Posts Tagged ‘Gerald Friedman’

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Mark Tansey, “The Myth of Depth” (1984)

The original title of this post was, “What do liberal economists want?”

So, what is it they want? According to their public pronouncements, not a whole helluva lot.

The liberal mainstream economists who have been attacking Bernie Sanders’s proposals and Gerald Friedman’s analysis of those proposals have acknowledged they actually support some of Sanders’s proposals.

Like what? Well, Christina D. Romer and David H. Romer (pdf) “enthusiastically support. . .greater public investment in infrastructure and education.” And Paul Krugman, for his part, makes the case for more public construction.

That’s pretty much it.

The fact is, the arrogant liberal response to Sanders and Friedman carried out in the name of “responsible arithmetic,” which has created an “illusion of consensus,” has been been both timid (in terms of actual policies) and shallow (in terms of what it focuses on).

Liberals always want more public investment in infrastructure and education, because everyone wins—and no hard choices need to be made.

At the same time, they claim they’re the only ones doing the hard, deep economic analysis. But their methods and models only serve to make invisible what is really going in the economy, just below the surface.

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Take the recent kerfuffle about Friedman’s analysis (pdf). The attack by liberal mainstream economists has been all about the amount and level of economic growth—nothing at all about the kind of growth. And that, in the end, is what Sanders’s proposals and Friedman’s analysis are really focused on.

As everyone knows, the growth we’ve seen in recent decades—both before and after the Great Recession, has benefitted only a tiny group at the top. The incomes of everyone else have either stagnated or fallen further and further behind.

And what about going forward? Unless there’s a fundamental reorientation in the way the economy is organized, more growth—even with more public investment in infrastructure and education—will continue to benefit only the small group at the top of the heap.

What liberal mainstream economists don’t see—and don’t want the rest of us to wrap our heads and hearts around—is that growth, by itself, has only a small effect on incomes for poor and working Americans. It doesn’t raise wages, it doesn’t reduce poverty, and it doesn’t close the gap between productivity and wages. Not in any significant fashion. And it will probably make the distribution of income even more unequal than it is now.

That’s why increasing numbers of people have become disenchanted with the “liberal fantasy” and have begun to look elsewhere—below the surface—to ask new questions about how the economy is currently organized and how it might be reorganized to actually benefit poor and working people.

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A week ago, I noted the pushback against liberal mainstream economists’ attacks on Bernie Sanders’s plans and Gerald Friedman’s analysis of those plans.

The first set of attacks, as Bill Black explained, plumbed “new depths of moral obtuseness, arrogance, and intellectual dishonesty.”

More recently, Christina D. Romer and David H. Romer (pdf) have responded with a more detailed critique of Friedman’s calculations, which has led to additional gloating by Paul Krugman and more publicity to only one side of the debate in the pages of the New York Times.

But, fortunately, that didn’t end the debate.

James K. Galbraith reminded us that “all forecasting models embody theoretical views.”

All involve making assumptions about the shape of the world, and about those features, which can, and cannot, safely be neglected. This is true of the models the Romers favor, as well as of Professor Friedman’s, as it would be true of mine. So each model deserves to be scrutinized.

In the case of the models favored by the Romers, we have the experience of forecasting from the outset of the Great Financial Crisis, which was marked by a famous exercise in early 2009 known as the Romer-Bernstein forecast. According to this forecast (a) the economy would have recovered on its own, in full and with no assistance from government, by 2014, (b) the only effect of the entire stimulus package would be to accelerate the date of full recovery by about six months, and (c) by 2016, the economy would actually be performing worse than if there had been no stimulus at all, since the greater “burden” of the government debt would push up interest rates and depress business investment relative to the full employment level.

It’s fair to say that this forecast was not borne out: the economy did not fully recover even with the ARRA, and there is no sign of “crowding out,” even now. The idea that the economy is now worse off than it would have been without any Obama program is, to most people, I imagine, quite strange. These facts should prompt a careful look at the modeling strategy that the Romers espouse.

Mark Thoma, for his part, argues that, while he does not believe that “we can sustain 5% growth over the next eight years. In the short-run—over the next two to four years—the situation is different.”

I’m worried people will accept without question that the gap is small due to the pushback against Friedman’s analysis of the Sander’s plan, and that will justify policy passivity when we need just the opposite. So let’s stop arguing, put the policies we need in place, and push as hard as we can to increase employment until inflation reveals that we have, in fact, hit capacity constraints. Maybe that happens quickly, but maybe not and we owe it to those who remain unemployed, have dropped out of the labor force but would return, or took a job with lousy wages to try. People who had nothing to do with causing the recession have paid the costs for it, and if we experience a short bout of above target inflation I can live with that. We’ve been wrong about this before in the 1990s, and we may very well be wrong about this again.

Finally, there’s a much more mainstream supporter of the idea that it’s not technologically impossible to imagine “materially super-normal rates of growth in the coming four years”: former Minneapolis Federal Reserve President and University of Rochester economist Narayana Kocherlakota. His view is that “given current economic circumstances, demand-based stimulus is likely to be more effective than supply-based stimulus.”

