So. Much. Stupid. Conservative blind spots edition

Alex Tabarrok

Hey, black dudes! Its great having a big willy! Why you get so mad?! Us white guys are complimenting you!

Okay, that’s not what he said. But he did say this of Asians:

Alex Tabarrok

Hive mind is not even an insult it’s a compliment – like wisdom of the crowds. The hive mind diffuses knowledge and cooperates–it’s not all thinking alike it’s all using the best of each.

Perhaps I better back up a little and give all this a little context.

Noah Smith wrote a post saying that an academic paper  on A Garett Jones paper called “National IQ and National Productivity: The Hive Mind Across Asia“. When I hear about IQ and economic development I reach for my pistol. Noah Smith is just as sceptical. Personally, I don’t see the mechanism. As Chris Dillow says, there are models and mechanisms. You can come up with a pretty model and then become angry when the world deviates from it or you can think about how your pet theory would work its way through the real world.

I can understand a mechanism that uses slight changes in IQ to predict which “nation” will develop first. I’ll describe the one I have in my mind. There are thousands of institutional forms –  “rules of the game” – and only a few of them are compatible with economic growth and prosperity. A higher IQ gives a group 1) a wider the selection of institutional forms to choose between 2) those institutional forms will on average be more complicated 3) better institutions are more likely to be chosen 4) once successful institutions are identified a more intelligent group will be more likely to keep them.

That is an interesting model, but it doesn’t seem to bare any resemblance to the history of the world. The more accurate picture is that various interest groups fought it out in various different places until, in north western Europe a powerful merchant group came into the ascendency and won political concessions that secured their property rights. This happened to have happened after the political revolution following black death in which western European peasants won a degree of autonomy and near some coal. That combination of secure private property, freeish though expensive labour and cheap energy happened to produce sustained economic growth. Nobody planned it because they were smart. It wasn’t sustained because it was smart by the best of my knowledge either. Because Europe was the most violent place in the world, everyone had to strive towards economic growth or face political annihilation. So greed, luck and violence seem far more important to the first sustained initiation of economic growth than IQ.

Similarly, why are some nations wealthy now and some not? Well there is again a similar model where clever nations adopt good institutions and stupid ones don’t, merely out of ignorance, but that doesn’t seem to be the mechanism we observe. Very poor places had their institutions fucked up by white people – psst, that’s Africa, Latin America, China, India etc. – and it takes a long time to get it together after an occupation and negative structural shock. National IQ sounds racist, and while I concede it might have some predictive power with regard to who’s developed, it doesn’t accord with most of the other mechanisms we have for where economic growth comes from – so I’m fairly happy to dismiss it.

So it is into this milieu we jump.

Noah argues that the paper discussed, by Garett Jones, uses lots of racist tropes and should handled with care. He provides some evidence contrary to the predictions of the paper of varying degrees of convincingness. Scott Sumner, whom I respect greatly, hits back that there is a great deal of explanatory power in culture and that Noah shouldn’t throw around the word racist because it is a bad thing. The only problem is that nobody was talking about culture, they were talking about racially innate IQs, and their explanatory power with regards to economic growth. And that brings us to Alex Tabarrok’s comment, at the top of this post and left underneath Scott’s saying how a “hive mind” is a good thing.

This gets to the heart of the real problem.

For some reason, those on the left can see the context in which things happen in a way those on the right cannot. Noah isn’t too left wing, but he seems to have this special power (and attribute of the left wing hive mind, no doubt).

Because for conservatives it often seems context means nothing. I mean seriously; when, in any cultural artefact ever created, any film, novel, piece of art, daydream or utopian novel has a “hive mind” been presented in a positive light? From Zamyatin’s We, to Huxley’s Brave New World a hive mind is not presented as something good. The hive mind does not refer to the wisdom of crowds.

Lets go back to black people, because its easier to talk about racism against blacks. What has been one of the most persistent racist tropes about black people? That they are sexually promiscuous, even sexually aggressive. This is why white people going on about black guys large cocks is usually racist in content, and often racist in its implications. For a female example, the Hottentot Venus wasn’t exhibited for Londoners to gawp at just because white people were/are racist, but because they were/are racist in particular ways. The ways in which people are racist must colour the way in which we view statements.

