Laughed out of the Laffer curve

In class today I presented a seminar on, among other things, the uses and abuses of the Laffer curve. Why it is not called the Laffer bell curve I have no idea; it is always drawn like one. The students were kosher at the extremes: a tax rate of 100% was likely to lead to near zero income tax for the state; similarly they totally grasped as would anyone that a 0 % tax rate times anything was zero. But then the chuckles started.

I suspect it would be a stronger argument if the Laffer curve was bell shaped but at the summit it was flat over say a range of at least twenty percent. The students simply would not buy that a reduction from say 60% on the income of the supper rich to 40 % would not only yield the same but greater tax revenues for the state. And it did not matter how many ad hoc conjectures I threw in: increase in hours worked from the supper rich and the increase in support staff that implied and thus the increase in national output and thus a larger economic pie to tax.

It was more than just that they did not believe that people worked that way it is that they immediately understood it as trojan horse for the rich to decrease their marginal tax rates. 30% of 10 million is still 3 million who would not take that? But I had to explain for the super rich the labour market really is a choice between leisure and income. And when you are super rich you just might ask yourself do I really need another million dollars?

But then there were the questions about the augmentation of state revenues through a reduction in the top marginal rates. And I said I only know of one: Russia. To which we all had to laugh.

The Ignoble and Noble Prizes for Economics

For Immediate Release

The Real-World Economics Review Blog is holding polls to determine the awarding of two prizes:

The Ignoble Prize for Economics , to be awarded to the three economists who contributed most to enabling the Global Financial Collapse (GFC), and
The Noble Prize for Economics , to be awarded to the three economists who first and most cogently warned of the coming calamity.

It is accepted fact that the economics profession through its teachings, pronouncements and policy recommendations facilitated the GFC. We also know that danger signs became visible long before the event and that some economists (those with their eyes on the real-world) gave public warnings which if acted upon would have averted the human disaster.

With other learned professions entrusted with public confidence, such as medicine and engineering, it is inconceivable that their professional bodies would not at the very least censure members who had successfully persuaded governments and public opinion to ignore elementary safety measures, so causing epidemics and widespread building collapses.

To date, however, the world’s major economics associations have declined to censure the major facilitators of the GFC or even to publicly identify them. This silence, this indifference to causing human suffering, constitutes grave moral failure. It also gives license to economists to continue to indulge in axiom-happy behaviour. Nor has the economics establishment offered recognition to those economists who were not taken in by fads and fashion and whose competence, if listened to, would have prevented the collapse.

These two silences reveal a continuing moral crisis within the economics profession . The Ignoble and Noble Prizes for Economics are being offered as small first steps towards a cure.

Poll Procedures for the Ignoble Prize for Economics

Stage One: Nominations and Evidence

Nominations for both prizes are open to the international community of economists, rather than limited to a closed and secret shop. For each nominated economist an evidence page will be opened on to which people can leave evidential comments. In this way a documented case for (and against) each candidate will be built up.

I don’t know maybe we should have a prize for ignoble ideas. Efficient markets and rational expectations were pretty much baked into the reform and conservative wings of the profession. To single out Fama or Friedman seems odd. What about Krugman? He has authored how many papers with rational expectations sitting TDC? Progressive liberal economists need to take some blame for having played and purged along to get along. Economists, for the majority, were a pretty cozzy lot before the GFC. I am glad that after the GFC (and for one a faux noble) that some decided to break ranks ATF, but they enabled the general ideological climate as much as any putatively right-wing protagonist of the profession.

Selected Central Government Debt Ratios: An image begs a thousand questions

When discussing with my undergrad students why I thought Japan Inc. was bust I trotted out the graph below.  However, this morning while looking at the graph several questions came to mind.

1) From 1998 – 2008 what was average real interest rate in Japan and how does that compare to the ten years previous to 1998?

2) What has been the average level of inflation in Japan since 1998?  Again how does that compare to the 10 years previous to 1998?