Why? Because, as Kocherlakota explained elsewhere, labor’s share remains extremely low by historical standards. So, faster growth would serve to push the share of income going to labor back to their historical (pre-1990) ranges and thus boost economic growth above the so-called consensus among economists.

And that’s exactly the basis of Bernie Sanders’s economic plans and Friedman’s analysis : raising labor’s share via redistributive measures is a spur to faster economic growth and encouraging unemployed and underemployed workers to take decent, better-paying jobs will sustain those faster rates of economic growth.

As I’ve written before, that’s not so much a forecast of what will happen as a mirror that demonstrates how diminished are the expectations created by contemporary capitalism and the policies that continue to be put forward by liberal mainstream economists.

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Economists and economic commentators have started to push back against the attacks of liberal mainstream economists on Bernie Sanders’s economic proposals and the analysis of the consequences of those proposals by Gerald Friedman.

Here’s a quick rundown:

Matthew Klein notes that the “supposedly ‘extreme’ and ‘unsupportable’ forecast” that was part of Friedman’s analysis merely “implies American output will return to its previous trend just as Sanders would be finishing up his second term, in the third quarter of 2024.”

we have no insight into the macroeconomic effects of Sanders’s entire programme, which has lots of moving parts and would not just affect things like the quantity of infrastructure investment and the distribution of income, but also the incentives to work and take risks. Our point is a simple one: a prolonged period of rapid growth in the US is plausible, with the right policy mix. The burden of proof should be on those who say otherwise.

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David Dayen makes much the same point (that Friedman’s “economic growth numbers would simply eliminate the GDP gap that was created by the Great Recession and was never filled in the subsequent years of slow growth”) and then notes that the growth projections of some of the liberal critics (such as Laura Tyson, Christina Romer, Austan Goolsbee, and Alan Krueger) were themselves far off the mark.

Economist Jamie Galbraith (pdf), who was Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee in 1981-82, agrees that “skepticism about standard forecasting methods is perfectly reasonable” but then observes that Friedman’s methods are actually pretty mainstream.

It is not fair or honest to claim that Professor Friedman’s methods are extreme. On the contrary, with respect to forecasting method, they are largely mainstream. Nor is it fair or honest to imply that you have given Professor Friedman’s paper a rigorous review. You have not.

What you have done, is to light a fire under Paul Krugman, who is now using his high perch to airily dismiss the Friedman paper as “nonsense.” Paul is an immensely powerful figure, and many people rely on him for careful assessments. It seems clear that he has made no such assessment in this case. . .

Let’s turn, finally, to the serious question. What does the Friedman paper really show? The answer is quite simple, and the exercise is – while not perfect – almost entirely ordinary.

What the Friedman paper shows, is that under conventional assumptions, the projected impact of Senator Sanders’ proposals stems from their scale and ambition. When you dare to do big things, big results should be expected. The Sanders program is big, and when you run it through a standard model, you get a big result.

Finally, economist Joshua Mason makes five main points about Friedman’s analysis of of the results one might expect from Sanders’s programs.

First, conventional wisdom in economics is that an exceptionally deep recession should be followed by a period of exceptionally strong growth. Second, the growth in output and employment implied by the paper are more or less what is required to return to the pre-recession trend. Third, discussions of macroeconomic policy in other contexts imply the possibility of growth qualitatively similar to what Jerry describes. Fourth, it is not necessarily the case that the employment Jerry projects would exceed full employment in any meaningful sense. Fifth, if you don’t believe a growth performance at this level is possible, that implies a sharp slowdown in potential output, for which you need a credible story.

In Mason’s view, the fifth point is the most important. And the bottom line is this:

Ten years ago, the CBO expected GDP to be $20.5 trillion (correcting for inflation) as of the end of 2015. Today, it is $18.1, trillion, or about 12 percent lower. Similarly, the employment-population ratio fell by 5 points during the recession (from 63.4 to 58.4 percent) and has risen by only one point during the past six years of recovery. Either these facts — unprecedented in the postwar period — reflect a shortfall of effective demand, or they don’t. If they do reflect a lack of demand, then there is no reason the expanded pubic spending and downward redistribution that Sanders proposes cannot close the gap, with a period of high growth while output and employment return to trend. (The fact that such high growth hasn’t been seen in the postwar period is neither here nor there, since there also has been no comparable deviation from trend.) Alternatively, you may think that the shortfall relative to previous growth rates reflects a decline in potential output. But then you need to offer some explanation of why the growth of the economy’s productive capacity slowed so abruptly, and you need to apply this belief consistently. I think it’s more reasonable to believe that the gaps in output and employment reflect a demand shortfall. In which case, the Sanders plan could in principle have the kind of results Friedman describes.

As for myself, I believe there is a debate worth having—which, alas, the liberal mainstream critics are attempting to shut down.