Context matters. Asians have been stereotyped as sneaky, corrupt, uniform, “hive mind” automatons for over a  century. You still see it in most western reports of strikes and social unrest in China – shocked, shocked reporters that Chinese people are rebelling against their bosses or bureaucrats. Jamie covers Mass Gathering Incidents frequently and there is a good article length treatment of labour unrest here. Hive mind? Tell that to Foxconn. Considering a racist slur in context is not hard, it takes effort in fact to abstract away from the negative connotations of most racist slurs, yet conservatives do so all too often.

This is sometime around the 1970s conservatives realised they were losing the fight for intolerance, so they changed tactics and tried to reframe the debate. They were no longer arguing in favour of racism, oh no, they were arguing against over earnest antiracism. This was politically convenient for two main reasons.  One, lots of the ground work of antiracism was carried out by those on the left. Two, it gave racists someone to vote for. Now in the UK Labour had an at best mixed record on race, especially with regard to housing policy, but during the 1980s they were much more focussed on antiracism. During the same period conservatives began to create a victim mentality where attacking antiracism became more important than attacking racism.

Alex Tabbarrok might like the idea of being part of a hive mind. And some white men might like the idea of being sexually promiscuous with a mighty, large penis. But to completely ignore over a century of casual and institutional racism is plain stupid. But it is a pattern conservatives find themselves slipping into too often: attacking antiracism more virulently than racism. This post is less than completely satisfactory, but I’ll leave it there, and pick up in the comments if necessary.

How not to hire a central banker OR Are you fucking kidding me Cameron?

Perhaps the fourth most important job in the world is up for grabs. If you (*ahem*) want to be the UK’s chief central banker, the job is available – applications are due by 8th October to 1 Horse Guards Road, London. I say fourth most important because there are only three economies larger than the UK in the same depressed state: the US, Japan and the Eurozone. Unfortunately those doing the hiring have no idea how and why this job is important.

Why is this job so important? It is important because the central bank, to a large degree, determines how quickly we recover. If the bank keeps money tight we will recover very, very slowly, if it gets money right we will recover very, very quickly. I’ve decided to stop demanding loose money because that isn’t what I really want. Monetary policy should be set at the level that is predicted to produce the outcome you want, neither loose nor tight, but right.

For several years that is exactly what the Bank of England did. From mid-2004 to mid-2008 they set policy so that they expected 2% inflation in two years time. As this graph cribbed from Britmouse shows.

Since 2008 they have consistently set policy too tight to hit their target, that is, even by they own preferred metric they have been hamstringing the recovery. Money has been tight so growth has been slow. This makes the quality of the successor to Mervyn King very important indeed. Even doing his job properly would be an improvement on the Bank’s current practice.

I would argue that even this is not good enough. Someone who could do Mervyn King’s job well and set policy that is predicted to succeed, not fail as he has, will not get us the recover we need to put a million people back to work. We will remain depressed because inflation is a bad indicator of an economic recovery, much better is something like nominal GDP, which I have been going on about ad nauseum because people still don’t get it. (Click on the two graphs in the right of the blog for more info on this)

Below is a graph that shows the gap that has opened up between where the UK’s nominal GDP should be and where it is.

The economy wants to produce £1.7trn of goods and services a year, but tight money has restricted it to about 1.57trn of goods and services a year. £170 billion is what the UK economy is missing out on each and every year because our central bankers are not good enough at their jobs (nor currently authorised by the treasury) to bring us back to trend. The total loss currently totals around £500,000,000,000 or half a trillion pounds.

So what is a good central banker worth? Well, about £500,000,000,000 would be one answer, but bygones are bygones so lets be more constructive about it. A good central banker is one who closes that gap as quickly as possible. In the US they estimated that thier (bad) central bankers has cost their economy $4trn in lost output and will cost the economy another $4trn by 2018. A good central banker could be worth $4trn to them if they could return the economy to trend twice as quickly, which seems possible.

Lets copy the mechanism they employed here and makes some assumptions. First, a bad central banker closes that gap by 2018 during which the gap steadily closes. Second, a good one does it in half that time and the gap closes correspondingly until then. After a fairly convoluted process involving my half remembered A level maths I’ve decided that a bad central banker costs us a total of £500 billion in lost output, while a good one loses us “only” £250 billion in lost output. So doing this job correctly is worth perhaps a sixth of everything the UK can produce in a single year.

