Friday, November 21, 2014

Still Disgorging

From Bloomberg last month:
Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index really love their shareholders. Maybe too much. They’re poised to spend $914 billion on share buybacks and dividends this year, or about 95 percent of earnings, data compiled by Bloomberg and S&P Dow Jones Indices show. Money returned to stock owners exceeded profits in the first quarter and may again in the third. The proportion of cash flow used for repurchases has almost doubled over the last decade while it’s slipped for capital investments...
This is a familiar theme to readers of this blog.

Here are my own updated numbers. The figure shows dividends and total payouts for the S&P 500 and the nonfinancial corporate sector as a whole, for rolling five-year periods ending in the year shown. Payouts are given as a share of aftertax profits.

Shareholder payouts as a fraction of aftertax profits, 5-year moving averages


Unlike the past versions of this graph I've put up here, which came from the Flow of Funds, this is taken directly from the corporate financial statements compiled in Compustat. Among other things, this means that we can see share buybacks directly, rather than only net share retirement. But the picture is qualitatively similar to what you see in the aggregate data -- after being quite stable at around 50% of after tax profits through the 1970s, payouts doubled to about 100% of aftertax profits during the 1980s, and have remained near that level over the past 25 years.

I haven't broken out the S&P 500 before. (This is based on the current index membership -- it didn't seem worth the trouble to find historical indexes. So for the early years we are talking about a relatively small number of firms.) As you can see, the picture is basically similar. The rise in S&P payouts comes a bit later. And unlike the broader population of firms, there is no rise in dividends relative to profits in the 1980s and 1990s -- the entire increase in payouts comes from buybacks. The other difference -- not immediately evident from the chart -- is that profits, not surprisingly, are more stable in the S&P 500 than in the smaller firms outside the index. You can't tell from the figure, but the big spike in the black lines comes from a collapse in profits in the non-S&P firms, not an increase in payouts. The corporate sector excluding the S&P 500 reported substantial aggregate losses in 2001-2002, meaning a much lower denominator for the ratio in the early 2000s.

Incidentally, this figure was produced in R, which I am finally switching to after years of using SAS and (hangs head in shame) Excel. If you are starting a graduate program in economics -- and I know some readers of this blog are -- I strongly, strongly advise you to learn R and get in the habit of producing all your work in LaTeX with embedded R code, using sweave or knitr. Kieran Healey explains why. You should never cut and paste a graphic from one application to another, or copy statistical results by hand into a table. I think this is the single piece of advice I most wish I'd gotten when I started graduate school.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Interview with Me

The other day I sat down with Dave Parsons for his podcast The Nostalgia Trap. You can find the resulting interview here. It's partly about politics, partly about economics, partly about me and my various adventures on the US left.

You should check out some of Dave's other interviews as well -- he gets some very interesting people to sit down with him and has conversations with them that are more expansive and wide-ranging than your usual interview.

Monday, November 17, 2014

"As If a Man Were Author of Himself"

A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.

You don't appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny -- qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn't up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.

So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us,  Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.

* * *

The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)
FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.
Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that "engrossers" be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown -- but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not  aimless destruction.

To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it's hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.
MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body's members
Rebell'd against the belly; thus accus'd it:--
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o' the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing'
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
... I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body...
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …
Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can't govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.
CORIOLANUS: ... your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?
This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics -- that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we're told about urban riots, it's the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense,  to challenge. We heard  Coriolanus's voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.

To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:
FIRST CITIZEN. ...  once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude. 
THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o' the compass.
But then that is how ideology works -- to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.

Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius  what it is, exactly, that the common people want.
MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor'd. 
CORIOLANUS. Hang 'em!
They say! They'll sit by th' fire and presume to know
What's done i' the Capitol; who's like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there's grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I'd make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter'd slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh'd forth proverbs,--
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:--with these shreds
They vented their complainings…
Even in Coriolanus' hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened -- consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.

The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it's right there in the text.

Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.
You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I'll leave the foe
And make my wars on you
Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It's just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can't be safely dispensed with.  Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward.  This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:
CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember'd.
The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.

Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they'd give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.
CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on? 
MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm. 
CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos'd thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer't, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul'd. …
In soothing them we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scatter'd,
By mingling them with us, the honour'd number
Of course, he isn't wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.

Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: "We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men... wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette." If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.

Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his  inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.

Menenius begs him to reconsider:
MENENIUS. You'll mar all: I'll leave you.
Pray you speak to 'em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. 
CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
[Exit MENENIUS.]
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here. 
FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to't. 
CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert. 
SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert? 
CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire. 
FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!
CORIOLANUS. No, sir, 'twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging. 
... 
CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?
When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It's interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:
You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates
... 
How shall this multitude digest
The senate's courtesy? Let deeds express
What's like to be their words:--'We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:'-- Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o' the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles. 
The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here's one of the tribunes:
BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to's power he would
Have made them mules, silenc'd their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.
In general, the tribunes' line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.

It's striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:
BRUTUS. You speak o' the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.

Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the  quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.
CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?

LARTIUS. He did, my lord.

CORIOLANUS. How? What?

LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call'd your vanquisher.

CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?

LARTIUS. At Antium.

CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
[Enter SICINIUS and BRUTUS.]
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o' the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.
The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction ("I wish I had cause to seek him there"); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.

The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes' urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city.  As he puts it, "the beast with many heads butts me away." It's interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh's Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of "Levellers" in England. What's interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)

After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand's D'Anconia, he imagines he'll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes' accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:
AUFIDIUS. ... the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city.  But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:
CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack'd heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov'd me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him...
As these lines suggest, the specific challenge Coriolanus faces here is denying the social ties that connect him to Rome -- denying that he owes anything to anyone, that he is in any way dependent, enmeshed in a web of social obligations. Or as he puts it:
... I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It's only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.

You think I'm reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:
Not of a woman's tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman's face to see.
And that's his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus' mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It's a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus' mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:
the honour'd mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
But he can't do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, "we are all members of one another." (I only discovered writing this post that it's a bible quote, from Romans.)

And that's it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then -- guiltily and a bit incongruously -- offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is
...the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.
(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the "dead" actors off the stage.)

So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various "most noble Roman" orations, right up to Aufidius' closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so ... except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.

Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:
COMINIUS: ... Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta'en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta'en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice. 
CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.
That's our boy, no loot for him. He's too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:
CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS: Take't; 'tis yours. What is't?

CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man's house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o'erwhelm'd my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS: O, well begg'd!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?

CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; 'tis time
It should be look'd to: come.

