Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Enlightening Example

Chapter 1 of my favorite textbook talks about how policies can have unintended consequences because of their effects on incentives.  One example I use is Sam Peltzman's famous study of seatbelt laws.  Here, from The Economist, is another example:
SOLID-STATE lighting, the latest idea to brighten up the world while saving the planet, promises illumination for a fraction of the energy used by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. A win all round, then: lower electricity bills and...less climate-changing carbon dioxide belching from power stations.
Well, no. Not if history is any guide. Solid-state lamps, which use souped-up versions of the light-emitting diodes that shine from the faces of digital clocks and flash irritatingly on the front panels of audio and video equipment, will indeed make lighting better. But precedent suggests that this will serve merely to increase the demand for light. The consequence may not be just more light for the same amount of energy, but an actual increase in energy consumption.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reinhardt on Efficiency

Princeton's Uwe Reinhardt offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking perspective on economists' use of the concept of efficiency.

I know that Uwe has used my Principles of Micro textbook in his introductory class.  So his commentary on "modern textbooks" is, at least to some extent, directed at me. (In particular, I suspect he has chapters 7, 8, and 9 in mind.)  Uwe also provides some useful links to handouts he gives to his class.

Update: Steven Landsburg responds.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Krugman reestimates the Mankiw rule

This scatterplot is from Paul Krugman.  x is the core inflation rate minus the unemployment rate.  y is the federal funds rate.  It uses data from 1988 to 2008.

This graph is motivated by a version of the Taylor rule I once proposed.  Paul uses a different sample than I did, so he gets slightly different parameter values.  Nonetheless, I think Paul and I agree that this equation provides a reasonable first approximation to what the Fed will and should do in response to macroeconomic conditions.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Notes from the Sixth Row

Last week, my friend Phill Swagel attended an event to hear about the future of policy toward housing finance.  He sends along the following.  (By the way, here is Phill's own proposal for GSE reform.)

Notes from the Sixth Row: The Treasury-HUD GSE Conference
Phillip Swagel
I took away four main points from Tuesday's Treasury-HUD GSE conference:
Hints of reform. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that the administration supported fundamental GSE reform but with still a government guarantee for housing finance in some form. The GSE portfolios, however, would disappear. None of this is a surprise, but it was still novel—especially in contrast with past policy efforts such as stimulus and healthcare, where the administration allowed the Congress to take the lead on policy formation.
Industry participants love government guarantees. Conference participants from industries involved with the financing and construction of homes assert that no American will ever buy a home again if the government does not provide a full credit guarantee against the financial market consequences of people defaulting on their mortgages. And that guarantee needs a fair (that is, low) price. Bill Gross made some news in calling for full nationalization of housing finance and complete guarantees on mortgage capital. He prefaced this by saying that he was speaking on behalf of public policy and not his firm. Mr. Gross is smart and was exceedingly public-minded during the financial crisis (even, yes, while profiting from some astute investment calls). There is no doubt that he means well. But it’s scary to think about what he might suggest when he speaks for his book of business instead of the public interest.
Blowback from the left. The administration is scared of its own shadow with respect to flak from the left—the White House staffer’s introductory remarks were an awkward ode to inclusion and conference guidelines such as time limits went out the window when advocates of affordable housing subsidies were speaking (As a note, I very much support these subsidies and think that an important element of GSE reform is to make the subsidies more effective. But this still does not mean that the people making that point should have had carte blanche to long-talk while avoiding answering direct questions.) Amidst the long-talking, it turns out that there is good reason for the administration’s trembling. To the limited extent that advocates of affordable/low-income housing participated in the conference, they vehemently opposed scaling back any form of government support, including reducing the activities of the portfolios. It was impossible to tell what the affordable advocates were for other than “more.” The administration’s GSE reform plan could come down on stone tablets from Mt. Sinai – and still be attacked by the advocate community as "not enough." GSE reform thus represents yet another conflict brewing between the administration and its frenemies in the “professional” left. And yet the President's political tactics of late center on demonizing the moderate/responsible Republicans (“privatizers”) with whom he might form a centrist coalition to actually move forward with a housing finance overhaul. GSE reform could be a long ways off—until we have a President who seeks to lead in a bipartisan fashion.
Settle in; this is going to be a long process. Yesterday's conference was a show of attention to the issue but not more. And next on the agenda are several regional conferences—perhaps the hotel and travel spending is a form of stimulus (or better—it’s time for Congress to shut off Treasury’s unlimited authority to spend money through the Office of Financial Stability). The wheels of GSE reform are turning, but the vehicle is moving forward at a crawl.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

As is typical for me during this time of year, I have been on a field trip to study the economy of Nantucket.  The chart below shows what I learned: This idyllic island has not escaped the rise and fall in housing prices that the rest of the nation has experienced.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sebastian Mallaby's history of hedge funds is well written, smart, and balanced.

