Monday, September 24, 2012

In Comments: The Lessons of Fukushima

I'd like to promise a more regular posting schedule here. On the other hand, seeing as I'm on the academic job market this fall (anybody want to hire a radical economist?) I really shouldn't be blogging at all. So on balance we'll probably just keep staggering along as usual.

But! In lieu of new posts, I really strongly recommend checking out the epic comment thread on Will Boisvert's recent post on the lessons of Fukushima. It's well over 100 comments, which while no big deal for real blogs, is off the charts here. But more importantly, they're almost all serious & thoughtful, and number evidently come from people with real expertise in nuclear and/or alternative energy. Which just goes to show: If you bring data and logic to the conversation, people will respond in kind.

Friday, September 21, 2012

You Eat Mitt Romney's Salt

Don't you love the Romney video? I'm not going to deny it, right now I am with Team Dem. It's true, we usually say "the bosses have two parties"; but it's not usual for them to run for office personally, themselves. And when they do, wow, what a window onto how they really think.

It's hard to even imagine the mindset where the person sitting in the back of the town car is the "maker" and the person upfront driving is just lazing around; where the guys maintaining the hedges and manning the security gates at the mansion are idle parasites, while the person living in it, just by virtue of that fact, is working; where the person who owns the dressage horse is the producer and the people who groom it and feed it and muck it are the layabouts. As some on the right have pointed out, it's weird, also, that "producing" is now equated with paying federal taxes. Isn't working in the private sector supposed to be productive? Isn't a successful business contributing something to society besides checks to the IRS?

It is weird. But as we're all realizing, the 47 percent/53 percent rhetoric has a long history on the Right. (It would be interesting to explore this via the rounding-up of 46.4 percent to 47, the same way medievalists trace the dissemination of a text by the propagation of copyists' errors.) Naturally, brother Konczal is on the case, with a great post tracing out four lineages of the 47 percent. His preferred starting point, like others', is the Wall Street Journal's notorious 2002 editorial on the "lucky duckies" who pay no income tax.

That's a key reference point, for sure. But I think this attitude goes back a bit further. The masters of mankind, it seems to me, have always cultivated a funny kind of solipsism, imagining that the people who fed and clothed and worked and fought for them, were somehow living off of them instead.

Here, as transcribed in Peter Laslett's The World We Have Lost, is Gregory King's 1688 "scheme" of the population of England. It's fascinating to see the careful gradations of status (early-moderns were nothing if not attentive to "degree"); we'll be pleased to see, for instance, that "persons in liberal arts and sciences," come above shopkeepers, though below farmers. But look below that to the "general account" at the bottom. We have 2.675 million people "increasing the wealth of the kingdom," and 2.825 million "decreasing the wealth of the kingdom." The latter group includes not only the vagrants, gypsies and thieves, but common seamen, soldiers, laborers, and "cottagers," i.e. landless farmworkers. So in three centuries, the increasers are up from 49 percent to 53 percent, and the lucky duckies are down from 51 percent to 47. That's progress, I guess.

One can't help wondering how the wealth of the kingdom would hold up if the eminent traders by sea couldn't find common seamen, if the farmers had to do without laborers, if there were officers but no common soldiers. 
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Always more where they come from, I suppose Gregory King might say.

Here, also from Laslett, is a similar division from 100 years earlier, by Sir Thomas Smith:
1. ‘The first part of the Gentlemen of England called Nobilitas Major.’ This is the nobility, or aristocracy proper.
2. ‘The second sort of Gentlemen called Nobilitas Minor.’ This is the gentry and Smith further divides it into Knights, Esquires and gentlemen.
3. ‘Citizens, Burgesses and Yeomen.’
4. ‘The fourth sort of men which do not rule.’
Of this last group, Smith explains:
The fourth sort or class amongst us is of those which the old Romans called capite sensu proletarii or operarii, day labourers, poor husbandmen, yea merchants or retailers which have no free land, copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brick- makers, brick-layers, etc. These have no voice nor authority in our commonwealth and no account is made of them, but only to be ruled and not to rule others.
In other words, Elizabethan Mitt Romney, your job is not to worry about those people.

