Posts tagged ‘GDP’

Climate Alarmism In One Statement: "Limited Evidence, High Agreement"

From James Delingpole:

The draft version of the report's Summary For Policymakers made the startling admission that the economic damage caused by "climate change" would be between 0.2 and 2 percent of global GDP - significantly less than the doomsday predictions made in the 2006 Stern report (which estimated the damage at between 5 and 20 percent of global GDP).

But this reduced estimate did not suit the alarmist narrative of several of the government delegations at the recent IPCC talks in Yokahama, Japan. Among them was the British one, comprising several members of the deep green Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which insisted on doctoring this section of the Summary For Policymakers in order to exaggerate the potential for more serious economic damage.

"Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range (limited evidence, high agreement)"

There was no evidence whatsoever in the body of the report to justify this statement.

I find it fascinating that there can be "high agreement" to a statement for which there is limited or no evidence.  Fortunately these are all self-proclaimed defenders of science or I might think this was purely a political statement.

Note that the most recent IPCC reports and new published studies on climate sensitivity tend to say that 1) warming in the next century will be 1-2C, not the much higher numbers previously forecast; 2)  That warming will not be particularly expensive to manage and mitigate and 3) we are increasingly less sure that warming is causing all sorts of negative knock-on effects like more hurricanes.  In other words, opinion is shifting to where science-based skeptics have been all along (since 2007 in my case).  No surprise or shame here.  What is shameful though is that as evidence points more and more to the lukewarmer skeptic position, we are still called evil heretical deniers that should be locked in jail.  Like telling Galileo, "you were right about that whole heliocentric thing but we still think you are evil for suggesting it."

We Are All Lukewarmers Now

Matt Ridley has another very good editorial in the WSJ that again does a great job of outlining what I think of as the core skeptic position.  Read the whole thing, but a few excerpts:

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will shortly publish the second part of its latest report, on the likely impact of climate change. Government representatives are meeting with scientists in Japan to sex up—sorry, rewrite—a summary of the scientists' accounts of storms, droughts and diseases to come. But the actual report, known as AR5-WGII, is less frightening than its predecessor seven years ago.

The 2007 report was riddled with errors about Himalayan glaciers, the Amazon rain forest, African agriculture, water shortages and other matters, all of which erred in the direction of alarm. This led to a critical appraisal of the report-writing process from a council of national science academies, some of whose recommendations were simply ignored.

Others, however, hit home. According to leaks, this time the full report is much more cautious and vague about worsening cyclones, changes in rainfall, climate-change refugees, and the overall cost of global warming.

It puts the overall cost at less than 2% of GDP for a 2.5 degrees Centigrade (or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase during this century. This is vastly less than the much heralded prediction of Lord Stern, who said climate change would cost 5%-20% of world GDP in his influential 2006 report for the British government.

It is certainly a strange branch of science where major reports omit a conclusion because that conclusion is not what they wanted to see

The IPCC's September 2013 report abandoned any attempt to estimate the most likely "sensitivity" of the climate to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The explanation, buried in a technical summary not published until January, is that "estimates derived from observed climate change tend to best fit the observed surface and ocean warming for [sensitivity] values in the lower part of the likely range." Translation: The data suggest we probably face less warming than the models indicate, but we would rather not say so.

Readers of this site will recognize this statement

None of this contradicts basic physics. Doubling carbon dioxide cannot on its own generate more than about 1.1C (2F) of warming, however long it takes. All the putative warming above that level would come from amplifying factors, chiefly related to water vapor and clouds. The net effect of these factors is the subject of contentious debate.

I have reluctantly accepted the lukewarmer title, though I think it is a bit lame.

In climate science, the real debate has never been between "deniers" and the rest, but between "lukewarmers," who think man-made climate change is real but fairly harmless, and those who think the future is alarming. Scientists like Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Richard Lindzen of MIT have moved steadily toward lukewarm views in recent years.