Exeunt
And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.

It's an amazing scene. I couldn't believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here's the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn't want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except ... he can't remember the fellow's name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let's go have some wine.

It's tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it's hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He's not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.



UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Michael Woodford on the Interdependence of Monetary and Fiscal Policy

(I started writing this post a couple weeks ago and gave up after it got unreasonably long. I don’t feel like finishing it, but rather than let it go to waste I’m putting it up as is. So be warned, it goes on for a long while and then just stops.)

I sat down and read the Michael Woodford article on monetary and fiscal policy I mentioned in the earlier post. It’s very interesting, both directly for what it says substantively, and indirectly for what it says about the modern consensus in economics.

(For those who don’t know, Michael Woodford is a central figure in mainstream New Keynsian macro. His book Interest and Prices is probably the most widely used New Keynesian macro text in top graduate programs.)

The argument of this article is that the question of what monetary policy rule is the best route to price stabilization, cannot be separated from what fiscal rule is followed by the budget authorities. Similarly, any target for the public debt cannot be reduced to a budget rule, but depends on the policy followed by the monetary authorities — though Woodford is not so interested in this side of the question.

This is not a new idea for readers of this blog. But it’s interesting to hear Woodford’s description of the orthodox view.
It is now widely accepted that the choice of monetary policy to achieve a target path of inflation can …, and ought, to be separated from .. the chice of fiscal policy.
Woodford rejects this view — he insists that fiscal policy matters for price stability, and monetary policy matters for the debt-GDP ratio. Most economists think that monetary policy is irrelevant for the debt-GDP ratio, he says,
because seignorage revenues are such a small fraction of total government revenues. … [This] neglects a more important channel … the effects of monetary policy upon the real value of outstanding government debt, through its effects on the price level and upon the real debt service required, … insofar as monetary policy can affect real as well as nominal rates.
There are two deeper issues in the background here, that help explain why orthodox economics ignores the importance of monetary policy for the debt ratio and fiscal policy for price stability. First is the idea, which we can trace from Wicksell through Hayek to Milton Friedman and on to today’s New Keynesians, that the “natural” interest rate in the sense of the interest rate consistent with price stability, must be the same as the “natural” interest rate in the sense of the Walrasian intertemporal rate that would exist in a frictionless, perfect-information economy that somehow corresponded to the economy that actually exists. Few economists are bold enough or naive enough to state this assumption explicitly, but it is fundamental to the project of reconciling orthodox monetary policy with a vision in which money is neutral in the long run. If you want the same interest rate to be “natural” in both senses, it’s a problem if the price-stability natural rate depends on something like fiscal policy, which is not reducible to tastes, technologies and endowments.

Second is the notion of the “long run” itself. For economists, this refers to a situation in which the endogenous variables have fully adjusted to the exogenous variables. This requires a clean (or anyway order-of-magnitude) separation between “fast” endogenous and “slow” exogenous variables; it also requires a sufficiently long time between disturbances.

Woodford, in the passage above, refers to the effects of changes in inflation and interest rates on the burden of the outstanding government debt. This is an important departure from orthodoxy, since in a true “long run” situation, debt would have fully adjusted to the prevailing interest and inflation rates. Woodford, in tune with the practical concerns of central bankers, rejects the ubiquitous methodological condition of modern macroeconomics, that we should only consider fully adjusted long run positions. His whole discussion of public debt, in this paper and elsewhere, rejects the usual working assumption that the existing levels of inflation and interest rates have prevailed since time immemorial. He explicitly analyzes changes in interest and inflation in the context of a historically given debt stock.

Woodford's attitude toward the “natural” rate is more complicated. He certainly doesn’t take it for granted that the price-stability and Walrasian “natural” rates are the same. But a big part of his project — in Interest and Prices in particular — is precisely to develop a model in which they do turn out to coincide.

Let’s continue with the paper. Most economists believe that:

“Fiscal policy is thought to be unimportant for inflation… [because] inflation is a purely monetary phenomenon,” or else because “insofar as consumers have rational expectations, fiscal policy should have no effect on aggregate demand.”

Woodford rejects both of these claims. Even if people are individually rational, the system as a whole can be “non-Ricardian.” By this he means that changes in government spending will not be offset one for one by changes in private spending. “This happens essentially through the effects of fiscal disturbances upon private sector budget constraints and hence on aggregate demand.” For this reason, “A central bank charged with maintaining price stability cannot be indifferent as to how fiscal policy is set.”

Traditionally, the orthodox view of inflation is that it is the result of the money supply growing at a different rate than real economic activity, the latter being independent of the money supply. This does allow for fiscal effects on the price level, but only insofar as public borrowing is monetized. In the familiar “fiscal dominance” scenario, the primary surplus or deficit is fixed by the budget authorities and if the implied issue of public debt is different from the desired holdings of the private sector, the central bank must finance the difference with seignorage. The resulting change in the money supply produces corresponding inflation.

As Woodford says, this is not a useful way of thinking about these issues in real economies, at least in developed countries like the United States. In reality, even when the central bank is subordinate to the budget authorities, as in wartime, this does not take the form of direct monetization of deficits. Rather, “fiscal dominance manifests itself through pressure on the central bank to use monetary policy to maintain the market value of government debt. A classic example is … U.S. monetary policy between 1942 and 1951. … Supporting the price of long-term [government] bonds seems to have been the central element of Fed policy through the late 1940s.” This policy did not affect the price level directly through the money supply, but rather because the target interest rate was too low during the war (although the resulting inflation did not show up until after 1945, due to price controls during the war itself), and too high during in 1948-1950, when the federal government was running large surpluses. In either case, Woodford emphasizes, the causality runs from interest rates, to the price level, to the money supply; the quantity of money plays no independent role.

The basic story Woodford wants to tell is the fiscal theory of the price level. If the stock of outstanding government bonds is greater than the public wants to hold at the prevailing interest rate, then the price of bonds should fall. Normally, this would mean an increase in rates. But if interest rates are pegged — or in other words, if the price of bonds relative to money is fixed — then the price of the whole complex of government liabilities falls. Which is another way of saying the price level rises. Another way of looking at this is that, if output is initially at potential and the volume of government debt rises  with no fall in its nominal price, this must
make households feel wealthier … and thus leads them to demand goods and services in excess of those the economy can supply. … Equilibrium is restored when prices rise to the point that the real value of nominal assets no longer exceeds the present value of expected future primary surpluses.
Of course, this begs the question of why government debt is voluntarily held at a positive price even when there is no reason to expect future primary surpluses. More broadly, it doesn’t explain why anyone wants to hold non-interest bearing government liabilities at all. Woodford could take a chartalist line, talk about tax obligations, but he doesn’t. But even then he'd haven’t of explained why people hold large stocks of government debt, which by definition is in excess of tax burden.  The natural answer is that government liabilities are a source of liquidity for the private sector. But if he says that, the rest of his argument is in trouble. First, if demand for government debt is about liquidity, then private actors should consider the terms on which other private actors will accept government liabilities. Second, if liquidity is valuable, then real outcomes will be different in a liquidity-abundant world than in a liquidity-scarce one. This is the fundamental problem with the idea that money is neutral. If money were truly neutral, in the sense that the exact same transactions happen in a world with money that would happen in a hypothetical moneyless world, then there would be no reason for money to be used at all.