That they’re paying Sir Mervyn’s replacement a measly £307,792 a year suggests to me they aren’t taking things seriously enough. By our metric of good banker versus bad, they are only expecting an economist 0.0001% better than Mervyn King. Which might be setting the bar a little too low, even as a replacement for our worst central banker since the 1930s.

Of course, it being the coaltion, things are even worse than they at first appear. They aren’t even looking for an economist 0.0001% better than Mervyn King, they’re looking for a financial regulator. Read this paragraph and weep:

The successful candidate will have experience of working in, or with, a central bank or similar institution; or will have worked at the most senior level in a major bank or other financial institution. He or she will demonstrate strong leadership, management and policy skills; will have an advanced understanding of financial markets and good economic knowledge.  He or she will be a strong communicator, have good interpersonal skills and will be a person of undisputed integrity and standing.

Advanced knowledge of financial markets, but only “good” economic knowledge? Forgive me a moment, but are you fucking kidding me Cameron?

They don’t want a central banker, they want a financial regulator. A financial regulator needs to prevent fraud and ensure banks adhere to the rules laid out by parliament. A central bank is in charge of nominal demand because they issue currency. The two needn’t have anything to do with each other. Now that the Bank has to take on the FSA’s financial regulation duties they are going to let their other  responsibilities go by the wayside. Ignorance will damn us, not incompetence. As Scott Sumner has said of the 1930s, the last time we got things this wrong:

The elite bankers and financiers of Wall Street were pretty smart people.  So were the central bankers of the US, Britain, and France.  But they weren’t smart enough… So the wealthy conservatives of the interwar period who dominated central banking dug their own graves, and the graves of millions of others.  Not through greed but through ignorance.

This time is perhaps worse. At least in the 1930s people had a rough idea what a central bank was meant to do. Today, those in charge don’t know for which job they are hiring, so those who are hired won’t know what they’re meant to do, and the rest of us will all suffer for it.

This in’t because any of us deserve it or because those doing the hiring or being hired are necessarily bad people, but because life is hard and confusing sometimes. Everyone is finding it hard and confusing and this is why I keep shouting about this, because nobody needs to be evil to inflict suffering, just wrong. So we need to stop being wrong as quickly as possible.

Vince Cable is still the best member of this Government

Lars and Britmouse got there first, but let me point you towards Vince Cable‘s recent speech. The mainstream media focused on Vince’s reference to homebuilding in the 1930s. That is understandable in a country as obsessed with housing as the UK is, but the really interesting part was on monetary policy.

As in the 1930s, homebuilding now would be a sideshow, the real impetus to growth in the 1930s was leaving the gold standard, devaluation and reflation. This is exactly the policies  I and others have been calling for. Homebuilding was a consequence, not a cause of the UK’s recovery.

Without the Bank of England supporting the government no policy effort will be successful and this is what Vince says. Furthermore, without communicating that clearly the policy will fail. This is exactly what people like Scott Sumner and David Beckworth have been saying…and know it finds itself in the mouth of Vince Cable:

The right way to understand loose monetary policy is in terms of expectations: of whether future money demand will be growing fast enough to make borrowing to invest or spend worthwhile.  It is not enough just to look at the base rate.  Look at Japan: because of its persistent deflation, its zero-interest rates still do not reflect easy money conditions.  Anyone investing is facing the persistent pressure of falling prices and falling profits.

In the 1930s, the abrupt departure from Gold – so much condemned by the City – had the strongest possible effect on expectations of rising money GDP.

…What tools does the Government have? The first is continued use of monetary policy, and stronger communication of the policy aim it is meant to achieve – robust recovery in money spending and GDP. The Mansion House speeches signalled a clear intention to continue aggressive monetary policy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is Vince Cable advocating a NGDP target as a commitment device, exactly what this blog and many others have been arguing is essential if the UK is ever going to recover. There is some hope.

The Markets Don’t Predict a Bright Future

Loathe as I am to piddle on Scott’s victory parade, I think some perspective is needed. NGDP targeting is catching on, it certainly has supporters within the UK Government like Vince Cable and his staff and in the commenteriat. Likewise, it is gaining ground with Jeffrey Frankel, A professor at Harvard and in Japan and with Paul Krugman and yada yada yada…things are looking up for this obscure policy, which is a good thing.

Yet this optimism doesn’t appear to be buoying markets. If NGDP targeting has been gaining popularity you’d like to see some sign of it in the stock markets, yet the last three months have been awful.

