Archive for August, 2009

Health care: out of options?

16 August 2009

Economist Richard Thaler has a thought-provoking, argumentative piece in today’s NYT that takes a critical look at the current debate about a public option, or government-run option, for health insurance. The gist of Thaler’s column is that having a public option is unlikely to make much of a difference, at least if it is required to break even. Interesting stuff, especially coming from a sometime Obama adviser and top behavioral economist.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has a new book out about health care which says a public option is absolutely essential for serious reform, but evidently Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have backtracked on that one or were not so keen on it in the first place. Thaler reminds us that the two key issues here are (1) covering the uninsured and (2) bringing down costs. Whether and how that can be done with health insurance cooperatives, the leading proposed alternative to a public option, will be two of the big questions in the weeks to come.

UPDATE, August 18: Rethinking the Economy has a pointed rebuke to Thaler.  So does Dean Baker.  Both suggest he dismisses the public option much too blithely.

Stabilizing or flatlining?

14 August 2009

Among the latest signs of recovery are positive GDP growth rates for Germany and France in the second quarter of this year.  The media, apparently tired of reporting bad news, are trumpeting this as sensational news, which it really isn’t.

Both of those countries saw real GDP growth of 0.3% (or about 1.2% annualized), which is better than negative, but less than half of what normal GDP growth looks like. (The average for the last 30 years is 2.9% per year.) And in a real, robust recovery the economy is supposed to grow faster than normal; it has to, to get back to its potential. If GDP in those two countries had fallen by 0.1%, they would still be considered to be in recession — should so much importance be attached to a difference of 0.4% in a three-month period?

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4,000 hits

14 August 2009

Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and this blog.

The Hold Steady

13 August 2009

No big surprise today — the Federal Reserve decided to keep its short-term interest rate target unchanged at 0 – 0.25%.  Nobody expected them to raise rates, and there was no real way to lower them, so voila!

The bigger story, which is really not all that big but is being presented as a Fed statement that the recession is all but over, is that the Fed said it would wrap up its $300 billion purchase of Treasury securities a bit ahead of schedule, by the end of October.  Considering that the Fed has already bought $253 billion of those securities, this is no big deal and doesn’t preclude another big monetary stimulus if conditions worsen in the next few weeks.  (The conspiratorially minded could even charge that the Fed is ramping up its monetary stimulus by buying all those bonds sooner, but nobody appears to be saying that.)

It’s all a good excuse for a video clip from a good and acclaimed band that I’m still hoping to develop a passion for someday:

Down for U is up

9 August 2009

For the first time since the recession officially began in December 2007, the unemployment rate fell last month, from 9.5% to 9.4%. Professional optimists had already been declaring the recession over, and this welcome news added fuel to their fire. How good is this news, anyway?

As always, the first place is to look is the original report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).   First, a few important component numbers:

  • -155,000 = change in total employment from June to July
  • -267,000 = change in total unemployment “
  • +637,000 = change in total number of people not in the labor force “

The first two numbers look good: the decline in employment is much smaller than in previous months, and the ranks of the unemployed fell by more than a quarter million. But the last number is the largest and strongly suggests that hundreds of thousands of people have simply given up looking for work. Small wonder, when there are 5.0 million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or more.  (That’s more than the total number of unemployed just a few years ago, I believe.)

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The next Federal Reserve Chairwoman

8 August 2009

. . . would of course be the first Federal Reserve Chairwoman.  But the word on the street is that San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen is said to be on the very short list of possible Fed Chair nominees, along with Larry Summers and a Ben Bernanke re-appointment.

Yellen is an intriguing possibility.  Hands-on experience as S.F. Fed president (including a seat right now on the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s policy-making group), stints on the Fed Board of Governors and as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration, longtime tenured economics professor at Berkeley. I’ve read a few of her papers on macro theory and policy, and she writes unusually well for an economist.  (Her review article on efficiency-wage theories of unemployment was probably the clearest thing I read in my entire first year of grad school.) And for what it’s worth, she’ll have good advice at the breakfast table: she’s married to economics Nobel laureate George Akerlof. (Democrats are big on the whole “two for the price of one” concept, no?)

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Clashing clunkers

7 August 2009

The federal government’s “cash for clunkers” program has been the hot economic news item the past two weeks.  The program is novel, visible, finding lots of takers, and by far the most popular item in the stimulus package.  It is not without its critics, however, on both the economic and environmental fronts.  Let’s review the debate.

The first national “cash for clunkers” proposal, as far as I know, came from the eminent macro/policy economist Alan Blinder in a NYT column about a year ago. Blinder noted that smaller-scale programs had already been implemented in several states and Canadian provinces.  He touted it as a “public policy trifecta”:  (1) It would help the economy at low cost:  he estimated the cost of a good national program at about $20 billion, cheap in comparison with the then-stimulus of $168 billion (not to mention this year’s $787 billion stimulus).  (2) It would do a lot to reduce exhaust pollution, an estimated 75% of which comes from cars over 12 years old. As for the apparent waste of retiring old cars that still have some life in them, he said they could be refitted with new emissions controls and resold, or their scrap metal could be recycled. (3) It would be progressive in its impact, since it’s mostly poor people that drive those old clunkers.

My former graduate macro professor Willem Buiter had a typically hilarious and typically negative response, sarcastically titled “Please torch my car.”

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Raise *these* taxes

1 August 2009

So many problems out there — health care costs, climate change, mortgage crisis — and so many complicated solutions being pursued.  Some solutions that economists would tend to favor that do not seem to be part of the current political debate involve eliminating a couple of expensive tax loopholes, for health insurance and mortgage interest, and imposing a carbon tax.

All of these would raise a lot of revenue, and tax increases of any kind are like kryptonite to politicians and of course counterproductive in a recession, but they could be made revenue-neutral by cutting tax rates or increasing the personal exemptions or standard deductions.  Or, when the economy has recovered, tax increases like these could be part of a deficit-reduction package.

One by one:

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Should Bernanke stay or should he go?

1 August 2009

His term ends in early 2010.  Obama’s decision on his fate will probably come much sooner. I tend to think he should be reappointed, not least because the apparent alternative is Larry Summers.  I’d like to see some other macro/policy economists get consideration — Brad DeLong, for example — but I’ve heard basically no other names mentioned besides Bernanke and Summers.

I think many if not most economists would give Bernanke about a D for his handling of the housing bubble and the expansion of 2005-2007 but at least a B for his handling of the financial crisis and macroeconomic fallout.   (It would be an A if not for the mixed signals in bailing out “little” Bear Stearns and not “big” Lehman Brothers.)  It seems like he’s learned that bubbles are not a benign phenomenon and that the Fed can act to stop them.

Last Sunday’s NYT had an excellent point-counterpoint on the question of Bernanke’s reappointment, a true heavyweight matchup between Nouriel (“Dr. Doom”) Roubini, arguing for, and Monetary History of the United States co-author (with Milton Friedman) Anna Jacobson Schwartz arguing against.  Both columns are well worth reading and re-reading over the next few months.

(This time you’ll have to find the Clash video yourself.  Sorry.)

GM/DC

1 August 2009

Just in case you missed cartoonist Ward Sutton’s hilarious rendering of the General Motors bailout in last Sunday’s NYT, “GM/DC: Back in the Black,” here’s the link.

And in case that whets your appetite for the old school video of AC/DC’s original . . .