quite flattering 7,000 word piece on how Paul Ryan has a "newfound passion for the poor." What is the animating core and idea of his new passion?

Ryan’s broad vision for curing American poverty is one that conservatives have been championing for the last half-century, more or less. He imagines a diverse network of local churches, charities, and service organizations doing much of the work the federal government took on in the 20th century. Rather than supplying jobless Americans with a never-ending stream of unemployment checks, for example, Ryan thinks the federal government should funnell resources toward community-based work programs like Pastor Webster’s.

Many are rightfully pointing out that this doesn't square with his budget, which plans to eliminate a lot of spending on the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the rich. But in the same way that budget shenanigans like dynamic scoring is supposed to make his numbers work, there's an invisible work of charity that will simply fill in however much that is cut from the federal budget.
 
There's a dead giveaway here. Note the "in the 20th century" rather than the normal "since the War on Poverty" as when things went wrong. Ryan doesn't think the War on Poverty is a problem, or doesn't just think that. He thinks the evolution of the state during the entire 20th century is the problem, and wants to return to the freer and better 19th century.
 
But as I emphasized in the piece, this idea is not true in history, theory or practice. The state has always played a role in providing economic security through things like poorhouses and soldier pensions well before the New Deal. When the Great Depression happened, the old system collapsed. Service organizations called on the government to take over things like old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and income support because they realized they couldn't do it themselves. Freed of the heavy lifting of these major pieces of social insurance, they could focus in a more nimble manner on individual and targeted needs.
 
And the reasons this doesn't work out are quite clear - charity is uncoordinated, very vulnerable to stress (charitable giving fell in the recession just as it was most needed), and tied to the whims and interests of the rich. And charitable organizations aren't calling for the Ryan Budget, and they don't think that they'll run better and with better resources if Ryan's cuts happen. They know firsthand they won't have the resources to balance out the gigantic increase in need that would result.
 
(Elizabeth Stoker has more on attempts to link this this fantasy up with Christianity broadly and Catholic subsidiarity specifically.)
 
Ideas have consequences. The fact that Ryan's are fundamentally flawed on so many levels will have consequences too for the poor if they come to pass.
 
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JW Mason on Disgorge the Cash

Apr 21, 2014Mike Konczal

 

I'm happy to have been part of the editing team on this piece by JW Mason for The New Inquiry's money and finance issue, Disgorge the Cash. It summarizes some of the issues he's been developing at his blog slackwire on the relationship between the financial sector and the real economy. As both an economic matter, with the relationship between corporate borrowing, investments and dividends before and after the early 1980s, as well as a socio-cultural matter of managers and their relationships to the firms they manage, it's fascinating stuff. It also points to a question, one Piketty doesn't touch in his new Capital book, of whether supermanagers who are creating the runaway 1% labor incomes gain should really be thought of more as part of capital income.

Much of the rest of the finance and money issue is now online, though you should still subscribe.

From the piece:

In 1960, there was a strong link between borrowing and investment. A firm that was borrowing $1 million more than a typical firm of that size would usually be investing $750,000 more. [...] Before 1980, there was no statistical relationship between borrowing and payouts in the form of dividends and share repurchases at the firm level. But since then, a clear positive relationship emerged, especially at business-cycle peaks. Firms that borrow more have significantly higher payouts to shareholders. [...] It was a common trope in accounts of the housing bubble that greedy or shortsighted homeowners were extracting equity from their houses with second mortgages or cash-out refinancing to pay for extra consumption. What nobody mentioned was that the rentier class had been playing a similar game longer and on a much larger scale.

[...]

At the moment, finance seems to be doing its job well. The idea that corporations will spontaneously socialize themselves looks utopian and naïve. The evolution described by Keynes, Berle and Means, Galbraith, and other theorists of managerialism early in the 20th century had been halted or reversed by its end.
 
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. Just look at the scale of the financial apparatus required to keep productive enterprises focused on profit maximization, and the fear capitalists have of allowing managers discretion over corporate resources, even when their incentives have been arduously “aligned.” Isn’t it testimony to how tenuous and unnatural production for profit is? In these far from revolutionary times, radicals often fret about the difficulty of transforming the existing organization of production into socialism. But this project is nothing compared with the Sisyphean task faced by the other side, of constantly transforming the existing organization of production into capitalism.