Despite these serious logical problems, Woodford uses the orthodox apparatus to make some interesting points. For example, he argues that the reason the mid-century policy of fixing a nominal interest rate did not lead to price instability, was because of adjustments in the federal budget position. It is, he says, a puzzle how
a regime that … fixed nominal interest rates was consistent with relatively stable prices for so long. … According to the familiar Wicksellian view summarized by Friedman, an attempt to peg nominal interest rates should lead to either an inflationary or a deflationary spiral. … It is striking that people were willing to hold long-term Treasury securities at 2.5% during the temporary high inflation (25% annual rate) of 1946-1947; evidently there was little fear … [of] an explosive Wicksellian ‘cumulative process.’
Woodford is right that the consistency of fixed nominal interest rates with price stability even after the removal of wartime price controls is a problem for the simple Wicksell-monetarist view. Whether his preferred solution — an expectation of continued federal budget surpluses — is right, is a different question.

Turning to the other side, the dependence of the budget position on prevailing interest rates, Woodford gives an excellent critique of the prevailing notion of a government intertemporal budget constraint (ITBC), in which government spending must be adjusted so that the present value of future surpluses just equals today’s debt. It is widely believed, he says, that government must satisfy such a constraint, “just as in the case of households and firms. It would then follow that fiscal policy must necessarily be Ricardian,” that is, have no effect on the spending choices of rational, non-liquidity-constrained private actors. “It is true,” he continues, “that general equilibrium models always assume that households and firms optimize subject to a set of budget constraints that imply an intertemporal budget constraint, though they may be even more stringent (as it may not even be possible to borrow against all … future income.”

Note the careful phrasing: I’ve noticed this in Woodford’s other writing too, that he adopts rational expectations as a method without ever endorsing it as a positive claim about the world. Of course we shouldn’t talk about intertemporal budget constraints at all, it’s a meaningless concept for private as well as public borrowers, for reasons Woodford himself makes clear.

This is a nice part of the paper, Woodford’s treatment of the “transversality condition.” This, or the equivalent “no-Ponzi” condition, says that the debt of a government — or any other economic unit — must go to zero as time goes to infinity. The reason mainstream models require this condition is that they assume that in any given period, it is possible for anyone to borrow without limit at the prevailing interest rate. This invites the question: why not then consume an infinite amount forever with borrowed funds? The transversality condition says: You just can’t. It is still the case that at any moment, there is no limit on borrowing; but somehow or other, over infinite time net borrowing must come out to zero. This amounts to deal with the fact that one’s assumptions imply absurd conclusions by introducing another assumption, that absurd outcomes can’t happen. Woodford sees clearly that this does not offer a meaningful limit on fiscal policy:
What kind of constraint upon fiscal policy does this [theory] require? A mere commitment to “satisfy the transversality condition” is plainly unsuitable; this would place no constraints upon observable behavior over any finite time period, so that it is hard to see how the public should be convinced of the truth of such a commitment, in the absence of a commitment to some more specific constraint that happens to imply satisfaction of the transversality condition.
What Woodford doesn’t see, or at least doesn’t acknowledge, is that the transversality condition is equally meaningless as applied to private actors. Which means that you need some positive theory about what range of balance sheet positions are available in any given period — in other words a theory of liquidity. And, that the intertemporal budget constraint is meaningless, has no place in any positive economics.

But in any case, even if we accept the intertemporal budget constraint for private units, it is not applicable to sovereign governments since, (1) they are large relative to the economy and (2) they are not maximizing consumption. All that is needed is that someone ends up voluntarily holding the government’s debt. Even if the government is optimizing something, it is not doing so with respect to fixed prices — or fixed output, though Woodford never considers the possibility of unemployed real resources, a rather major limitation of all his work I’ve read.

Woodford notes, reasonably enough, that if the government issues more liabilities than the public wants to hold at the prevailing prices, then the price of government liabilities will fall; “but this is a condition for market equilibrium given the government’s policy, and not a precondition for the government to issue” new liabilities. In this respect, he suggests that the government is in the same position as a company that issues stock, or, more precisely, a company that repurchases shares rather than issuing dividends. (The formal argument that dividends and repurchases are interchangeable, for which Woodford cites Cochrane, is relevant for my “disgorge the cash” work.)
The advantage of this analogy [between the government a share-repurchasing corporation] is that it is clear in the stock case that the equation is an equilibrium condition that determines the share price, … and not a constraint on corporate policies. There is no requirement, enforced in financial markets, that the company generate earnings that validate whatever market valuation of its stock may happen to exist.
The government is different from the company only because prices happen to be “quoted in units of its liabilities.”

As a positive argument this is not useful, for two related reasons. First, it is still essentially a monetarist account of inflation, except with total government liabilities replacing “money.” And second, he deliberately leaves out any discussion of real effects of inflation. This means that he doesn’t give any explanation for price stability is important. More broadly, he doesn’t have any account of the inflation process that links up to real-world discussions. The article purports to be about a central bank following a Taylor rule, but the word “unemployment” does not occur in it. Nor does the word “liquidity”, inviting the question of why anyone holds money in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, this is a larger problem with the whole idea that money is neutral. In this case, Woodford suggests that one can fully explain inflation in a framework in which inflation is costless, and then introduce costs (to motivate policy) without the positive analysis being affected. Interest and Prices does not have this problem — it is carefully constructed precisely to ensure that conventional monetary policy is both welfare-optimizing, and produces an outcome identical to a Walrasian world without monetary frictions. But this isn’t general — the book’s central model is custom-designed to produce just that result.