There’s an awful lot of red pixels. Of course inferring anything from market data is very difficult, that is after all the point of markets, to process information. Events in the real world of central banking are likely to dominate discussions of NGDP targeting. But, were monetary policy regime change to be likely you would expect to see some optimism in the numbers, and these are very pessimistic numbers indeed.

Scott should be happy with his progress so far, he has undoubtedly helped put NGDP targeting and monetary easing back onto the policy agenda, when it might have been ignored. However, he is premature in saying the future is bright when all signs suggest it is very likely quite dim.

Nota Banquero sounds a lot like Notenbanker

I’m very sympathetic to the idea that the peripheral Eurozone countries should cut loose and devalue their new currencies to regain competitiveness and aid recovery. Krugman here half-recommends a quick default and devalue solution for countries running a primary surplus (that is, only borrowing money to cover the interest payments of previous loans).

The basic logic is one which I adhere to. The European Central bank has caused a debt problem to be seriously exacerbated by an aggregate demand problem, a new national central bank in control of its own currency (Esnewdo etc.) could boost demand through an adequate devaluation.

But there is no guarantee that such a devaluation would be adequate, or that a new central bank would act aggressively enough. To a degree the newly empowered Central Bank would have no choice, markets would force it to devalue, but much commentary assumes they would also force the bank into the accommodative policy, this need not be so. Many countries have voluntarily maintained too tight monetary policy for too long.

The cult of the credible central banker would stay the hand of any newly independent central bank. The logical and sensible point that a central bank must not behave recklessly or unpredictably has been become a dogma. Modern central bankers have become overly concerned that any departures from fighting inflation could lead easily to inflation expectations becoming “unanchored“, potentially leading to hyperinflation.

The political pressure to boost demand for a periphery Central Bank with its own currency would be intense. But this would only intensify the professional and institutional pressure on Central Bankers to resist these calls to retain their “credibility”; Interest rates may remain too high, or the bank may signal its hawkishness at any sign of demand picking up.

Devaluation without a change in the culture and prescriptions of central banking could lead to the worst of all worlds for the peripheral countries of Europe. Their economy could remain depressed and uncompetitive due to central bank stubborness but their external burden would have increased because their national, or at least, private debts remain denominated in much more expensive Euros.

Many countries have the option of following the Swiss and Swedish in devaluing but so far the US, UK and Japan have all refused. Britain today ignores opportunities to increase demand using monetary stimulus just as we suffered all through the 1920s because we chose to overvalue our currency. I fear much of southern Europe could find itself in the same situation.

In addition to this cult of the central banker, it may be that Steve Randy Waldman is correct and that depression is a choice. He argues that because of demographic pressures interest rates are naturally quite low, and because there are lots of old people who live off fixed income there are institutional problems to getting enough stimulus because they fear their income will be inflated away.

The low interest rates make normal monetary policy hard and the political constituency make unconventional policy too difficult to employ. Hence nations, or currency zones, “choose” depression. Demographic pressures in Southern Europe are similar to those in Japan and the elderly are much more powerful in Italy than in the UK or the US where policy also remains too tight.

The combination of political constituencies who are threatened or think they are threatened by looser monetary policy and a cult which treats loose monetary policy as a dangerous barbiturate may mean that even an independent currency may not be enough to pull the periphery of Europe out of its doldrums. The institutional constraints which have helped create the current Eurozone crisis will outlive the euro and must be considered in any rescue plan.

What would the “failure” of a NGDP targeting central bank look like?

Nominal Gross Domestic Product is depressed, that leads real GDP to be depressed because it is very difficult to accommodate rapid and large deflation so logically it must be lower. It also leads to the quantity of people employed to be depressed because the same is true of aggregate wages.

I don’t fully understand what critics of NGDP targeting mean when they say they suspect the policy would fail. I think the language NGDP targeting is something of a handicap, because once you start thinking in this language you begin to translate people’s statements and in the process they cease to make sense.

Chris Dillow says…

I fear, though, that economists who invoke “expectations” and “credibility” are making the error of mistaking the tidy maps of models for the messy terrain of reality.

Unlearning Economics says…

This is a clear example of confusing correlation and causation. When looking at two correlated variables, a good question to ask is which one moves first – here, the drop in RGDP clearly precedes the drop in NGDP. This suggests that the decline in RGDP is not a result of the decline in NGDP; rather, its the opposite.