Smith's contemporary Shakespeare evidently had distinctions like these in mind when he wrote Coriolanus. (A remarkably radical play; I think it was the only Shakespeare Brecht approved of.) The title chracter's overriding passion is his contempt for the common people, those "geese that bear the shapes of men," who "sit by th' fire and presume to know what's done i' the Capitol." He hates them specifically because they are, as it were, dependent, and think of themselves as victims.
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...
He has no patience for this idea that people are entitled to enough to to eat:
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.
One more instance. Did everybody read Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders?

It's a magnificent, but also profoundly conservative, work of fiction. In Mueenuddin's world the social hierarchy is so natural, so unquestioned, that any crossing of its boundaries can only be understood as a personal, moral failing, which of course always comes at a great personal cost. There's one phrase in particular that occurs repeatedly in the book: "They eat your salt," "you ate his salt," etc. The thing about this evidently routine expression is that the eater is always someone of lower status, and the person whose salt is being eaten is always a landlord or aristocrat. "Oh what could be the matter in your service? I've eaten your salt all my life," says the electrician who has, in fact, spent all his life keeping the pumps going on the estates of the man he's petitioning. Somehow, in this world, the person who sits in a mansion in Lahore or Karachi is entitled as a matter of course to all the salt and all the good things of life, and the person who physically produces the salt should be grateful to get any of it.

Mueenuddin describes this world vividly and convincingly, in part because he is a writer of great talent, but also clearly in part because he shares its essential values. Just in case we haven't got the point, the collection's final story, "A Spoiled Man," is about how an old laborer's life is ruined when his master's naive American wife gets the idea he deserves a paycheck and proper place to sleep, giving him the disastrous idea that he has rights. You couldn't write fiction like that in this country, I don't think. Hundreds of years of popular struggle have reshaped the culture in ways that no one with the sensitivity to write good fiction could ignore. A Romney is a different story.

UDPATE: Krugman today is superb on this. (Speaking of being on Team Dem.)

Thomas Sargent Abandons Rational Expectations, Converts to Post Keynesianism

From Keynes (1937), "The General Theory of Employment":
We have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of any but the most direct consequences of our acts. Sometimes we are not much concerned with their remoter consequences, even though time and chance may make much of them. But sometimes we are intensely concerned with them... The whole object of the accumulation of wealth is to produce results, or potential results, at a comparatively distant, and sometimes indefinitely distant, date. Thus the fact that our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague and uncertain, renders wealth a peculiarly unsuitable subject for the methods of the classical economic theory. ... 
By ‘uncertain’ knowledge, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The game of roulette is not subject, in this sense, to uncertainty... Even the weather is only moderately uncertain. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of an European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.
Better late than never, I suppose...

UPDATE: OK, ok, Sargent has written a lot about uncertainty and expectations.  Harry Konstantidis points out this 1972 article Rational Expectations and the Term Structure of Interest Rates, which is ... really interesting, actually. It's an empirical test of whether the behavior of interest rates over time is consistent with bond prices being set by a process of rational expectations. The conclusions are surprisingly negative:
The evidence summarized above implies that it is difficult to maintain both that only expectations determine the yield curve and that expectations are rational in the sense of efficiently incorporating available information. The predictions of the random walk version of the model are fairly decisively rejected by the data, particularly for forward rates with less than five years term to maturity. ... 
It is clear that our conclusions apply with equal force to the diluted form of the expectations hypothesis that allows forward rates to be determined by expectations plus time-invariant liquidity premiums. ... On the other hand, it would clearly be possible to determine a set of time-dependent "liquidity premiums" that could be used to adjust the forward rates so that the required sequences would display "white" spectral densities. ... While this procedure has its merits in certain instances, it is essentially arbitrary, there being no adequate way to relate the "liquidity premiums" so derived to objective characteristics of markets... 
An alternative way to "save" the doctrine that expectations alone determine the yield curve in the face of empirical evidence like that presented above is to abandon the hypothesis that expectations are rational. Once that is done, the model becomes much freer, being capable of accommodating all sorts of ad hoc, plausible hypotheses about the formation of expectations. Yet salvaging the expectations theory in that way involves building a model of the term structure that ... permits expectations to be formed via a process that could utilize available information more efficiently and so enhance profits. That seems ... extremely odd.
In other words: Observed yields are inconsistent with a simple version of rational expectations. They could be made consistent, but only by trvializing the theory by adding ad hoc adjustments that could fit anything. We might conclude that expectations are not rational, but that's too scary. So ... who knows.