When I make presentations, I like to start with the following (because it gets everyone's attention):  "Yes, I am a denier.  But to say 'denier', implies that one is denying some specific proposition.  What is that proposition?  It can't be 'global warming' because propositions need verbs, otherwise it is like saying one denies weather.  I don't deny that the world has warmed over the last century.  I don't deny that natural factors play a role in this (though many alarmists seem to).  I don't even deny that man has contributed incrementally to this warming.  What I deny is the catastrophe.  Specifically, I deny that man's CO2 will warm the Earth enough to create a catastrophe.  I define "catastrophe" as an outcome where the costs of immediately reducing CO2 output with the associated loss in economic growth would be substantially less than the cost of future adaption and abatement. "

Explaining the Flaw in Kevin Drum's (and Apparently Science Magazine's) Climate Chart

I won't repeat the analysis, you need to see it here.  Here is the chart in question:

la-sci-climate-warming

My argument is that the smoothing and relatively low sampling intervals in the early data very likely mask variations similar to what we are seeing in the last 100 years -- ie they greatly exaggerate the smoothness of history and create a false impression that recent temperature changes are unprecedented (also the grey range bands are self-evidently garbage, but that is another story).

Drum's response was that "it was published in Science."  Apparently, this sort of appeal to authority is what passes for data analysis in the climate world.

Well, maybe I did not explain the issue well.  So I found a political analysis that may help Kevin Drum see the problem.  This is from an actual blog post by Dave Manuel (this seems to be such a common data analysis fallacy that I found an example on the first page of my first Google search).  It is an analysis of average GDP growth by President.  I don't know this Dave Manuel guy and can't comment on the data quality, but let's assume the data is correct for a moment.  Quoting from his post:

Here are the individual performances of each president since 1948:

1948-1952 (Harry S. Truman, Democrat), +4.82%

1953-1960 (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican), +3%

1961-1964 (John F. Kennedy / Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat), +4.65%

1965-1968 (Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat), +5.05%

1969-1972 (Richard Nixon, Republican), +3%

1973-1976 (Richard Nixon / Gerald Ford, Republican), +2.6%

1977-1980 (Jimmy Carter, Democrat), +3.25%

1981-1988 (Ronald Reagan, Republican), 3.4%

1989-1992 (George H. W. Bush, Republican), 2.17%

1993-2000 (Bill Clinton, Democrat), 3.88%

2001-2008 (George W. Bush, Republican), +2.09%

2009 (Barack Obama, Democrat), -2.6%

Let's put this data in a chart:

click to enlarge

 

Look, a hockey stick , right?   Obama is the worst, right?

In fact there is a big problem with this analysis, even if the data is correct.  And I bet Kevin Drum can get it right away, even though it is the exact same problem as on his climate chart.

The problem is that a single year of Obama's is compared to four or eight years for other presidents.  These earlier presidents may well have had individual down economic years - in fact, Reagan's first year was almost certainly a down year for GDP.  But that kind of volatility is masked because the data points for the other presidents represent much more time, effectively smoothing variability.

Now, this chart has a difference in sampling frequency of 4-8x between the previous presidents and Obama.  This made a huge difference here, but it is a trivial difference compared to the 1 million times greater sampling frequency of modern temperature data vs. historical data obtained by looking at proxies (such as ice cores and tree rings).  And, unlike this chart, the method of sampling is very different across time with temperature - thermometers today are far more reliable and linear measurement devices than trees or ice.  In our GDP example, this problem roughly equates to trying to compare the GDP under Obama (with all the economic data we collate today) to, say, the economic growth rate under Henry the VIII.  Or perhaps under Ramses II.   If I showed that GDP growth in a single month under Obama was less than the average over 66 years under Ramses II, and tried to draw some conclusion from that, I think someone might challenge my analysis.  Unless of course it appears in Science, then it must be beyond question.

If You Don't Like People Saying That Climate Science is Absurd, Stop Publishing Absurd Un-Scientific Charts

Kevin Drum can't believe the folks at the National Review are still calling global warming science a "myth".  As is usual for global warming supporters, he wraps himself in the mantle of science while implying that those who don't toe the line on the declared consensus are somehow anti-science.