The question raised by the article is: If both price stability and debt sustainability are functions of both the government budget and monetary policy, why do we have such a strong consensus in favor of stabilizing output solely via the interest rate, and adjusting the government budget position solely in view of the government debt? Woodford admits that in principle, price stability can be achieved in a “bond price-support regime” in which the government budget responds to shifts in private expenditure and the central bank is responsible only for interest payments on government debt. Formally, Woodford acknowledges, this type of regime should work just as well as the conventional “independent” central bank setup. The problem is that in practice
the nature of the legislative process in a democracy makes it unlikely that government budgets can subjected to the same degree of discipline as monetary policy actions. A nontrivial degree of random variation in the equilibrium price level would be inevitable under the price-support regime, both as a result of random disturbances to fiscal policy that could not be prevented, and as a result of inability to adjust fiscal policy with sufficient precision to offset the consequences of other real disturbances. 
There it is. The only argument for central bank independence is an argument against democracy. Woodford continues:
Controlling inflation through an interest-rate rule such as the Taylor rule represents a more practical alternative, both because it is more politically realistic to imagine monetary policy being subordinated wholly to this task, and because it is technically more feasible to “fine-tune” monetary policy actions as necessary to maintain consistency with stable prices.
The claim that interest rates can be adjusted more quickly than budgets is worth taking seriously. Though of course, one way of taking it seriously would be to contemplate arrangements under which taxes and spending could be adjusted more quickly. But look at the other point: The selling point of orthodoxy, says the pope of modern macroeconomics, is that policy can “subordinated wholly” to “controlling inflation.” Look at Europe today, and tell me they aren’t reaping what they sowed.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alvin Hansen on Monetary Policy

The more you read in the history of macroeconomics and monetary theory, the more you find that current debates are reprises of arguments from 50, 100 or 200 years ago.

I’ve just been reading Perry Mehrling’s The Money Interest and the Public Interest, which  is one of the two best books I know of on this subject. (The other is Arie Arnon’s Monetary Theory and Policy Since David Hume and Adam Smith.) About a third of the book is devoted to Alvin Hansen, and it inspired me to look up some of Hansen’s writings from the 1940s and 50s. I was especially struck by this 1955 article on monetary policy. It not only anticipates much of current discussions of monetary policy — quantitative easing, the maturity structure of public debt, the need for coordination between the fiscal and monetary policy, and more broadly, the limits of a single interest rate instrument as a tool of macroeconomic management — but mostly takes them for granted as starting points for its analysis. It’s hard not to feel that macro policy debates have regressed over the past 60 years.

The context of the argument is the Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord of 1951, following which the Fed was no longer committed to maintaining fixed rates on treasury bonds of various maturities. [1] The freeing of the Fed from the overriding responsibility of stabilizing the market for government debt, led to scholarly and political debates about the new role for monetary policy. In this article, Hansen is responding to several years of legislative debate on this question, most recently the 1954 Senate hearings which included testimony from the Treasury department, the Fed Board’s Open Market Committee, and the New York Fed.

Hansen begins by expressing relief that none of the testimony raised
the phony question whether or not the government securities market is "free." A central bank cannot perform its functions without powerfully affecting the prices of government securities.
He then expresses what he sees as the consensus view that it is the quantity of credit that is the main object of monetary policy, as opposed to either the quantity of money (a non-issue) or the price of credit (a real but secondary issue), that is, the interest rate.
Perhaps we could all agree that (however important other issues may be) control of the credit base is the gist of monetary management. Wise management, as I see it, should ensure adequate liquidity in the usual case, and moderate monetary restraint (employed in conjunction with other more powerful measures) when needed to check inflation. No doubt others, who see no danger in rather violent fluctuations in interest rates (entailing also violent fluctuations in capital values), would put it differently. But at any rate there is agreement, I take it, that the central bank should create a generous dose of liquidity when resources are not fully employed. From this standpoint the volume of reserves is of primary importance.
Given that the interest rate is alsoan object of policy, the question becomes, which interest rate?
The question has to be raised: where should the central bank enter the market -short-term only, or all along the gamut of maturities?
I don’t believe this is a question that economists asked much in the decades before the Great Recession. In most macro models I’m familiar with, there is simply “the interest rate,” with the implicit assumption that the whole rate structure moves together so it doesn’t matter which specific rate the monetary authority targets. For Hansen, by contrast, the structure of interest rates — the term and "risk” premiums — is just as natural an object for policy as the overall level of rates. And since there is no assumption that the whole structure moves together, it makes a difference which particular rate(s) the central bank targets. What’s even more striking is that Hansen not only believes that it matters which rate the central bank targets, he is taking part in a conversation where this belief is shared on all sides.
Obviously it would make little difference what maturities were purchased or sold if any change in the volume of reserve money influenced merely the level of interest rates, leaving the internal structure of rates unaffected. … In the controversy here under discussion, the Board leans toward the view that … new impulses in the short market transmit themselves rapidly to the longer maturities. The New York Reserve Bank officials, on the contrary, lean toward the view that the lags are important. If there were no lags whatever, it would make no difference what maturities were dealt in. But of course the Board does not hold that there are no lags.
Not even the most conservative pole of the 1950s debate goes as far as today's New Keynesian orthodoxy that monetary policy can be safely reduced to the setting of a single overnight interest rate.

The direct targeting of long rates is the essential innovation of so-called quantitative easing. [2] But to Hansen, the idea that interest rate policy should directly target long as well as short rates was obvious. More than that: As Hansen points out, the same point was made by Keynes 20 years earlier.
If the central bank limits itself to the short market, and if the lags are serious, the mere creation of large reserves may not lower the long-term rate. Keynes had this in mind when he wrote: "Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement that can be made in the technique of monetary management. . . . The monetary authority often tends in practice to concentrate upon short-term debts and to leave the price of long-term debts to be influenced by belated and imperfect re- actions from the price of short-term debts." ' Keynes, it should be added, wanted the central bank to deal not only in debts of all maturities, but also "to deal in debts of varying degrees of risk," i.e., high grade private securities and perhaps state and local issues.
That's a quote from The General Theory, with Hansen's gloss.

Fast-forward to 2014. Today we find Benjamin Friedman — one of the smartest and most interesting orthodox economists on these issues — arguing that the one great change in central bank practices in the wake of the Great Recession is intervention in a range of securities beyond the shortest-term government debt. As far as I can tell, he has no idea that this “profound” innovation in the practice of monetary policy was already proposed by Keynes in 1936. But then, as Friedman rightly notes, “Macroeconomics is a field in which theory lags behind experience and practice, not the other way around.”