 

I'm happy to have been part of the editing team on this piece by JW Mason for The New Inquiry's money and finance issue, Disgorge the Cash. It summarizes some of the issues he's been developing at his blog slackwire on the relationship between the financial sector and the real economy. As both an economic matter, with the relationship between corporate borrowing, investments and dividends before and after the early 1980s, as well as a socio-cultural matter of managers and their relationships to the firms they manage, it's fascinating stuff. It also points to a question, one Piketty doesn't touch in his new Capital book, of whether supermanagers who are creating the runaway 1% labor incomes gain should really be thought of more as part of capital income.

Much of the rest of the finance and money issue is now online, though you should still subscribe.

From the piece:

In 1960, there was a strong link between borrowing and investment. A firm that was borrowing $1 million more than a typical firm of that size would usually be investing $750,000 more. [...] Before 1980, there was no statistical relationship between borrowing and payouts in the form of dividends and share repurchases at the firm level. But since then, a clear positive relationship emerged, especially at business-cycle peaks. Firms that borrow more have significantly higher payouts to shareholders. [...] It was a common trope in accounts of the housing bubble that greedy or shortsighted homeowners were extracting equity from their houses with second mortgages or cash-out refinancing to pay for extra consumption. What nobody mentioned was that the rentier class had been playing a similar game longer and on a much larger scale.

[...]

At the moment, finance seems to be doing its job well. The idea that corporations will spontaneously socialize themselves looks utopian and naïve. The evolution described by Keynes, Berle and Means, Galbraith, and other theorists of managerialism early in the 20th century had been halted or reversed by its end.
 
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. Just look at the scale of the financial apparatus required to keep productive enterprises focused on profit maximization, and the fear capitalists have of allowing managers discretion over corporate resources, even when their incentives have been arduously “aligned.” Isn’t it testimony to how tenuous and unnatural production for profit is? In these far from revolutionary times, radicals often fret about the difficulty of transforming the existing organization of production into socialism. But this project is nothing compared with the Sisyphean task faced by the other side, of constantly transforming the existing organization of production into capitalism.

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The Unluckiness of the Long-Term Unemployed

Apr 18, 2014Mike Konczal
Ben Casselman has a fascinating dive into the long-term unemployment data at the new 538 site. He finds that the long-term unemployed are driven in large part by luck. An unemployed person is more likely to be unemployed for a long period of time when they happen to lose their job at a time of high unemployment. Here's their core chart:

He also finds that this effect is stronger for those who are unlikely to receive unemployment insurance.

One comment I had. There's an argument that the long-term unemployed are the weakest employees, those who were fired during the first wave of layoffs that started in 2008. These workers were going to have a hard time finding jobs not based on the labor market but because, to be blunt, they weren't good workers. (One manifestation: Tyler Cowen did a lot with this idea of zero marginal product workers, ignoring that the marginal product of labor is impacted by demand, back in 2011.) Since long-term unemployed workers look a lot like the general unemployment pool, this is thought to be driven by softer, not-quantifiable, worker characteristics.

If that was the case, then the job losers on the upswing of unemployment, during the first wave of layoffs in 2008 when unemployment was in the 5-8% range, should be more likely to have become a member of the long-term unemployed. They should even be worse than those leaving their job when unemployment was 10% in fall 2009 (which was technically 3 months after the recession ended). But we see a pretty consistent pattern in that chart, which tentatively give evidence that it's not just the initial skill level of the workers driving the level of long-term unemployment.

 

Ben Casselman has a fascinating dive into the long-term unemployment data at the new 538 site. He finds that the long-term unemployed are driven in large part by luck. An unemployed person is more likely to be unemployed for a long period of time when they happen to lose their job at a time of high unemployment. Here's their core chart:

He also finds that this effect is stronger for those who are unlikely to receive unemployment insurance.

