Category Archives: Conservatives and Liberals

New and Improved Trade Agreements?

WASHINGTON, DC – Trade is high on the agenda in the United States, Europe, and much of Asia this year. In the US, where concern has been heightened by weak recent trade numbers, President Barack Obama is pushing for Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), previously known as fast-track authority, to conclude the mega-regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Asian and Latin American countries. Without TPA, trading partners refrain from offering their best concessions, correctly fearing that Congress would seek to take “another bite of the apple” when asked to ratify any deal.

In marketing the TPP, Obama tends to emphasize some of the features that distinguish it from earlier pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These include commitments by Pacific countries on the environment and the expansion of enforceable labor rights, as well as the geopolitical argument for America’s much-discussed strategic “rebalancing” toward Asia.
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Give Obama Trade Promotion Authority

Trade is now high on the agenda in Washington. President Obama is pushing hard for Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), once known as fast-track authority.  He intends to use it to complete negotiations with 11 trading partners under the Trans Pacific Partnership.  A majority of trade-skeptical Democrats in Congress have lined up on the wrong side on this one, along with some Tea Party Republicans who automatically oppose anything that Obama is in favor of.

Without TPA, trading partners hold back from offering their best concessions to the president’s trade representative in negotiations, fearing correctly that Congress would seek to take “another bite of the apple” when the White House brought the agreement to them for ratification.  Other countries wised up to this trick 40 years ago.  That is why the Congress has given every president since Richard Nixon fast-track authority, which allows only up-or-down approval of the final agreement.  If they don’t give TPA to Obama, it will not only mean no TPP.  It will also be another step in the ongoing self-inflicted American abdication of global leadership.

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Asia Games: Not Zero-Sum

Two hostesses are rivals in a popularity contest throughout the social season.  When they hold soirees on the same night invitees must choose which one to go to.  The hostesses guard their social ranking jealously, and may even punish a guest who goes to the rival’s party by withholding an invitation next time.

To read about the roles of China and the US over the last month, one would think that Asia/Pacific relations are a zero-sum game like that of these two hostesses in some fictional time and place.   Are countries signing up for China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank?  Or for America’s Trans Pacific Partnership?  Will China’s currency be admitted to the SDR club, or will it be kept humiliatingly waiting at the entrance?  Is the United States still number one globally in economic size, or did China pass it in 2014?

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Does the Dollar Need Another Plaza?

We are at the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Plaza Accord.  It was the most dramatic intervention in the foreign exchange market since Nixon originally floated the US currency.   At the end of February 1985 the dollar reached dizzying heights, which remain a record to this day.  Then it began a long depreciation, encouraged by a shift in policy under the new Treasury Secretary, James Baker, and pushed down by G-5 foreign exchange intervention.  People remember only the September 1985 meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York City that ratified the policy shift; so celebrations of the 30th anniversary will wait until this coming fall.

The dollar has appreciated sharply over the last year, surpassing its ten-year high.   Some are suggesting it may be time for a new Plaza, to bring the dollar down.   In its on-line “Room for Debate,” the New York Times asked, Will a strong dollar hurt the economy and should the Fed take action?”   Here is my response:

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Will Fed Tightening Choke Emerging Markets?

CAMBRIDGE – As the Federal Reserve moves closer to initiating one of the most long-awaited and widely predicted periods of rising short-term interest rates in the United States, many are asking how emerging markets will be affected. Indeed, the question has been asked at least since May 2013, when then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke famously announced that quantitative easing would be “tapered” later that year, causing long-term US interest rates to rise and prompting a reversal of capital flows to emerging markets.

The fear, as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has reminded us, is of a repeat of previous episodes, notably in 1982 and 1994, when the Fed’s policy tightening helped precipitate financial crises in developing countries. If the Fed decides to raise interest rates this year, which emerging markets are most vulnerable to a capital-flow reversal?

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The End of Republican Obstruction

CAMBRIDGE – What a difference two months make. When the Republican Party scored strong gains in last November’s US congressional elections, the universally accepted explanation was that voters were expressing their frustration with disappointing economic performance. Indeed, when Americans went to the polls, a substantial share thought that economic conditions were deteriorating; many held President Barack Obama responsible and voted against his Democratic Party.

Now, suddenly, everyone has discovered that the US economy is doing well – so well that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has switched from blaming Obama for a bad economy to demanding credit for a good one. Recent favorable economic data were, he claimed, the result of “the expectation of a Republican Congress.”

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8 Policy Recommendations for Newly Elected Members of Congress

On December 3, 2014, I participated in a panel of Harvard University’s Bipartisan  Program  for  Newly Elected Members of Congress.   After establishing that the median US household has not shared in recent strong economic gains, I went on to consider policy remedies.

I offered the Congressmen eight policy recommendations.  Some will sound popular, some very unpopular; some associated with “liberals”, some with “conservatives.”   I would claim that they all have in common heavy support from economists, regardless of party – even the very unpopular ones.