One unambiguous point, though, is that under rational expectations interest rates should follow a random walk, and your best prediction of interest rates on a given instrument at some future date should be the rate today. Just saying "I don't now" is not consistent with rational expectations -- for one thing, it gives you no basis for deciding whether a product like the one being advertised here is priced fairly. Sargent's "No" is consistent, though, with fundamental uncertainty in the Keynes sense. In that case the decision to buy or not buy is based on nonrational behavioral rules -- like, say, looking at endorsements of recognized authorities. (Keynes: "Knowing that our individual judgment is worthless, we endeavour to fall back on the judgment of the rest of the world which is perhaps better informed.") So I stand by my one-liner.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In Defense of Debt

I have a new post up at the Jacobin, responding to Mike Beggs' critical review of David Graeber's Debt. It's a much longer, and hopefully more convincing, version of some arguments I was having with Mike and others over at Crooked Timber last month. Mike things there is no useful economics in Debt; I think that on the contrary, the book fits well with important strands of heterodox economics going back to Marx and Keynes (not to mention Schumpeter and Wicksell).

In particular, I think the historical and anthropological material in Debt helps put concrete social flesh on two key analytic points. First, that we need to think of capitalism primarily organized around the accumulation of money, with economic decision taken in terms of money flows and money commitments; not as a system for the mutually beneficial exchange of goods. And second, within capitalism, we can distinguish between economies where the medium of exchange is primarily commodity or fiat money, and economies where it is primarily bank-created credit money. Textbook economic analysis tends to work strictly in terms of the former, but both kinds of economies have existed historically and they behave quite differently.

(There's a lot more in the book than this, of course, but what I am trying to do -- I don't know how successfully -- is clarify the points where Debt contributes most directly to economics debates about money and credit.)

If this sounds at all interesting, you should first read Mike's review, if you haven't, and then read my very long response.

... and then, you should read all the other great stuff at The Jacobin. For my money, it's the most exciting new political journal to come along in a while.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bring Back Butlerism

From Eric Foner's A Short History of Reconstruction:
Even more outrageous than Tweed ... was Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who flamboyantly supported causes that appalled reformers such as the eight-hour day, inflation, and payment of the national debt in greenbacks. He further horrified respectable opinion by embracing women's suffrage, Irish nationalism, and the Paris Commune.
Or, as a horrified Nation put it, Butlerism was
the embodiment in political organization of a desire for the transfer of power to the ignorant and poor, and the use of government to carry out the poor and ignorant man's view of the nature of society.
Labor law, inflation, women's rights, anti-imperialism, and small-c communism, not to mention government by the poor? We could use a little more of that 1870s spirit today. People on the left who want to central banks to do more, in particular, could talk more about loose money's radical pedigree.

So who was this guy? The internet is mainly interested in his Civil War career. Made a general on the basis of his pro-union, anti-slavery politics, he was, not surprisingly, pretty crap at it; but it does appear that he was the first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and the first to successfully enlist black troops in the South. That was enough for Jefferson Davis to order that if he were captured, he should be executed on the spot. So he didn't know how to lead a cavalry charge; sounds like a war hero to me.

In the current Jacobin (which everyone should be reading), Seth Ackerman offers emancipation and Reconstruction as a usable past for the Occupy left, unfavorably contrasting "the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison" with the pragmatic abolitionists who
saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals. At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites.
Today's left, he suggests, could learn from this marriage of radical commitments and practical politics. Absolutely right.

There is, though, a problem: Reconstruction wasn't just defeated in the South, it was abandoned by the North, largely by these same practical politicians, whose liberalism was transposed in just a few years from the key of anti-slavery to the key of "free trade, the law of supply and demand, the gold standard and limited government" (that's Foner again), and who turned out to be less frightened by the restoration of white supremacy in the South than by "schemes for interference with property."

If we must, as we must, "conjure up the spirits of the past ..., borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language," then certainly, we could do worse than the Civil-War era Republicans who successfully yoked liberalism to the cause of emancipation (though I'm not sure why Seth name-checks Salmon P. Chase, an early opponent of Reconstruction). But personally, I'd prefer to dress up as a populist who continued to support the rights of working people even after liberalism had decisively gone its own way, and who ended up representing "all that the liberals considered unwholesome in American politics." Anybody for a revival of Butlerism?