Readers will know that as a lukewarmer, I have as little patience with outright CO2 warming deniers as I do with those declaring a catastrophe  (for my views read this and this).  But if you are going to simply be thunderstruck that some people don't trust climate scientists, then don't post a chart that is a great example of why people think that a lot of global warming science is garbage.  Here is Drum's chart:

la-sci-climate-warming

 

The problem is that his chart is a splice of multiple data series with very different time resolutions.  The series up to about 1850 has data points taken at best every 50 years and likely at 100-200 year or more intervals.  It is smoothed so that temperature shifts less than 200 years or so in length won't show up and are smoothed out.

In contrast, the data series after 1850 has data sampled every day or even hour.  It has a sampling interval 6 orders of magnitude (over a million times) more frequent.  It by definition is smoothed on a time scale substantially shorter than the rest of the data.

In addition, these two data sets use entirely different measurement techniques.  The modern data comes from thermometers and satellites, measurement approaches that we understand fairly well.  The earlier data comes from some sort of proxy analysis (ice cores, tree rings, sediments, etc.)  While we know these proxies generally change with temperature, there are still a lot of questions as to their accuracy and, perhaps more importantly for us here, whether they vary linearly or have any sort of attenuation of the peaks.  For example, recent warming has not shown up as strongly in tree ring proxies, raising the question of whether they may also be missing rapid temperature changes or peaks in earlier data for which we don't have thermometers to back-check them (this is an oft-discussed problem called proxy divergence).

The problem is not the accuracy of the data for the last 100 years, though we could quibble this it is perhaps exaggerated by a few tenths of a degree.  The problem is with the historic data and using it as a valid comparison to recent data.  Even a 100 year increase of about a degree would, in the data series before 1850, be at most a single data point.  If the sampling is on 200 year intervals, there is a 50-50 chance a 100 year spike would be missed entirely in the historic data.  And even if it were in the data as a single data point, it would be smoothed out at this data scale.

Do you really think that there was never a 100-year period in those last 10,000 years where the temperatures varied by more than 0.1F, as implied by this chart?  This chart has a data set that is smoothed to signals no finer than about 200 years and compares it to recent data with no such filter.  It is like comparing the annualized GDP increase for the last quarter to the average annual GDP increase for the entire 19th century.   It is easy to demonstrate how silly this is.  If you cut the chart off at say 1950, before much anthropogenic effect will have occurred, it would still look like this, with an anomalous spike at the right (just a bit shorter).  If you believe this analysis, you have to believe that there is an unprecedented spike at the end even without anthropogenic effects.

There are several other issues with this chart that makes it laughably bad for someone to use in the context of arguing that he is the true defender of scientific integrity

  • The grey range band is if anything an even bigger scientific absurdity than the main data line.  Are they really trying to argue that there were no years, or decades, or even whole centuries that never deviated from a 0.7F baseline anomaly by more than 0.3F for the entire 4000 year period from 7500 years ago to 3500 years ago?  I will bet just about anything that the error bars on this analysis should be more than 0.3F, much less the range of variability around the mean.  Any natural scientist worth his or her salt would laugh this out of the room.  It is absurd.  But here it is presented as climate science in the exact same article that the author expresses dismay that anyone would distrust climate science.
  • A more minor point, but one that disguises the sampling frequency problem a bit, is that the last dark brown shaded area on the right that is labelled "the last 100 years" is actually at least 300 years wide.  Based on the scale, a hundred years should be about one dot on the x axis.  This means that 100 years is less than the width of the red line, and the last 60 years or the real anthropogenic period is less than half the width of the red line.  We are talking about a temperature change whose duration is half the width of the red line, which hopefully gives you some idea why I say the data sampling and smoothing processes would disguise any past periods similar to the most recent one.

Update:  Kevin Drum posted a defense of this chart on Twitter.  Here it is:  "It was published in Science."   Well folks, there is climate debate in a nutshell.   An 1000-word dissection of what appears to be wrong with a particular analysis retorted by a five-word appeal to authority.

Update #2:  I have explained the issue with a parallel flawed analysis from politics where Drum is more likely to see the flaws.