I already know the answer to those questions but I would have not arrived there by any HAT (highly accepted theory).

3) Why are we even talking about programs cuts in Canada before it is clear that the world economy and the US economy has started a robust recovery? And why especially when Canada is way below the advanced capitalist curve (in terms of debt to GDP)?

Click for larger image

EI Claims Up in September

The bulk of the descriptive meat is here:

“Continued large year-over-year increases in EI beneficiaries in large centres in the West

EI data by sub-provincial region, sex and age are not seasonally adjusted. Therefore, they are compared on a year-over-year basis.

In Ontario, the number of EI recipients more than doubled in 10 of its 41 large centres between September 2008 and September 2009. In the southern part of the province, Hamilton and Kitchener saw the fastest increases in the number of beneficiaries. In Hamilton, the number of EI recipients rose from 4,800 to 10,400, while in Kitchener, the number increased from 3,900 to 8,400. At the same time, the number of EI recipients in Toronto rose from 46,300 to 86,600.

In the northern part of Ontario, Greater Sudbury continued to experience a sharp year-over-year increase. The number of EI recipients rose from 1,500 in September 2008 to 3,900 in September 2009. At the same time, employment in Greater Sudbury declined, mostly in the natural resources sector.

The large centres of Alberta with the fastest year-over-year growth rates were Grande Prairie, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Red Deer and Edmonton. In Calgary, the number of people receiving regular benefits increased sharply from 4,000 to 18,800, while the number of beneficiaries in Edmonton rose from 3,800 to 14,900. These steep increases coincided with year-over-year employment losses for the province in manufacturing; natural resources; and retail and wholesale trade.

In British Columbia, 15 of its 25 large centres had twice as many beneficiaries in September 2009 compared with September 2008. In Vancouver, the number of beneficiaries increased from 12,600 to 31,300, while in Victoria, the number rose from 1,600 to 3,700. During this year-long period, employment losses in the province occurred in a number of industries, with the largest declines in construction; professional, scientific and technical services; manufacturing; and transportation and warehousing.”

The full report is here.

We do not do spin…We don’t lose our focus: Carney the rain maker

Listening to Mark Carney talk tough is like watching Stephane Dion pound his fists on the table.  Well ok a little more credible than that.  Being a former GS man you know he knows people who know people.  Some of which I should think are quite unpleasant characters.  Problem is there is not really a robust connection between the value of the Canadian dollar and inflation or deflation.  Currency traders probably know this…at least more than they have some version of the standard (and empirically dubious) model in their head.  So when Carney says “we take our inflation target seriously.”   Currency traders likely shrug and say: “we are banking on it.”

Mr. Carney said he has a range of tools and he can use to dampen the blow of the currency’s rise, and signaled that any investor who thinks he’s shy to use them is making a mistake.

“Markets should take seriously our determination to set policy to achieve the inflation target,” Mr. Carney said. “Markets sometimes lose their focus. We don’t lose our focus.”

Carney’s problem (well actually the manufacturing sector’s problem) is that the BOC does not care about the level of activity in exports. It only cares about their target.  Full stop.  So unless deflation increases in some way that can be definitively linked to the appreciation of the CAD–which is doubtful–the BOC is not going to do anything.

Forget the Bank of Canada: We need an INVITE program to stem appreciation of the CDN Dollar.

If what we are worried about is an overvalued CDN dollar which is caused by speculative flows then why the focus on the Bank of Canada?  Exchange rates are not really in the BOC’s mandate.  Sure in the case where an appreciating CDN dollar is causing further deflationary pressures it could be argued that exchange rates are within the purview of the Bank’s mandate.

But the BOC is a conservative (in both the ideological and cultural sense) institution.  Canada does not face the same structural dynamics (problems) as the UK and the US.  And thus I doubt arguments for non-conventional monetary policy responses are going to get very far with the Bank.  Moreover there are downside risks to pursuing unconventional monetary policy.  We might get a lower exchange rate at the expense of perverse side-effects.  So forget the BOC; leave them out altogether.