Even more interesting, the importance of the rate structure as a tool of macroeconomic policy was recognized not only by the Federal Reserve, but by the Treasury in its management of debt issues. Hansen continues:
Monetary policy can operate on two planes: (1) controlling the credit base - the volume of reserve balances- and (2) changing the interest rate structure. The Federal Reserve has now backed away from the second. The Treasury emphasized in these hearings that this is its special bailiwick. It supports, so it asserts, the System's lead, by issuing short- terms or long-terms, as the case may be, according to whether the Federal Reserve is trying to expand or contract credit … it appears that we now have (whether by accident or design) a division of monetary management between the two agencies- a sort of informal cartel arrangement. The Federal Reserve limits itself to control of the volume of credit by operating exclusively in the short end of the market. The Treasury shifts from short-term to long-term issues when monetary restraint is called for, and back to short-term issues when expansion is desired.
This is amazing. It’s not that Keynesians like Hansen  propose that Treasury should issue longer or shorter debt based on macroeconomic conditions. Rather, it is taken for granted that it does choose maturities this way. And this is the conservative side in the debate, opposed to the side that says the central bank should manage the term structure directly.

Many Slackwire readers will have recently encountered the idea that the maturities of new debt should be evaluated as a kind of monetary policy. It's on offer as the latest evidence for the genius of Larry Summers. Proposing that Treasury should issue short or long term debt based on goals for the overall term structure of interest rates, and not just on minimizing federal borrowing costs, is the main point of Summers’ new Brookings paper, which has attracted its fair share of attention in the business press. No reader of that paper would guess that its big new idea was a commonplace of policy debates in the 1950s. [3]

Hansen goes on to raise some highly prescient concerns about the exaggerated claims being made for narrow monetary policy.
The Reserve authorities are far too eager to claim undue credit for the stability of prices which we have enjoyed since 1951. The position taken by the Board is not without danger, since Congress might well draw the conclusion that if monetary policy is indeed as powerful as indicated, nonmonetary measures [i.e. fiscal policy and price controls] are either unnecessary or may be drawn upon lightly.
This is indeed the conclusion that was drawn, more comprehensively than Hansen feared. The idea that setting an overnight interest rate is always sufficient to hold demand at the desired level has conquered the economics profession “as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain,” to coin a phrase. If you talk to a smart young macroeconomist today, you’ll find that the terms “aggregate demand was too low” and “the central bank set the interest rate too high” are used interchangeably. And if you ask, which interest rate?, they react the way a physicist might if you asked, the mass of which electron?

Faced with the argument that the inflation of the late 1940s, and price stability of the early 1950s, was due to bad and good interest rate policy respectively, Hansen offers an alternative view:
I am especially unhappy about the impli- cation that the price stability which we have enjoyed since February-March 1951 (and which everyone is justifiably happy about) could quite easily have been purchased for the entire postwar period (1945 to the present) had we only adopted the famous accord earlier …  The postwar cut in individual taxes and the removal of price, wage, and other controls in 1946 … did away once and for all with any really effective restraint on consumers. Under these circumstances the prevention of price inflation … [meant] restraint on investment. … Is it really credible that a drastic curtailment of investment would have been tolerated any more than the continuation of wartime taxation and controls? … In the final analysis, of course,  the then prevailing excess of demand was confronted with a limited supply of productive resources.
Inflation always comes down to this mismatch between “demand,” i.e. desired expenditure, and productive capacity.

Now we might say in response to such mismatches: Well, attempts to purchase more than we can produce will encourage increased capacity, and inflation is just a temporary transitional cost. Alternatively, we might seek to limit spending in various ways. In this second case, there is no difference of principle between an engineered rise in the interest rate, and direct controls on prices or spending. It is just a question of which particular categories of spending you want to hold down.

The point: Eighty years ago, Keynes suggested that what today is called quantitative easing should be a routine tool of monetary policy. Sixty years ago, Alvin Hansen believed that this insight had been accepted by all sides in macroeconomic debates, and that the importance of the term structure for macroeconomic activity guided the debt-issuance policies of Treasury as well as the market interventions of the Federal Reserve. Today, these seem like new discoveries. As the man says, the history of macroeconomics is mostly a great forgetting.


[1] I was surprised by how minimal the Wikipedia entry is. One of these days, I am going to start having students improve economics Wikipedia pages as a class assignment.

[2] What is “quantitative about this policy is that the Fed buys a a quantity of bonds, evidently in the hopes of forcing their price up, but does not announce an explicit target for the price. On the face of it, this is a strangely inefficient way to go about things. If the Fed announced a target for, say, 10-year Treasury bonds, it would have to buy far fewer of them — maybe none — since market expectations would do more of the work of moving the price. Why the Fed has hobbled itself in this way is a topic for another post.

[3] I am not the world’s biggest Larry Summers fan, to say the least. But I worry I’m giving him too hard a time in this case. Even if the argument of the paper is less original than its made out to be, it’s still correct, it’s still important, and it’s still missing from today’s policy debates. He and his coauthors have made a real contribution here. I also appreciate the Hansenian spirit in which Summers derides his opponents as "central bank independence freaks."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Dressmaker

An interesting fact about the world we live in is that, for all the talk about robots replacing human labor, every item of clothing you own was made by a human being sitting at a sewing machine. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea of a robot revolution is, like most science fiction fantasies, simply a literalization of a current social fact -- in this case, the disappearance of manual workers from the social world of rich Westerners. Everyone who writes about the Star Trek future works in a building where living people empty the trash cans and scrub the toilets; but since they are never required to treat those people as human beings, they might as well be robots. In some cases I would go a step further, and say the robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all.

Robot fantasies are everywhere. Much rarer is work that reveals the human hands behind the commodities. I'm a big fan of David Redmon's Mardi Gras: Made in China. Especially striking in that movie is the contrast between the way the American importer of mardis gras beads talks about the Chinese workers who produce them, and the way the factory manager in China does. In the imagination of the importer, the Chinese workers are antlike automatons, with no desire except for labor. The factory has a high fence around it, he explains, in order to keep out all the eager workers who would otherwise sneak in to join the assembly line. For the manager, on the other hand, discipline is the overriding problem. He says he only hires young women because they are more obedient, but even so they are constantly refusing to comply with his orders, distracted by friendships and love affairs, sneaking out of their dormitories. They must be punished often and harshly, he says, otherwise they won't work. The change in perspective once you pass that sign that says "No admittance except on business" is no different than 150 years ago.

I don't know of any similar tracing of the path of an ordinary piece of clothing from the shopfloor to the display racks, though there must be some. But I just read a nice piece by Roberto Saviano on the origins of one extraordinary piece of clothing, in a sweatshop in southern Italy. Here's an excerpt -- it's a bit long but worth reading.

From Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano:

The workers, men and women, came up to toast the new contract. They faced a grueling schedule: first shift from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an hour’s break to eat, second shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The women were wearing makeup and earrings, and aprons to protect their clothes from the glue, dust, and machine grease. Like Superman, who takes off his shirt and reveals his blue costume underneath, they were ready to go out to dinner as soon as they removed their aprons. The men were sloppier, in sweatshirts and work pants. ...

One of the winning contractor’s workers was particularly skilled: Pasquale. A lanky figure, tall, slim, and a bit hunchbacked; his frame curved behind his neck onto his shoulders, a bit like a hook. The stylists sent designs directly to him, articles intended for his hands only. His salary didn’t fluctuate, but his tasks varied, and he some how conveyed an air of satisfaction. I liked him immediately, the moment I caught sight of his big nose. Even though he was still young, Pasquale had the face of an old man. A face that was constantly buried in fabric, fingertips that ran along seams. Pasquale was one of the only workers who could buy fabric direct. Some brandname houses even trusted him to order materials directly from China and inspect the quality himself. ...

Pasquale and I became close. He was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores; it was impossible even to go for a stroll with him because he’d plant himself in front of every shop window and criticize the cut of a jacket or feel ashamed for the tailor who’d designed such a skirt. He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the exact number of washings before the fabric would start to sag. Pasquale initiated me into the complicated world of textiles. I even started going to his home. His family—his wife and three children—made me happy. They were always busy without ever being frenetic.

That evening the smaller children were running around the house barefoot as usual, but without making a racket. Pasquale had turned on the television and was flipping channels, but all of a sudden he froze. He squinted at the screen, as if he were nearsighted, though he could see perfectly well. No one was talking, but the silence became more intense. His wife, Luisa, must have sensed something because she went over to “the television and clasped her hand over her mouth, as if she’d just witnessed something terrible and were holding back a scream. On TV Angelina Jolie was treading the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in a gorgeous garment. One of those custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars. An outfit that Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano. All they’d said to him was “This one’s going to America.” Pasquale had worked on hundreds of outfits going to America, but that white suit was something else. He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hands inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind—not an erotic figure but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric. They’d commissioned three suits from him, without saying anything else. They knew whom they were for, but no one had told Pasquale.

In Japan the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had had a state reception given in his honor. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, pages that spoke of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance. Pasquale was filled with rage, a rage that it’s impossible to express. And yet satisfaction is a right, and merit deserves recognition. Deep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so. He knew he deserved something more. But no one had said a word to him. He’d discovered it by accident, by mistake. His rage was an end in itself, justified but pointless. He couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning. He couldn’t say, “I made that suit.” No one would have believed that Angelina Jolie would go to the Academy Awards wearing an outfit made in Arzano, by Pasquale. The best and the worst. Millions of dollars and 600 euros a month. Neither Angelina Jolie nor the designer could have known. When everything possible has been done, when talent, skill, ability, and commitment are fused in a single act, when all this isn’t enough to change anything, then you just want to lie down, stretch out on nothing, in nothing. To vanish slowly, let the minutes wash over you, sink into them as if they were quicksand. To do nothing but breathe. Besides, nothing will change things, not even an outfit for Angelina Jolie at the Oscars.

Pasquale left the house without even bothering to shut the door. Luisa knew where he was going; she knew he was headed to Secondigliano and whom he was going to see. She threw herself on the couch and buried her face in a pillow like a child. I don’t know why, but when Luisa started to cry, it made me think of a poem by Vittorio Bodini. Lines that tell of the strategies southern Italian peasants used to keep from becoming soldiers, to avoid going off to fill the trenches of World War I in defense of borders they knew nothing of.

At the time of the other war, 
peasants and smugglers
put tobacco leaves under their arms
to make themselves ill.
The artificial fevers, the supposed malaria
that made their bodies tremble and their teeth rattle
were their verdict
on governments and history.

That’s how Luisa’s weeping seemed to me—a verdict on government and history. Not a lament for a satisfaction that went uncelebrated. It seemed to me an amended chapter of Marx’s Capital, a paragraph added to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a new sentence in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a note in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A page added or removed, a forgotten page that never got written or that perhaps was written many times over but never recorded on paper. Not a desperate act but an analysis. Severe, detailed, precise, reasoned. I imagined Pasquale in the street, stomping his feet as if knocking snow from his “boots. Like a child who is surprised to discover that life has to be so painful. He’d managed up till then. Managed to hold himself back, to do his job, to want to do it. And do it better than anyone else. But the minute he saw that outfit, saw that body moving inside the very fabric he’d caressed, he felt alone, all alone. Because when you know something only within the confines of your own flesh and blood, it’s as if you don’t really know it. And when work is only about staying afloat, surviving, when it’s merely an end in itself, it becomes the worst kind of loneliness.

I saw Pasquale two months later. They’d put him on truck detail. He hauled all sorts of stuff—legal and illegal—for the Licciardi family businesses. Or at least that’s what they said. The best tailor in the world was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda. He asked me to lunch and gave me a ride in his enormous vehicle. His hands were red, his knuckles split. As with every truck driver who grips a steering wheel for hours, his hands freeze up and his circulation is bad. His expression was troubled; he’d chosen the job out of spite, out of spite for his destiny, a kick in the ass of his life. But you can’t tolerate things indefinitely, even if walking away means you’re worse off. During lunch he got up to go say hello to some of his accomplices, leaving his wallet on the table. A folded-up page from a newspaper fell out. I opened it. It was a photograph, a cover shot of Angelina Jolie dressed in white. She was wearing the suit Pasquale had made, the jacket caressing her bare skin. You need talent to dress skin without hiding it; the fabric has to follow the body, has to be designed to trace its movements.

I’m sure that every once in a while, when he’s alone, maybe when he’s finished eating, when the children have fallen asleep on the couch, worn-out from playing, while his wife is talking on the phone with her mother before starting on the dishes, right at that moment Pasquale opens his wallet and stares at that newspaper photo.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of Dumenil and Levy

The new issue of Rethinking Marxism has my review of The Crisis of Neoliberalism by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy. Since RM is paywalled -- a topic for another day -- I'm putting the full text here.

Incidentally, I do recommend the book, but I would suggest just reading chapters 3-6, where the core arguments are developed, and then skipping to the final three chapters, 23-25.  The intervening material is narrowly focused on the 2008-2009 financial crisis and is of less interest today.