One comment I had. There's an argument that the long-term unemployed are the weakest employees, those who were fired during the first wave of layoffs that started in 2008. These workers were going to have a hard time finding jobs not based on the labor market but because, to be blunt, they weren't good workers. (One manifestation: Tyler Cowen did a lot with this idea of zero marginal product workers, ignoring that the marginal product of labor is impacted by demand, back in 2011.) Since long-term unemployed workers look a lot like the general unemployment pool, this is thought to be driven by softer, not-quantifiable, worker characteristics.

If that was the case, then the job losers on the upswing of unemployment, during the first wave of layoffs in 2008 when unemployment was in the 5-8% range, should be more likely to have become a member of the long-term unemployed. They should even be worse than those leaving their job when unemployment was 10% in fall 2009 (which was technically 3 months after the recession ended). But we see a pretty consistent pattern in that chart, which tentatively give evidence that it's not just the initial skill level of the workers driving the level of long-term unemployment.

 

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Not Just the Long-Term Unemployed: Those Unemployed Zero Weeks Are Struggling to Find Jobs

Apr 17, 2014Mike Konczal

Leave aside for a moment the difficulty that the long-term unemployed, those who were unlucky and have been looking for a job for more than 52 weeks, have in finding a job. Even those who have been unemployed zero weeks are having trouble finding jobs in this economy. And this is important evidence against the idea that the labor market is doing better than people realize if you just ignore the long-term unemployed.

Here’s a data point that I’m particularly interested in: how often are employed people going straight to another job, rather than leaving their job and enduring a period of unemployment before finding new work?

Though most people think of the employed spending some time in unemployment before starting a new job (an idea that was central to the recent theory that quit rates predicted a healthy job market), a substantial number of people move directly from one job to another without ever counting as unemployed. Since our statistics (and most of the economic models) are set up to observe people who are looking for work but are unable or unwilling to accept a job, these steadily employed workers can go missing in the discussion. That’s a shame, because historically they comprise almost half of all those who accept a new job.

The Rortybomb blog has long been a fan of the job flows data, or the statistics that show who is moving between employment and unemployment and in and out of the labor force. However, the easiest way to access this data didn’t distinguish between those who stayed employed with a single employer and those who stayed employed but moved between different employers.

Luckily, someone pointed me in the direction of the Employer-to-Employer Flows in the U.S. Labor Market [1], compiled by the Federal Reserve, which breaks out those who move from one employer to another without being unemployed (described as “EE transitions” for the rest of this post). This data is current through the end of 2013.

If the economy is heating up significantly and the long-term unemployed aren’t capable of taking jobs, then the EE transition rate should be increasing. So how is it doing?

This is the percentage of the employed who are in EE transition (the results are the same for EE transition as a percentage of the labor force). As we can see, it declined during the crisis and hasn’t recovered even as of 2013.

Let’s also look at this from a different point of view: what percentage of those taking jobs are currently employed? If the economy was heating up and the unemployed or those out of the labor force couldn't take jobs, we would expect this to increase. Taking EE transitions as a percentage of all those who are transitioning into new jobs, we see the following:

New hires are increasingly coming from the ranks of the unemployed and those not in the labor force rather than the currently employed. Where the employed were 40 percent in the 1990s, and 35 percent in the pre-crisis 2000s, it's down to 30 percent now.

Why does this matter? First off, these quits also create a new job opening, which the unemployed can take. There’s a significant labor economics literature that argues that job-to-job transitions are a major driver of wage growth for workers (starting here and continuing to this day, h/t Arin Dube). If the number of people moving directly from one job to another is in decline, that’s a bad sign for wage growth, as well as inflation and monetary policy. This appears to be undertheorized and not discussed enough in academic or policy discussions.

But why is this happening? The American Time Use Survey hasn’t been able to tell me whether the employed are spending more or less time searching for other jobs since the recession started; the sample size is too small to make conclusive predictions about changes. If potential wage gains are a primary motivation of job-to-job transitions, then lack of wage growth or even inflation could be contributing to less churn in the economy.