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A Pre-Lima Scorecard for Evaluating Who is Doing their Fair Share in Pledged Carbon Cuts

Those worried about the future of the earth’s climate are hoping that this year’s climate change convention in Lima, Peru, December 2014, will yield progress toward specific national commitments, looking ahead to an international agreement at the make-or-break Paris meeting to take place in December 2015.

The precedent of the Kyoto Protocol negotiated in 1997 is more discouraging than encouraging. It was an encouraging precedent in that countries were politically able to agree on legally binding quantitative limits to their emissions of Greenhouse Gases, to be achieved with the aid of international trading and other market mechanisms. But it was discouraging in that China and other big developing countries would not countenance limits to their own emissions and, largely for that reason, the United States never ratified Kyoto.

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What Do Obamacare and the EITC Have in Common with Cap-and-Trade?

My preceding blog post described how market-oriented mechanisms to address environmentally damaging emissions, particularly the cap-and-trade system for SO2 in the United States, have recently been overtaken by less efficient regulatory approaches such as renewables mandates.   One reason is that Republicans — who originally were supporters of cap-and-trade — turned against it, even demonized it.

One can draw an interesting analogy between the evolution of Republican political attitudes toward market mechanisms in the area of federal environmental regulation and hostility to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.   The linchpin of the program is the attempt to make sure that all Americans have health insurance, via the individual mandate.  But Obamacare is a market mechanism, in that health insurers and health care providers remain private and compete against each other.

As has been pointed out countless times, this was originally a conservative approach, designed to work via the marketplace:  The alternative is to have the government either (i) directly provide the health insurance (a “single payer” system, as in Canada; or under US Medicare for that matter) or (ii) directly provide the health care itself (”socialized medicine,” as in the UK; or the US Veterans Administration hospitals).  The new approach was proposed in conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. It was enacted in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney. By the time President Obama adopted it, however, it had become anathema to Republicans, most of whom forgot that it had ever been their policy.

One can trace through the parallels between clean air and health care.  The market failure in the case of the environment is that pollution is what economists call an externality:  In an unregulated market, those who pollute don’t bear the cost. The market failure in the case of health care is what economists call adverse selection:  Insurers may not provide insurance, especially to patients with pre-existing conditions, if they have reason to fear that the healthy customers have already taken themselves out of the risk pool.

Government attempts to address the market failure can themselves fail.  In the case of the environment, command-and-control regulation is inefficient, discourages innovation, and can have unintended consequences.   For example, CAFÉ standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) were partly responsible for the rise of the SUV.  Corn ethanol mandates raised food prices and accomplished nothing for the environment.  When “New Source Review” requires that American power companies adopt the most stringent available control technology if they build a new power plant, they respond by keeping dirty old plants running as long as possible (Stavins, 2006).

In the case of health care, a national health service monopoly can forestall innovation and provide inadequate care with long waits.  In general, the best government interventions are designed to target the failure precisely – using cap-and-trade to put a price on air pollution or using the individual mandate to curtail adverse selection in health insurance — and otherwise let market forces do the rest more efficiently than bureaucrats can.

American conservatives often talk as if the alternative they would prefer is no regulation at all.  But few in fact would want to go back to the unbreathable pre-1970 air of Los Angeles, London, or Tokyo.  Even those few who might want to should recognize that most of their fellow citizens feel differently.  Political reality shows that the alternative in practice is an inefficient rent-seeking system in which solar power, corn-based ethanol, and fossil fuels all get subsidies or mandates.  Analogously, few conservatives in fact will say that they want hospital emergency rooms to turn away critically ill patients who lack health insurance.  Even for those who might want this, reality shows that the alternative in practice is hospitals that give emergency care to those who lack insurance, whether because of personal irresponsibility or for reasons beyond their control, and then pass the charges on to the rest of us.

A third example is the Earned-Income Tax Credit.  It was originally considered a conservative idea: an implementation of Milton Friedman’s proposed negative income tax, it was championed by Ronald Reagan as a pro-work market-friendly way of addressing income inequality.   President Obama proposedexpanding the EITC in his State of the Union address last month.  But conservatives, again forgetting that it was their own creation, have opposed expansion of the EITC as verboten redistribution.   So proposals to increase the minimum wage get more political traction as a way to address income inequality, even though that approach is more interventionist and less efficient.

[This is the second of a two-part post, which in turn is the extended version of an op-ed published atProject Syndicate.  Comments may be posted there; or join the debate at Economist’s View.]

Nominal GDP Targeting is Left, Right?

The recent surge in interest in Nominal GDP Targeting, as an alternative to money targeting or inflation targeting if the central bank is to commit to a nominal target of some sort, has prompted some pushback.   This is not surprising.  But one of the responses is most peculiar.  This is the allegation (1) that the surge comes from liberals opportunistically adopting an idea that was originally proposed by conservatives, and (2) that they will not stick with this “fad” in the longer run because it is only designed to fit current circumstances of high unemployment and low output.   Remarkably, every component of this argument is wrong.