* * *

Historical turning points aren't usually visible until well after the fact. But the period of financial and economic turmoil that began in 2008 may be one of the rare exceptions. If capitalism historically has evolved through a series of distinct regimes -- from competition to monopoly in the late 19th century, to a regulated capitalism after World War II and then to neoliberalism after the crises of the 1970s, then 2008 may mark the beginning of another sharp turn.

That, anyway, is the central claim of The Crisis of Neoliberalism, by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy (hereafter D&L). The book brings together a great deal of material, broadly grouped under two heads. First is an argument about the sociology of  capitalism, hinging on the relationship between capitalists in the strict sense and the managerial class. And second is an account of the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. A concluding survey of possibilities for the post-neoliberal world unites the two strands.

For D&L, the key to understanding the transformations of capitalism over the past hundred years lies in the sociology of the capitalist class. With the rise of the modern corporation at the turn of the 20th century, it became more problematic to follow Marx in treating the capitalist as simply the "personification of capital." While the logic of capital is the same -- it remains, in their preferred formulation, "value in a movement of self-expansion" -- distinct groups of human beings now stand at different points in that process. In particular, "the emergence of a bourgeois class more or less separated from the enterprise" (13) created a new sociological gulf between the ownership of capital and the management of production.

Bridging this gulf was a new social actor, Finance. While banks and other financial institutions predate industrial capitalism, they now took on an important new role: representation of the capitalist class vis-a-vis corporate management, a function not needed when ownership and management were united in the same person. "Financial institutions," D&L write, "are an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class as a whole in the domination they exercise over the entire economy." (57) This gives finance a dual character, as on the one hand one industry among others providing a particular good (intermediation, liquidity, etc.) but also as, on the other hand, the enforcers or administrators who ensure that industry as a whole remains organized according to the logic of profit.

The stringency of this enforcement varies over time. For D&L, the pre-Depression and post-Volcker eras are two periods of "financial hegemony," in which holders of financial claims actively intervened in the governance of nonfinancial firms, compelling mergers of industrial companies in the first period, and engineering leveraged buyouts and takeovers in the second. By contrast, the postwar period was one of relative autonomy for the managerial class, with the owners of capital accepting a relatively passive role. One way to think of it is that since capital is a process, its expression as an active subject can occur at different moments of that process. Under financial hegemony, the political and sociological projections of capital emanated mostly from the M moment, but in the mid-century more from C-C'. Concretely, this means firms pursued objectives like growth, technical efficiency, market share or technological advance rather than (or in addition to) profit maximization – this is the "soulful corporation" of Galbraith or Chandler. Unlike those writers, however, D&L see this corporation-as-polis, balancing the interests of its various stakeholders under the steady hand of technocratic management, as neither the result of a natural evolution nor a normative ideal; instead, it's a specific political-economic configuration that existed under certain historical conditions. In particular, managerial capitalism was the result of both the crisis of the previous period of financial hegemony and, crucially, of the mobilization of the popular classes, which opened up space for the top managers to pursue a strategy of "compromise to the left" while continuing to pay the necessary tribute to "the big capitalist families."

Those families -- the owners of capital, in the form of financial assets -- were willing to accept a relatively passive role as long as the tribute flowed. But the fall in the profit rate in the 1970s forced the owners to recohere as a class for themselves. Their most important project was, of course, the attack on labor, in which capital and management were united. But a second, less visible fight was the capitalists' attack on the managers, with finance as their weapon. The wave of corporate takeovers, buyouts and restructurings of the 1980s was not just a normal competitive push for efficiencies, nor was it the work of a few freebooting pirates and swindlers. As theorized by people like Michael Jensen, it was a self-conscious project to reorient management's goals from the survival and growth of the firm, to "shareholder value”. In this, it succeeded – first by bullying and bludgeoning recalcitrant managers, then by incorporating their top tier into the capitalist class. "During the 1980s the disciplinary aspect of the new relationship between the capitalist and managerial classes was dominant," write D&L, but "after 2000, ... managers had become a pillar of Finance." (84) Today, the "financial facet of management tends to overwhelmingly dominate” and "a process of 'hybridization' or merger is under way." (85)

These are not entirely new ideas. D&L cite Veblen, certainly one of the first to critically investigate the separation of management and control, and to observe that the "importance of securities in ownership of the means of production [gives] ... the capitalist class a strong financial character." But they make no mention of the important debates on these issues among Marxists in the 1970s, especially Fitch and Oppenheimer's Socialist Revolution articles on "Who Rules the Corporations?" and David Kotz's Bank Control of Large Corporations in the United States. Most glaringly, they fail to cite Doug Henwood's Wall Street, whose Chapter 6 gives a strikingly similar account of the revolt of the rentiers, and which remains the best guide to relations between finance and nonfinancial businesses within a broad Marxist framework. While Henwood shares the same basic analysis as The Crisis of Neoliberalism, he backs it up with a wealth of concrete examples and careful attention to the language of the financiers and their apologists. D&L, by contrast, despite their welcome interest in the sociology of the capitalist class, never descend from a high level of abstraction. D&L would have advanced the conversation more if they had tried to build on the contributions of Fitch and Oppenheimer, Kotz, and Henwood, instead of reinventing them.

Still, it's an immensely valuable book. Both mainstream economists and Marxists often imbue capitalist firms with a false homogeneity, as if the pursuit of profit was just a natural fact or imposed straightforwardly by competition. D&L offer an important corrective, that firms (and social life in general) are only kept subordinate to the self-expansion of value through active, ongoing efforts to enforce and universalize financial criteria.

The last third of the book is an account of the global financial crisis of the past five years. Much of the specifics will be familiar to readers of the business press, but the central argument makes sense only in light of the earlier chapters: that the ultimate source of the crisis was precisely the success of the reestablishment of financial hegemony. In particular, deregulation -- especially the freeing of cross-border capital flows -- weakened the tools states had previously used to keep the growth of financial claims in line with the productive capacity of the economy. (It's an irony of history that the cult of central banking "maestros" reached its height at the point when they had lost most of their real power.) Meanwhile, increased payouts to shareholders and other financial claimants starved firms of funds for accumulation. A corollary of this second point is that the crisis was characterized by underaccumulation rather than by underconsumption. The underlying demand problem wasn't insufficient funds flowing to workers for consumption -- the rich consume plenty -- but insufficient funds remaining within corporations for the purpose of investment. Just as investment suffered at the end of the postwar boom when the surplus available to capitalist firms was squeezed from below by rising wage claims, it suffered in the past decade when that surplus was squeezed from above by the claims of rentiers. So higher wages might only have made the crisis worse. This argument needs to be taken seriously, unpalatable though it may be. We need to avoid the theodicy of liberal economists, in which the conditions of social justice and the conditions of steady accumulation are always the same.