For econonerds, this is a good beach read.

We're number one!

Harvard tops the US News college ranking this year.  (FYI, in a few weeks, I will be sending off my first child to school number two.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Favorite Family Game

A tip for parents.  My favorite family game: Quiddler. It is fun for all ages (as long as your kids have started to read), it doesn't go on forever (like Monopoly), and it is a bit educational (bring a dictionary along).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Challenge to Extreme Keynesians

The key insight of Keynesian economics is that the problem during recessions is inadequate aggregate demand.  Taken to the extreme, which some Keynesians do, it says that aggregate demand is the only thing you need to worry about during downturns.  Changes in aggregate supply (due to, say, high marginal tax rates or adverse incentives associated unemployment insurance) don't matter, they argue, because employment is being constrained by the low level of aggregate demand.

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan offers a challenge to that view.  Casey points out that there is a regular surge in teenage employment during the summer months because more teenagers are available to work (that is, the supply of their labor has increased).  That is no surprise: It is normal supply and demand in action.  But if aggregate demand were the main constraint on employment, this increase in supply should not translate into higher employment during deep recessions such as this one.  But it does!

Most economists, Keynesians and otherwise, ignore this summer change in employment because we focus on seasonally adjusted data.  But as Casey points out, the raw unadjusted data may have something important to teach us.

Casey might want us to take this as evidence against the entire Keynesian worldview.  I would not go quite that far, but it surely provides a challenge to extreme Keynesianism.  I am reminded of a response I once gave to a reporter who asked whether I was a supply-sider or a Keynesian.  "I am neither a supply-side economist nor a demand-side economist," I said.  "I am a supply-and-demand economist."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The White House Policy Process

Chapter 2 of my favorite textbook describes how economists play a role in the making of public policy.  If students want a more detailed description of the White House policy process, a good place to look is this recent post by Keith Hennessey.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Wise Passage

From Paul Seabright, via Peter Gordon:
Politicians are in charge of the modern economy in much the same way as a sailor is in charge of a small boat in a storm. The consequences of their losing control completely may be catastrophic (as civil war and hyperinflation in parts of the former Soviet empire have recently reminded us), but even while they keep afloat, their influence over the course of events is tiny in comparison with that of the storm around them. We who are their passengers may focus our hopes and fears upon them, and express profound gratitude toward them if we reach harbor safely, but that is chiefly because it seems pointless to thank the storm. (p. 25)

How is Medicare doing?

Worse than official projections suggest:
Administration officials can always be counted on to praise President Obama's health care law. But Rick Foster, the chief actuary of Medicare, offers an unvarnished assessment of how the new law affects 47 million Medicare recipients, as well as the federal deficit.
"There is a strong likelihood that the cost projections in the new trustees report under current law understate the actual future cost that Medicare will face. A strong likelihood," he says. "I've gone so far as to say that I don't think it's a reasonable projection of what will really happen." Rick Foster made a rare public appearance at the American Enterprise Institute Friday to discuss the latest projections of Medicare which are required by law.
The single greatest uncertainty in the projections are the cuts to Medicare that the administration is counting on to pay for new benefits.The Obama plan assumes health care can accomplish the same kinds of increased efficiency, or productivity improvements, usually seen on production lines -- like manufacturing cars. But few analysts believe that is possible. Joe Antos, a scholar at AEI, says, "they're productivity improvements if productivity happens. If productivity doesn't happen, they're still cuts."
And Foster adds that, "every single expert we talked [to] has told us they did not think these productivity adjustments were viable. They thought they just would not work."

Friday, August 06, 2010

Christy Romer Steps Down

CEA Chair Christy Romer is leaving the White House.

From my own experience in that job, I know she must be experiencing mixed emotions.  On the one hand,  it is an exhilarating experience to be a member of a White House team, a part of history, and the leader of a staff of smart, hard-working economists at the CEA.  On the other hand, in jobs like this, one loses a great deal of autonomy.  People who choose academia as a career often do so because they enjoy the personal and intellectual freedom it offers.  Having spent two years without it, I appreciate that freedom all the more.  I bet Christy will feel the same, after she recovers from Beltway decompression.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

President Obama's Pro-Union Stance

Nobelist Gary Becker concludes:
Are the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Obama very much pro union? Unquestionably. Do the economic effects of unions on the welfare of workers as a whole justify that union bias? No. Has their pro-union orientation seriously retarded the recovery from the recession? Probably....The real threat to a robust recovery on the labor side has come from employer and entrepreneurial fears that once the economic environment improves, a Democratic Congress and administration will pass pro-union and other pro-worker legislation that will raise the cost of doing business and cut profits. In this way the obvious pro-union-pro-worker bias of the present government has contributed to a slower recovery, especially in labor markets.