I have in mind, especially, the views of Benn Steil and Dinah Walker of the Council on Foreign Relations, as expressed in “Why  Nominal GDP Targeting is a Fad“:
”NGDP targeting having once been the intellectual stomping ground of economists on the right (notably Scott Sumner), its newest supporters come overwhelmingly from the left (such as Christy Romer)…. We think the rage will be short-lived. The reason is that NGDP targeting’s newest supporters are bad-weather fans. That is, they like it now, when NGDP is well below its 2007 “trend” line, meaning that the policy implies extended and more aggressive monetary loosening. But what happens when NGDP goes above its target, as it eventually will? NGDP targeting then requires tightening….”

Let’s consider the analytics first, and hold off awhile on the less edifying political labels.   The nominal GDP proposal was originally studied and supported by many prominent economists in the 1980s.  The problem at the time was a need for monetary discipline, anchoring expectations, and reducing inflation.   Nominal income targeting was not designed as a way of getting easier monetary policy, but rather the opposite.   It is equally good for either purpose:  the target can be set high or low, depending on the times.

Originally, the leading competitor for the role of monetary anchor was money supply targeting (monetarism).  This was the regime that was adopted in the early 1980s by the central banks of the largest economies. But they were forced to abandon it subsequently.  Later on, the leading competitor became Inflation Targeting;  but it too ran into difficulties in the 2000s.   The general argument for nominal GDP throughout has been that it is robust to a variety of shocks, positive and negative.   It dominates money targeting in that it is robust with respect to velocity shocks.  It dominates inflation targeting in that it is robust to supply shocks.

In other words, Nominal GDP Targeting is not a short-term expedient but is fit precisely for the long run.

It is true that a major reason why the nominal GDP proposal has been revived over the last two years is that it could help deliver easy monetary policy in the short run, which is what the economy has needed recently.  Some supporters may indeed view it as a short-term expedient, to be jettisoned when the economic recovery has become better established.   And I can see the attraction of the proposal that the Economist magazine has made for the UK: that the Bank of England commit to keeping interest rates low until nominal GDP has re-attained a level 10% higher than today’s level.  But I personally favor keeping it as the framework in the longer term, with loose nominal GDP targets set annually at a horizon of two years.  The width of the bands and the degree of commitment could be similar to whatever it would be under the alternative of inflation targeting.

The targeted nominal GDP growth rate would not be the same every year, let alone every decade.    If the US were to adopt the framework now, 4 ½ % would not be a bad number for the center of the target range.  (A lower number would be appropriate for some, like Japan, and a higher number for others, especially emerging market countries.)

Steil and Walker support their argument that the proposal is not fit for the long run with an attractive graph.  It shows that in many of the years since 1981 when the rate of growth of nominal GDP was above 4 ½ %, which they claim would imply monetary tightening under the proposed regime, unemployment was above 5 ½ %, prompting the Fed to loosen (wisely, in the authors’ view, if I understand them right).

The problem with this argument is that of those eight years when the Fed is shown loosening  in response to unemployment above 5 ½ % (by my count), seven of the years came during the first part of the sample: 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1993.   (The only year from the more recent half of the sample is 2003.)  Why is this a problem for the argument?  In the 1980s and even the 1990s, it seems to me that nobody would have set a target so aggressive as to require monetary tightening when nominal GDP reached 4 ½ %.   Back then we were coming down from high levels of inertial inflation and this process was understood to be gradual.   Furthermore, the rate of growth of potential output was higher than today as well.   Thus the numbers chosen for the nominal GDP target would have been higher than today.  They would not have forced the Fed to tighten when unemployment was 7%.

Now to the political labels.  Recall that Steil-Walker claim that the nominal GDP proposal was originally put out by economists on the right and has recently been adopted opportunistically by economists on the left as a short-term fad.   But the originator of the nominal GDP proposal in the UK was Sir James Meade (1978, 1982), who (it turns out) was an “interventionist” and member of the Social Democratic Party.  The earliest proponent in the US was James Tobin (1980, 1983), also a Nobel Prize winner and also on the left.   (I am trying to avoid the confusing word “liberal” which in the US usually means on the left but in the UK continues usually to mean pro-free-market.)

The recent revival of Nominal GDP Targeting came from a group of bloggers who describe themselves as conservatives (Scott Sumner, Lars Christensen and David Beckworth,)   Even those now proposing a one-time threshold for the level of nominal GDP are not noticeably  clustered on the left of the political spectrum.  The current British chancellor is, of course, a Conservative.   Perhaps what is confusing some observers is the reflexive, but wrong, assumption that Labor/Democrats always favor more expansionary policy than Conservatives/Republicans.

In other words, it would be more correct to say that the idea was a proposal of the left picked up by the right than the other way around, as Steil and Walker claim.   But there are plenty of nominal GDP proponents from each side of the political spectrum, currently as in there were in the 1980s, as well as many whose political views are not immediately apparent.  That is all to the good.   This proposal is neither liberal nor conservative.  Nor is it one that I, personally, will be abandoning as soon as the economy returns to full employment.   With money targeting and inflation targeting discredited, Nominal GDP Targeting is left.  Right?

[Notice to readers:  Starting today, my blogposts will also appear at On Deck, the blog space of Project Syndicate.   Some are elaborated versions of Project Syndicate op-eds.  Others, like this one, stand alone.]