So what happened in 2008? Obviously, the conventional story is true: a large drop in asset prices made many households and firms realise they were less wealthy than they thought; this caused firms to lay off workers; real production decreased; nominal income followed; expectations dropped; this created a spiral. The NGDP-driven story doesn’t withstand scrutiny, else we’d expect the NGDP drop to come first.

First of all, I agree with Chris that relying on expectations is a weak lever. But, if you are powerful enough to not have to rely on expectations, the market should anticipate that and you will be able to rely on expectations. To he that hath shall be given, and we hath in abundance. I think a Bank with a fairly doveish reputation with the printing press combined with the supremacy of parliament, the Royal prerogative and a government intent on re-election is more than powerful enough for the above to hold true.

Secondly, I disagree with UE. In 2007/8 asset prices fell because expectations of future NGDP fell which was priced into current asset prices. This lead to a fall in real GDP contemporaneous with a fall in NGDP, but both were caused by fall in expectations of future NGDP as is argued by adherents (cultists?) of NGDP targeting. Asset prices are forward looking and money is an asset, hence you have to look at expectations of future NGDP rather than looking at which moved first by a few months, RGDP or NGDP.

So what I don’t understand is what non-NGDP monomaniacs think will happen were a central bank to adopt a NGDP targeting regime. Say the treasury ask the Bank of England to adopt NGDP targeting and to catch up entirely to trend from 2008. What does failure look like?

  1. NGDP does not reach trend because the bank lacks credibility and the policy is abandoned.
  2. NGDP fails to reach trend for a long time, and so has little effect on anything important.
  3. NGDP reaches trend but nominal growth consists (almost) entirely of price changes.
  4. NGDP over shoots target massively and cannot be contained because  inflation expectations become unmorred and accelerate upwards: the price level spirals out of control.
  5. NGDP targeting is effective and a la Kalecki capitalists stage some sort of investment strike and must be abandoned for political reasons.
  6. NGDP targeting is effective and workers/voters realise it is a way of moderating their wage demands and must be abandoned for political reasons.
  7. NGDP targeting is effective and we realise we’ve seen a series of unsustainable booms rather than real growth because of a slow down in innovation and all economic growth ends up accruing to land and rents and must be abandoned for political reasons.
  8. NGDP targeting is effective and some combination of 5,6 and 7 occur.
  9. Other?

Can anyone fill me in?

Policy Pragmatism

What concrete step caused the British Pound to appreciate rapidly on the 18th April?

The correct answer is “we’ll never know what confluence of events caused that particular movement.” Any concrete answer should be ignored. But please allow me to tentatively suggest (tentative suggestion is fine) that the price of Sterling, and hence the stance of British monetary policy, was changed by news that Adam Posen had withdrawn his support for more Quantitative Easing. This unexpected action caused sterling to hit a 19 month high against the euro.

So when Chris says to Nick Rowe “that relying upon expectations to do work is to rely upon a weak lever” I am somewhat sceptical. Adam Posen changed monetary policy by changing the future expected path of monetary policy – his actions lessened the chances of more QE and brought forward rate rises and the unwinding of the Bank’s balance sheet – and the market acted accordingly.

A similar mechanism might be all that is required for NGDP to work. A credible commitment to change the path of future policy would have immediate effects, we know this because (I tentatively suggest) we have already seen it happen.

Similarly, if Chris agrees that a higher sterling reflects tighter Bank of England policy and if Chris agrees a looser policy would help create jobs – as the sentence “I don’t doubt that more QE – the likeliest tool of an NGDP target – would create some jobs” implies – then there is something illogical in his pessimism towards adopting NGDP targeting.

I don’t think it could come from the Bank; Andrew Sentence is completely unable to offer a credible commitment to NGDP level targeting. But were the Treasury to change the Bank’s mandate then it could commit to change the path of future policy easily. Thanks (!) to  New Labour’s habit of concentrating power ever more in the executive, this change could happen at any point because the Treasury is empowered to change the Bank’s mandate at will.

I don’t think you can accuse me of Policy Utopianism, as I said in my last post many problems would remain after the adoption of NGDP level targeting. If the Doctor’s creed is “first do no harm,” the economic policy maker’s should be “first pick up the free lunches.” To ignore monetary policy, as Chris often does, is to leave all-you-can eat buffets to one side. Pragmatism requires adopting policies that put what labour, capital and land available to work. Even a “small improvement” would be a huge improvement to thousands.