When it comes down to it, the problems of those who aren’t working and want a job are similar to the problems of those who are working but want a new job. As Alan Krueger found in this chart in his recent paper (also see Ben Casselman's chart here), the rate of successful job searches is down not just for the long-term unemployed, but also for the short-term unemployed, when compared to 2007. It appears the same holds true for those with an unemployment duration of zero.

[1] The page indicates that it was last updated in 2004, or perhaps 2011. But the excel document has data through the end of 2013. Sneaky.

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Leave aside for a moment the difficulty that the long-term unemployed, those who were unlucky and have been looking for a job for more than 52 weeks, have in finding a job. Even those who have been unemployed zero weeks are having trouble finding jobs in this economy. And this is important evidence against the idea that the labor market is doing better than people realize if you just ignore the long-term unemployed.

Here’s a data point that I’m particularly interested in: how often are employed people going straight to another job, rather than leaving their job and enduring a period of unemployment before finding new work?

Though most people think of the employed spending some time in unemployment before starting a new job (an idea that was central to the recent theory that quit rates predicted a healthy job market), a substantial number of people move directly from one job to another without ever counting as unemployed. Since our statistics (and most of the economic models) are set up to observe people who are looking for work but are unable or unwilling to accept a job, these steadily employed workers can go missing in the discussion. That’s a shame, because historically they comprise almost half of all those who accept a new job.

The Rortybomb blog has long been a fan of the job flows data, or the statistics that show who is moving between employment and unemployment and in and out of the labor force. However, the easiest way to access this data didn’t distinguish between those who stayed employed with a single employer and those who stayed employed but moved between different employers.

Luckily, someone pointed me in the direction of the Employer-to-Employer Flows in the U.S. Labor Market [1], compiled by the Federal Reserve, which breaks out those who move from one employer to another without being unemployed (described as “EE transitions” for the rest of this post). This data is current through the end of 2013.

If the economy is heating up significantly and the long-term unemployed aren’t capable of taking jobs, then the EE transition rate should be increasing. So how is it doing?

This is the percentage of the employed who are in EE transition (the results are the same for EE transition as a percentage of the labor force). As we can see, it declined during the crisis and hasn’t recovered even as of 2013.

Let’s also look at this from a different point of view: what percentage of those taking jobs are currently employed? If the economy was heating up and the unemployed or those out of the labor force couldn't take jobs, we would expect this to increase. Taking EE transitions as a percentage of all those who are transitioning into new jobs, we see the following:

New hires are increasingly coming from the ranks of the unemployed and those not in the labor force rather than the currently employed. Where the employed were 40 percent in the 1990s, and 35 percent in the pre-crisis 2000s, it's down to 30 percent now.

Why does this matter? First off, these quits also create a new job opening, which the unemployed can take. There’s a significant labor economics literature that argues that job-to-job transitions are a major driver of wage growth for workers (starting here and continuing to this day, h/t Arin Dube). If the number of people moving directly from one job to another is in decline, that’s a bad sign for wage growth, as well as inflation and monetary policy. This appears to be undertheorized and not discussed enough in academic or policy discussions.

But why is this happening? The American Time Use Survey hasn’t been able to tell me whether the employed are spending more or less time searching for other jobs since the recession started; the sample size is too small to make conclusive predictions about changes. If potential wage gains are a primary motivation of job-to-job transitions, then lack of wage growth or even inflation could be contributing to less churn in the economy.

When it comes down to it, the problems of those who aren’t working and want a job are similar to the problems of those who are working but want a new job. As Alan Krueger found in this chart in his recent paper (also see Ben Casselman's chart here), the rate of successful job searches is down not just for the long-term unemployed, but also for the short-term unemployed, when compared to 2007. It appears the same holds true for those with an unemployment duration of zero.

[1] The page indicates that it was last updated in 2004, or perhaps 2011. But the excel document has data through the end of 2013. Sneaky.

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Is Short-Term Unemployment a Better Predictor of Inflation?

Apr 8, 2014Mike Konczal

Alan B. Krueger, Judd Cramer, and David Cho of Princeton recently released a Brookings paper on the state of the labor market titled "Are the Long-Term Unemployed on the Margins of the Labor Market?" Their big headline result is that the long-term unemployed are going to have trouble finding steady work, both as a historical matter and from what we've seen in the Great Recession. It's fascinating work we'll revisit here.