Thankfully, however, when it comes to exchange rates there are policies available to the government. On such policy could be called an  Investment Inflow Tax Equilibration  program (INVITE).  It would work like this.  A simple 2% tax on all inward portfolio investment (as Brazil just announced) would help stop appreciation in its trax.  Second if we really think much of the dollar’s appreciation is being driven by gas and oil then an additional 2% tax on all oil and gas investment inflows regardless of the type (portfolio or direct) would help further dampen the speculative plays in that sector.  The terminator seed on the INVITE program would be when Canada’s manufacturing sector returned to some degree of health.

The War on EI reform Commeth

Conservative economists are up in arms that anyone could suggest lowering the qualification requirements for workers wanting to access an insurance program they are obliged to contribute but for which they do not necessarily have access.

Case in point, Stephen Gordon an economist at Laval was interviewed on CBC and he had the temerity to assert that the opposition parties were purporting to return Canadians to the dark days of UI dependency where workers worked 10 weeks and then took a “vacation” (10-42 which he admits was a small group of “users”).   An honest look at the previous programme would conclude that although there was a small user base of “bilkers” the other group was more a victim of a defunct east coast growth paradigm, entrenched rural local business interests and governments bereft of vision (with some irony what we might call an “industrial policy” the very thing conservative economists hate).  It would in fact take the complete collapse of the fishery to provoke a fundamental rethink of the structural dependence by design aspect of the old UI system. Apparently this is wrong.  They still have not yet arrived at areal solution for the structural dependence on the EI program.

But all of this is beside the point.  No one in the opposition is suggesting a return to UI as a guaranteed income scheme.  Although I do not know why this should disturb a conservative economist?  Conservative economists tend to love programs which enforce some requirement to work.  Let us call this their Victorian vice.  Indeed the reason conservative economists like the WITB is because it gives an incentive to welfare recipients an incentive to work.  It is therefore somewhat perverse that they should prefer to exclude formally employed workers from the EI system so that they can go on welfare and then be incentivised to work through programs like the WITB.  In a bizarre twist during the interview Gordon suggested that while access to the program (which all workers are forced to contribute) should remain restricted those who do qualify should have their benefits increased!  A new moral milestone: not only a distinction between the deserving poor but a distinction of merit between deserving and undeserving workers:  All enough to make a good Victorian blush at the recognition of their Dickensonian sentiments.

But I digress.  Gordon even went further and conceded that relaxing the qualifying criteria would only benefit 2% more of the unemployed.  He went further to say that there were other ways to help the poor: such as beef up the GST rebate.  For a man who does not receive the GST rebate and is woefully ignorant of how much income replacement it would represent it was not only callous it was disingenuous.  It was disingenuous because Mr. Gordon knows full well the EI system should be well funded requiring no draws on general revenue. It was only a fleecing of the program which moved billions from the program to general revenue that voila the program needed extra funding.  As an aside, this is why the finance minister’s suggestion the increased EI payments are partly to blame for the increased deficit ring hollow.  It was that minister who raided EI to make room for his silly tax cuts.

But the point is this, there is no choice between increasing benefits or increasing eligibility if we make an honest accounting of how large the surplus was in the EI fund.  Similarly it is a false choice between beefing up the GST credit or the WITB program or extending eligibility.  The EI fund should be fat; it was raided to pay for silly tax cuts that even the economist in question wrote a long blog post against.  It is therefore disingenuous to turn around and make it a question of where money is best spent.  EI is paid for by employers and employees, the fund was fat, and it was depleted by a raid on what appeared to be its fat in good times.  In short, the trade off can only be posed if one accepts the hanky panky involved in the raiding of the EI fund.

The left and Cash Transfers to the Poor: A Rejoinder to Slander

This seems so elementary that it should not have to be pointed out. Lately it has not been in my nature to get in the way of an over the top, gross generalization founded on spurious sampling techniques paired with the terrorism of gotcha journalism, however, today I am feeling frisky.