The Crisis of Neoliberalism is not the last word on the crisis, but it is one of the more convincing efforts to situate it in the longer-term trajectory of capitalism. The most likely outcome of the crisis, they suggest, is a shift in the locus of power back toward managers. Profit maximization will again be subordinated to other objectives. The maintenance of US hegemony will require a "reterritorialization" of production, which will inevitably weaken the position of fincance. There is an inherent conflict between a reassertion of state authority and the borderless class constituted by ownership of financial claims. But there is no such conflict between the interests of particular states, and the class constituted by authority within particular firms. "This is an important factor ... strengthening of the comparative position of nonfinancial managers."

Are we starting to see the dethroning of Finance, a return to the soulful corporation, and a retreat from the universalizing logic of profit? It's too soon to tell. It's interesting, though, to see Michael Jensen, the master theorist of the shareholder revolution, sounding a more soulful note. Shareholder value, he recently told The New Yorker, "is the score that shows up on the scoreboard. It's not the objective... Your life can't just be about you, or your life will be shit. You see that on Wall Street." That  business serves a higher calling than Wall Street, is the first item in the managerialist catechism.  We might look at Occupy Wall Street and the growing movement against student debt in the same light: By singling out as the enemy those elites whose power takes directly financial form, they implicitly legitimate power more linked to control of the production process. Strange to think that a movement of anarchists could be heralding a return to power of corporate management. But history can be funny that way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Functional Finance in Rome and Kansas City

Arjun and I have continued to work on our project on fiscal and monetary policy, which develops the simple -- but strangely overlooked [1] -- point that both the level of output and the trajectory of the public debt-GDP ratio are jointly determined by both the government budget balance and the interest rate set by the monetary authority. (An early stage in our thinking on this was the subject of a post on this blog last year.) Part of our argument is that the fiscal space metaphor is backward -- that the case for countercyclical fiscal policy gets stronger, not weaker, when debt ratios are already high. I'm hoping there will be a working paper version of this soon. But in the meantime, the work is getting presented at various places -- by me at the Eastern Economic Association this past spring, by both of us at the International Economics Association in June, by Arjun at an OECD conference in Rome earlier this week, and by me at the University of Missouri at Kansas City tomorrow. If you're interested, here are our current slides.


[1] This paper by Michael Woodford, which I haven't yet had time to read properly, seems to have a similar starting point but ends up somewhere quite different.

Liza Featherstone on Focus Groups

Yesterday, we at the John Jay Economics Department hosted my friend Liza Featherstone, author of Students Against Sweatshops and Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers Rights at Wal Mart, for a talk about her new book, on the history and politics of focus groups. (That's me introducing her.)




The whole thing is worth watching. As with so many institutions, the history of the focus group has interesting twists and turns that you wouldn't guess just from its current state. I hadn't realized, for example, that the focus group originated -- like so many technologies -- in the US war effort of the 1940s. The first focus groups, apparently, were convened to improve the quality of radio propaganda. Only later was the technique adopted by commercial advertising, before migrating into the electoral arena in the 1980s and 1990s.

The most interesting part, though -- for met at least -- is the end, where Liza talks about the funny parallels between focus groups and the kind of consensus decision making practiced by mass movements like Occupy. (And by popular movements at least back to the 18th century, for that matter.) In contrast to surveys, polls and elections, focus groups and assemblies do not assume that people enter the process with well-formed views that just have to be registered and tallied. Instead, they assume that people's true views only emerge in a process of active exchange with others.

The classic example in the marketing context is New Coke. In blind tests, clear majorities preferred the new flavor, but in a setting where the two cokes were discussed, people were somehow convinced that they preferred the old flavor after all. Apparently focus groups sponsors often complain in cases like this that one strong personality bullies everyone else. But isn't that how people's choices get shaped in the rest of life too?

Is it better to keep our private views intact? There's a view that instability in asset markets arises precisely because people allow their views to be shaped by interaction with others -- herd behavior, the madness of crowds. To have efficient asset markets, it's important that people trade on their private information. We use secret ballots in elections and some people even consider it rude to ask who you are voting for. Too much discussion corrupts the process of aggregating up private beliefs. More generally, there's a sense that the way our ideas change in contact with others can be a problem, and that we may need to protect our authentic selves from social pressures.
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on -- in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It's clear you're not the virtuous sort. 
Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.
That's Larkin, who would not have had much time for either focus groups or general assemblies.

Meanwhile, on the other side, along with the focus groups we have 12-step groups, psychoanalysis, the self-criticism practiced in some revolutionary groups. All of these elevate the process of communication itself as the source of beliefs and desires, as opposed to the liberal idea that we first come into possession of these individually and then act on them or communicate them.

What do we make of this similarity? The negative answer is that focus-group politics have displaced more effective forms of political organization on the left as well as in the mainstream. People have come to feel that communication is an end in itself -- that the important thing is to have your voice heard, and only incidentally to exercise power. (Liza shared a rather depressing anecdote after the talk, about a union staffer who said that it was impossible to get members to come to meetings by saying there would be an important vote, but they would come if you told them they'd be taking part in a focus group.) Of course even this way of looking at things isn't entirely negative -- people do need to get their voices heard, especially people without the privileges that make it easy to be listened to.

But there's another way to look at these parallels. Maybe the marketers, in their desperation to "catapult the propaganda" (in the words of one of our most focus-grouped, and focus group-deriding, politicians) have stumbled on a truth about human nature that the left has always known. We are not monads, with a fixed set of preferences. As Liza says in the talk, human beings are profoundly social creatures -- our selves don't exist in isolation from others. (This is why solitary confinement is a form of torture.) Capitalism is intolerable but it has, historically, produced genuine progress in science and technology, and there's a sense in which focus groups could be an example. It's grotesque that this insight -- that people's beliefs and desires only emerge in exchange with others -- has been mainly used to sell soft drinks and candidates. But it's a real insight nonetheless.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:
Let's suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI? 
Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.
This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it's a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don't have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it's an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn't to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people's capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market -- incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say -- is the important thing, so we'd always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it's on more or less "even" terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn't we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there's some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn't want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn't want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There's a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what's most likely to make this surgery successful and not what's most likely to make him money. (And we don't think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide -- so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they're focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you're left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you've given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn't work. If the nightwatchman won't do what's right because it is right, you can't have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn't give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn't give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn't form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together -- they have the PTA, to begin with -- than the same number of voucher recipients are.