But what does that mean for the job market right now, with its mix of short-term and long-term unemployed? The second takeaway is that if we only look at short-term unemployment, the economy makes more sense than if we look at total unemployment. As Tim Hartford wrote, this research shows that if "we replotted the Phillips curve['s mix of inflation and unemployment]... using statistics on short-term unemployment... it turns out that the old statistical relationships would work just fine." Some are arguing that we should just focus on short-term unemployment for the moment as an indicator of how the economy is doing.

Is that the case? Not really. We should be careful with this argument now, because this is really a matter of 2009-2012. Back then, the question was why inflation was as steady as it was given very high unemployment. In 2014 the question is very different: why is inflation so low given high unemployment and the relationship of the past several years? We need to explain a different problem.

Let's look at a key chart from the Krueger paper (green boxes my addition):

This is the change in core inflation versus unemployment. (There's a similar dynamic with wage inflation in a different chart.) The left graphic is the change in core inflation versus overall unemployment, and the right graphic is the change versus short-term unemployment. As the paper's authors argue, it's a much tighter relationship if you just look at short-term unemployment. But there are three things to note here.

First, as flagged in the green box in the left graphic, the outliers are the years 2009-2012. Looking at their wage inflation version of this in particular, the authors note that they get a higher R-squared and better predictive value using short-term unemployment. But replicating this chart (data), if you simply take out 2009-2011, you also end up with the higher R-squared and better predictive value.

More importantly, as a second matter look at where we are now via the 2013 data point. The total unemployment number for 2013 is right on the line in the left graph. However, as we can see from the green circle on the right, using short-term unemployment shows inflation much lower than anticipated. This is not surprising; one of the more important economic stories of 2013 was the collapse of inflation. Note that if the labor market were actually getting much tighter, inflation should have been increasing during this time period. More broadly, if the problem were the preponderance of long-term unemployed in the general labor market, we wouldn't expect 2013 to go into freefall and hop over the trendline as it did.

I'm very interested in why we didn't collapse into deflation from 2009 to 2011. I imagine the Fed has something to do with it. But as a third point I'd be a little cautious about using just short-term unemployment during that time as an important indicator about the labor market, as job separations collapsed during the crisis. A low short-term unemployment rate reflects people simply not leaving their jobs more than it reflects the idea that the economy was doing better than we'd expect.

But this question is also a historical one. Krueger and his co-authors acknowledge this, using phrasing like "since 2009" as the basis of their paper. But other people might not catch this, and assume that the short-term unemployment rate is crucial for right now. But that doesn't reflect our current situation of low inflation, a falling rate of long-term unemployment, and an unemployment rate that is going to be stuck in the mid-6% range for some time. We shouldn't use a way of adjusting data to examine what was going on in 2010 to argue there's less slack than there actually is out here in 2014.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

Alan B. Krueger, Judd Cramer, and David Cho of Princeton recently released a Brookings paper on the state of the labor market titled "Are the Long-Term Unemployed on the Margins of the Labor Market?" Their big headline result is that the long-term unemployed are going to have trouble finding steady work, both as a historical matter and from what we've seen in the Great Recession. It's fascinating work we'll revisit here.

But what does that mean for the job market right now, with its mix of short-term and long-term unemployed? The second takeaway is that if we only look at short-term unemployment, the economy makes more sense than if we look at total unemployment. As Tim Hartford wrote, this research shows that if "we replotted the Phillips curve['s mix of inflation and unemployment]... using statistics on short-term unemployment... it turns out that the old statistical relationships would work just fine." Some are arguing that we should just focus on short-term unemployment for the moment as an indicator of how the economy is doing.

Is that the case? Not really. We should be careful with this argument now, because this is really a matter of 2009-2012. Back then, the question was why inflation was as steady as it was given very high unemployment. In 2014 the question is very different: why is inflation so low given high unemployment and the relationship of the past several years? We need to explain a different problem.