If however we let that debate unfold, it will show that contemporary capitalism produces a grotesquely unequal distribution of income, a crumbling physical and social infrastructure, inadequate healthcare, heavily indebted college students, a Too Big to Fail financial sector that threatens another collapse, and slow rates of growth that simply cannot employ the U.S. working-age population.

All that Sanders’s proposals and Friedman’s analysis demonstrate is how far we’ve fallen and what it would take for the United States to reverse those disturbing trends.

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They’re often referred to in the major media, like the New York Times, as “left-leaning economists.” Although, as Doug Henwood observes, “So slight is their leftward lean that it would require very sensitive equipment to measure.”

So, I’ll just refer to them as liberal mainstream economists, who with colorful language and little in the way of an alternative analysis, have taken to attacking Bernie Sanders and one of his economic advisers, Gerald Friedman.

The language is over the top: Sanders’s proposals are various referred to as “puppies and rainbows” (ramped up to “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars”) and “unicorns.”

And, aside from one careful, critical study of Sanders’s healthcare plan (by Kenneth Thorpe), there’s nothing in the way of an alternative analysis.

All liberal mainstream economists (like Alan Krueger, Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, and Laura D’Andrea Tysonthink they have to do is put their signatures to “An Open Letter from Past CEA Chairs to Senator Sanders and Professor Gerald Friedman” and assert, in the name of “responsible arithmetic,” that the Sanders campaign is citing “extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan.”

What we’re witnessing is an extraordinary spectacle of all the elements of “liberal ideology“—including, when all else fails, the ultimate threat: a campaign that dare steps outside the liberal mainstream and, thus, “is well on its way to making Donald Trump president.”

It’s as if Sanders has had the temerity of not consulting the liberal establishment in formulating his plans and that Friedman, who has been called out by name, has had the audacity of making headlines without the credential of belonging to the liberal establishment.

The liberal mainstream economists who are now attacking Sanders and Friedman seem to be taking it personally, as if their monopoly on analysis and policy has been challenged.

I guess it has.

So, how should we read Sanders’s plans and Friedman’s analysis of its costs and consequences? My view, for what it’s worth, is that Sanders and Friedman are not presenting a “realistic” proposal that follows the dictates of liberal policies and forecasts. What they’re doing is something bolder: they’re imagining a world in which a wide variety of fundamental changes have been made—a minimum wage of $15 an hour, universal health coverage, free public higher education, massive infrastructure spending, and so on. In such a world, their analysis suggests, there would be much lower unemployment, faster economic growth, and much less inequality than prevail under existing conditions.

It’s as if they’re holding up a mirror to what is being touted by liberal mainstream economists, which shows both that “realistic” policies and forecasts promise more of the same—excessive unemployment, slow growth, and grotesques levels of inequality—and that, as a country, we have the wherewithal to do much better.

Much better than we’re doing right now. And much better than the “liberal fantasy” suggests we can do.

Since liberal mainstream economists are being left behind, all they can do is resort to a language of rainbows, unicorns, and puppies.

 

Note: Rainbows, Unicorns, Puppies—”a true multiband distortion, with 3 variable signal paths – each with adjustable gain, comp, and level controls – plus clean blend, FX loops, mid boost and master 3-band EQ”—does, in fact, exist.

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One of the consequences of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president is that economists and economic ideas that are often overlooked or marginalized are making the news.

Consider, for example, Gerald Friedman [ht: ja], a University of Massachusetts Amherst economics professor.* He’s front-page news on CNN, and that’s because he has provided “the first comprehensive look at the impact of all of Sanders’ spending and tax proposals”—including spending on infrastructure and youth employment, increasing Social Security benefits, making college free, expanding health care and family leave, raising the minimum wage, and shifting income from the rich to the working-class through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations.

“Like the New Deal of the 1930s, Senator Sanders’ program is designed to do more than merely increase economic activity,” Friedman writes. It will “promote a more just prosperity, broadly-based with a narrowing of economy inequality.”

Emmanuel Saez, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, is also in the news, because of his research on tax rates. In a 2011 paper he wrote with Peter Diamond, Saez argued that, in order to achieve a fair distribution of the tax burden in the midst of rising inequality, very high earners should be subject to high and rising marginal tax rates on earnings. While the top income marginal tax rate on earnings today is about 42.5 percent, they estimate the optimal top tax rate (which would maximize tax revenue from top-bracket taxpayers) to be 73 percent, even higher than Sanders is currently proposing.

“My feel is that the reasoning behind Sanders’s tax plan is not so much tax revenue generation from top earners but rather make top tax rates so high so as to discourage ‘greed,’ defined broadly as extracting income at the expense of the rest of the economy as opposed to real productive behavior,” Mr. Saez wrote in an email. “I think pretax top incomes would finally start to decline.”

Friedman and Saez are economists who are never cited in the mainstream media. But their ideas are now receiving a public airing precisely because of Sanders’s extraordinary success in the current campaign.

 

*Here’s the appropriate disclaimer: I did my doctoral work at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, although Friedman was not there at the time. However, we have traded course syllabi and discussed how best to teach the first Great Depression.