Some Guy (SG) has a blog post up about how lefties hate direct cash transfers to the poor. I can’t make heads or tails of this claim including the two random citations of lefties provided: one an individual the other a think tank (now there is rigour if I ever saw it). Unfortunately even the random citations provided were poor choice because in the one case SG failed to read the article—I suspect he is hoping you will too.

But alas we all now know that economists are to be debated not trusted. Inter alia, Duncan Cameron argued for an increase in direct cash transfers to the working, unemployed and non working poor:

“By any measure, minimum wages, welfare payments, unemployment assistance have all declined since at least the inflationary period of the 1970s. All these programs need dramatic improvements.”

There is then some irony that SG should have given his post the title: “An overlooked anti-poverty strategy: giving money to poor people.” Seemingly for SG, an increase in the cash benefits to the poor, working poor and unemployed do not quality as “giving money to the poor” (I will explain why below). And unintended irony of all irony the research reported on SG”s blog on minimum wages concludes that increases in minimum wages under a 40-45% of an average hourly wages threshold has little to a positive effect on employment. Although having an indeterminate effect on poverty.

Hence, I suppose the need for direct cash transfers of one form or another. Like uhm maybe an increase in cash benefits for welfare and EI recipients as Duncan argued? No No No No! Shrieked the vanilla economist! I will explain why further on.

In order to solve this murder mystery we will have to return to the scene of the crime. What seems to have stuck in the quick of SG was this offending remark by Duncan on EITCs as a generalized strategy for poverty reduction:

“Not even the Toronto Star editorial board seems to have noticed the problem is much wider than the working poor, and the solution greater than an earned income tax credit — aka a handout — so that lousy employers can continue to pay poverty wages.”

Clearly EITCs are SG’s preferred poverty reduction strategy—no matter that EITC’s do not have robust evidence to support the claim that they reduce poverty. In the US for example, where the program is much more robust than in Canada, the maximum benefit is around 2,700$ per year for a family with two children and around 500$ for a family without kids. And here is the kicker the EITC is phased out fully at 37,000$ for a two child two working parent family and 24,000$ for two individual no children family. I find some irony in the fact that my middle class baby manual tells me that children cost around 10,000$ a year. Therefore the idea that a 1,300$ (max) a year per child EITC in the US could be held up as major strategy to combat poverty is well simply farcical—albeit better than a kick in the ass I suppose. In any case, this is clearly where the unintended irony of a virgin gives way to self-satirisation—hardly edifying.

But the more important question is why would an economist be flogging EITCs as (a) the only form direct cash transfers should take; and (b), at the same time misrepresent the scheme as a poverty reduction scheme? The second is easier (i.e., more simple) to explain than the first. Classic misdirection—the first learned trick of magicians, pick pockets and con-artists (all of which I have infinite respect for outside of the academy).

However, the first question is more painfully answered. You see back in some early graduate seminar vanilla economists (well actually all economists because all economists have to be able to converse with vanilla economists but the reverse is not true—although some vanilla economist are capable of cross paradigm conversations) are given a tutorial on welfare policy analysis. The problem is that traditional cash transfers from say welfare or EI create an incentive for poor people not to work. All things being equal, why work if your welfare benefits will be clawed back and your earned income will be taxed? The basic thrust of the EITC is that it makes it so that work pays. And this is the real thrust of the EITC—making sure the incentive structure is designed so that the poor have an incentive to work and not layabout on the dole. It is about getting people off of welfare—which may or may not be a good thing—but it is not about poverty alleviation.

As an aside it was this I think Duncan was reacting to. Somewhat perversely, EITC’s act as a subsidy to minimum wage employers in two ways. On the one hand, they increase the labour supply of minimum wage workers thereby ensuring increased slack in their labour markets and thus downward pressure on average minimum wages. And on the other hand, they provide a subsidy to employers because the tax credit mitigates workers demand for higher wages. Perhaps this is why the program enjoys such bi-partisan support in the US.