Let's look at a key chart from the Krueger paper (green boxes my addition):

This is the change in core inflation versus unemployment. (There's a similar dynamic with wage inflation in a different chart.) The left graphic is the change in core inflation versus overall unemployment, and the right graphic is the change versus short-term unemployment. As the paper's authors argue, it's a much tighter relationship if you just look at short-term unemployment. But there are three things to note here.

First, as flagged in the green box in the left graphic, the outliers are the years 2009-2012. Looking at their wage inflation version of this in particular, the authors note that they get a higher R-squared and better predictive value using short-term unemployment. But replicating this chart (data), if you simply take out 2009-2011, you also end up with the higher R-squared and better predictive value.

More importantly, as a second matter look at where we are now via the 2013 data point. The total unemployment number for 2013 is right on the line in the left graph. However, as we can see from the green circle on the right, using short-term unemployment shows inflation much lower than anticipated. This is not surprising; one of the more important economic stories of 2013 was the collapse of inflation. Note that if the labor market were actually getting much tighter, inflation should have been increasing during this time period. More broadly, if the problem were the preponderance of long-term unemployed in the general labor market, we wouldn't expect 2013 to go into freefall and hop over the trendline as it did.

I'm very interested in why we didn't collapse into deflation from 2009 to 2011. I imagine the Fed has something to do with it. But as a third point I'd be a little cautious about using just short-term unemployment during that time as an important indicator about the labor market, as job separations collapsed during the crisis. A low short-term unemployment rate reflects people simply not leaving their jobs more than it reflects the idea that the economy was doing better than we'd expect.

But this question is also a historical one. Krueger and his co-authors acknowledge this, using phrasing like "since 2009" as the basis of their paper. But other people might not catch this, and assume that the short-term unemployment rate is crucial for right now. But that doesn't reflect our current situation of low inflation, a falling rate of long-term unemployment, and an unemployment rate that is going to be stuck in the mid-6% range for some time. We shouldn't use a way of adjusting data to examine what was going on in 2010 to argue there's less slack than there actually is out here in 2014.

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Money Issue of The New Inquiry is Out

Apr 8, 2014Mike Konczal

I helped edit (curate might be a better word) the latest New Inquiry issue on Money and Finance. Their editor Robert Horning wanted to get some of the vibe of the older financial blogs, when the thing was still a wild west, and so we got a ton of our favorite old-school finance writers like Steve Waldman, Izzy Kaminska, and the Epicurean Dealmaker to contribute. I also helped edit a good explainer of MMT from Rebecca Rojer, and a definitive "disgorge the cash" piece on the rentier takeover of the economy by JW Mason, both which are definitely worth your time. I have my own piece in the article, now also online, about buying the future.

These pieces will eventually be rolled out and available online over the next month, but for now you can read it by subscribing. Hope you check it out!

I helped edit (curate might be a better word) the latest New Inquiry issue on Money and Finance. Their editor Robert Horning wanted to get some of the vibe of the older financial blogs, when the thing was still a wild west, and so we got a ton of our favorite old-school finance writers like Steve Waldman, Izzy Kaminska, and the Epicurean Dealmaker to contribute. I also helped edit a good explainer of MMT from Rebecca Rojer, and a definitive "disgorge the cash" piece on the rentier takeover of the economy by JW Mason, both which are definitely worth your time. I have my own piece in the article, now also online, about buying the future.

These pieces will eventually be rolled out and available online over the next month, but for now you can read it by subscribing. Hope you check it out!

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The Internet Responds to the Voluntarism Fantasy

Apr 8, 2014Mike Konczal

My recent Voluntarism Fantasy piece (pdf) for Democracy Journal has gotten a fair amount of coverage. So I'm going to use this post, which will be updated, to keep track of the links to other people engaging, if only so I can respond in the future.

The piece was also reprinted at The Altantic Monthly.

Reddit thread with comments.

In favor of the piece:

Michael Hiltzik covers the argument in the LA Times' opinion page and EJ Dionne in the Washington Post's opinion page.

Matt Bruenig notes that the way we discuss this reflects a deep status quo bias at The Week.

Elizabeth Stoker, channeling Niebuhr, makes the strong Christian case that charity and government social insurance go together at The Week.