In sum, EITCs are politically palatable because they “reward hard work” and shun the welfare system while giving the appearance of a concern about poverty. they keep in tact and rejuvenate that old Victorian separation between deserving and undeserving poor (never mind that the welfare system already reproduces this logic through extensive monitoring and what has been over the last twenty years increasing paltry benefit rates with increasingly restrictive qualification criteria).  They are, if taken in isolation as the only tool, a politically expedient, ideologically driven, and an ineffective poverty alleviation strategy sometimes garbed up in progressive rhetoric.

I welcome an honest conversation about a robust poverty alleviation strategy for Canada.  If only vanilla economists would try to meaningfully participate by jettisoning their predetermined policy preferences and erroneous characterizations of other members of the policy community. I for one am ready for a new conversation on poverty reduction in which everything is on the table–and not just facile ideological preferences masquerading as the new true social science.

Some Gloom from Around the World

Germany has announced a predicted 6% contraction for 2009.  Unemployment is over 8%.

Japan has announced a predicted 3.3% contraction for April 2009 to April 2010.

The UK is sticking to its 3.5% contraction call for 2009.  Unemployment is currently 6.7%

The US just came out with dismal numbers (-6.1% for the first quarter) and the projected contraction for 2009 is officially still 1.2%.  Unemployment is 8.5%.

Ireland has projected a 8.3% contraction and unemployment is now over 11%.

Sweden is projecting a 4.5% contraction for 2009 and unemployment currently is over 8%.

China where good data is is hard to come by is looking at projected growth of 5-7%.  But to put that into perspective it translates into a roughly estimated 40-50 million unemployed workers!

Canada has projected a 3% contraction for 2009 and currently has unemployment rate of 8%.

Today’s Big Question

Today’s big question is will bond holders take an equity stake in GM or risk a severe hair cut in bankruptcy court. I have no particular experience in Corporate US bankruptcy law so I am hard pressed to see the angles. It strikes me though that given the union has already accepted a swap and the Government the Bond holders are in a precarious state as the major principles have agreed to make the swap. Yet in this ideological climate where the non-governmental financial sector in the US has a huge sense of entitlement and there still exists tremendous ideological support for a certain noblesse oblige in official quarters when it comes to private finance I just can’t come to good sense of what the bondholders know that the rest of us don’t.

Canadians have a particular interest in all this because both the feds and the provinces have stepped in to provide financial support and the unions at Chrysler in any event are posed to take it on the chin. I personally find a debt for equity swap appealing; or in the case of workers a concessions for equity alternative more appealing than the gun of bankruptcy court.

It does beg the question, from a strategic point of view, if the CAW would not be smart to be making a concessions for equity play so that in the event that Chrysler did end up in bankruptcy they would appear to have already been willing to take on the risk and cast the bondholders in a dim light.

In some corners workers taking equity stakes in a context in which they do not enjoy control is a sticky wicket. I am sympathetic to this position, but I think with a little savvy they could play their equity stakes for bigger control. And the sticky wicket argument assumes that if workers take a stake they end up over-identifying with the company and its future viability as a capitalist enterprise and thereby internalise the boss’ voice in their head. That is likely true, but they do so independent of an equity stake in times such as these. So the real question becomes are auto workers capable of running a car company? I think the answer is yes and further I think they are capable of running better car companies than management. Line workers in tandem with engineers could do incredible things from better product design to better assembly design.

There is the argument to be made that when workers take the step towards managing themselves they take a step towards managing their economy.  And I can’t help but think that workers with better sense of how things work at each stage of finance production and distribution would be a useful paliative to today’s malaise and the glib attitude of our ruling class.

Perhaps a more aggressive stance around the bargaining table would enhance the opportunities for workers self control and direction. Perhaps not…but that is the really big question for today.