Sally Steenland of Center for America Progress also addresses the fantasy in this article.

Erik Loomis makes an excellent point that in addition to the rest of the 19th century state, the "federally subsidized westward expansion was also part of this welfare state, as Republicans especially explicitly saw the frontier as a social safety net that would alleviate poverty without directly giving charity to people."

James Kwak agrees that there's "No Substitute for the Government" here.

Jordan Weissmann argues that "Charity Can’t Replace the Safety Net" over at Slate.

I discuss the piece on the Majority Report with Sam Seder (also in-studio video here).

Less in favor:

Marvin Olasky, author of the Tragedy of American Compassion (which is one focal point of the article), responds in World.

Philathrophy Daily ran two articles critical of the piece, both at the forefront of the voluntarism fantasy's worldview. The first is from Hans Zeiger and the second from Martin Morse Wooster, who breaks out the paralipsis "I could argue that Mike Konczal and the Roosevelt Institute has a hidden agenda: to force the U.S. to accept Soviet-style communism ... I won’t make that argument because I know it isn’t true."

Rich Tucker at Townhall says that I do "a better job than Barack Obama did explaining the president’s 'You didn’t build that' philosophy," which I'll take as a compliment.

Reihan Salam has a set of responses at The Agenda.

Howard Husock argues that  charitably-funded, non-governmental programs are better than government at helping help individuals thrive at Forbes.

Don Watkins at the Ayn Rand Institute has a five part (!) critical response; you can work backwards from the fifth part here.

Anarchist Kevin Carson sees "the welfare state nevertheless as an evil necessitated by the state-enforced model of capitalism, and ultimately destined to wither away along with economic privilege and exploitation" in his response.

I'll add any more as they happen. (Last updated April 11th.)

My recent Voluntarism Fantasy piece (pdf) for Democracy Journal has gotten a fair amount of coverage. So I'm going to use this post, which will be updated, to keep track of the links to other people engaging, if only so I can respond in the future.

The piece was also reprinted at The Altantic Monthly.

Reddit thread with comments.

In favor of the piece:

Michael Hiltzik covers the argument in the LA Times' opinion page and EJ Dionne in the Washington Post's opinion page.

Matt Bruenig notes that the way we discuss this reflects a deep status quo bias at The Week.

Elizabeth Stoker, channeling Niebuhr, makes the strong Christian case that charity and government social insurance go together at The Week.

Sally Steenland of Center for America Progress also addresses the fantasy in this article.

Erik Loomis makes an excellent point that in addition to the rest of the 19th century state, the "federally subsidized westward expansion was also part of this welfare state, as Republicans especially explicitly saw the frontier as a social safety net that would alleviate poverty without directly giving charity to people."

James Kwak agrees that there's "No Substitute for the Government" here.

Jordan Weissmann argues that "Charity Can’t Replace the Safety Net" over at Slate.

I discuss the piece on the Majority Report with Sam Seder (also in-studio video here).

Less in favor:

Marvin Olasky, author of the Tragedy of American Compassion (which is one focal point of the article), responds in World.

Philathrophy Daily ran two articles critical of the piece, both at the forefront of the voluntarism fantasy's worldview. The first is from Hans Zeiger and the second from Martin Morse Wooster, who breaks out the paralipsis "I could argue that Mike Konczal and the Roosevelt Institute has a hidden agenda: to force the U.S. to accept Soviet-style communism ... I won’t make that argument because I know it isn’t true."

Rich Tucker at Townhall says that I do "a better job than Barack Obama did explaining the president’s 'You didn’t build that' philosophy," which I'll take as a compliment.

Reihan Salam has a set of responses at The Agenda.

Howard Husock argues that  charitably-funded, non-governmental programs are better than government at helping help individuals thrive at Forbes.

Don Watkins at the Ayn Rand Institute has a five part (!) critical response; you can work backwards from the fifth part here.

Anarchist Kevin Carson sees "the welfare state nevertheless as an evil necessitated by the state-enforced model of capitalism, and ultimately destined to wither away along with economic privilege and exploitation" in his response.

I'll add any more as they happen. (Last updated April 11th.)

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