USA Today: Shutdown Has Trivial, Unmeasurable Impact on Economy

OK, actually, they did not use the words "trivial" and "unmeasurable."  But they could have.  What they actually said in a story splashed across the front page:

The 16-day government shutdown cost the economy jobs, delayed mortgages and lost retail sales — at least $12 billion worth, and maybe as much as $24 billion

$12-24 Billion is between 0.08% and 0.15% of GDP.  This is for a shutdown of the government for 4.4% of the year (16 days divided by 365).   That hardly seems like a substantial impact, and not at all in line with the scare stories in advance of the shutdown.  (And this is coming from someone who was impacted a lot, though due to illegal actions by the administration).

The Difference Between Private and Public Governance, Part Number Whatever

Let's suppose a Fortune 500 company went through a rancorous internal debate about strategic priorities, perhaps even resulting in proxy fights and such (think Blackberry, HP, and many other examples).  The debate and uncertainty makes investors nervous.  So when the debate has been settled, what does the CEO say?  My guess is that he or she will do everything they can to calm investors, explain that the internal debate was a sign of a healthy response to adversity, and reiterate to the markets that the company is set to be stronger than ever.  The CEO is going to do everything they can to rebuild confidence and downplay the effects of the internal debate.

Here is President Obama today, talking about the budget battle

“Probably nothing has done more damage to America’s credibility in the world than the spectacle we’ve seen these past few weeks,” the president said in an impassioned White House appearance.

Good God, its like he's urging a sell order on his own stock.   I was early in observing the Republican strategy was stupid and doomed to failure, but you have to show a little statesmanship as President.

Postscript:  

Standard & Poor’s estimated the shutdown has taken $24 billion out of the economy.

If this is true, this number is trivial.  0.15% of GDP (and this from someone hurt more than most) loss from a government shutdown about 4.4% of the year (16/365)

Trading $1 in Debt for 85 cents of Economic Activity

UPDATE:  Mea culpa.  One point in the original post was dead wrong.  It is possible, contrary to what I wrote below, to get something like a 0.7%  difference in annual growth rates with the assumptions he has in the chart below (Drum still exaggerated when he called it 1%).  I don't know if the model is valid (I have little faith in any macro models) but I was wrong on this claim.  Using the 0.7% and working more carefully by quarter we get a cumulative GDP addition a bit lower than the cumulative debt addition.  There is still obviously a reasonable question even at a multiplier near 1 whether $1 of economic activity today is worth $1 of debt repayment plus interest in the future.  

I am not a believer, obviously, in cyclical tweaking of the economy by the Feds.  To my thinking, the last recession was caused by a massive government-driven mis-allocation of capital so further heavy-handed government allocation of capital seems like a poor solution.  But what really drives me crazy is that most folks on the Left will seductively argue that now is not the time to reduce debt levels, implying sometime in the future when the economy is better will be the appropriate time.  But when, in any expansion, have you heard anyone on the Left say, "hey, its time to reduce spending and cut debt because we need the fiscal flexibility next time the economy goes wrong."

I will leave the stuff in error below in the post because I don't think it is right to disappear mistakes.  For transparency, my spreadsheet reconstruction both confirming the 0.7% and with the updated numbers below is here:   reconstruction.xls.

 

Kevin Drum is flogging the austerity horse again

I see that Macroecomic Advisors has produced a comprehensive estimate of the total effect of bad fiscal policies. Their conclusion: austerity policies since the start of 2011 have cut GDP growth by about 1 percentage point per year.

Something seemed odd to me -- when I opened up the linked study, it said the "lost" government discretionary spending is about 2% of GDP.  Is Drum really arguing that we should be spending 2% of GDP to increase GDP by 1%?

Of course, the math does not work quite this way given compounding and such, but it did cause me to check things out.  The first thing I learned is that Drum partook of some creative rounding.  The study actually said reductions in discretionary spending as a percent of GDP reduced GDP growth rates since the beginning of 2011 by 0.7% a year, not 1% (the study does mention a 1% number but this includes other effects as well).

But it is weirder than that, because here is the chart in the study that is supposed to support the 0.7% number:

click to enlarge

Note that in the quarterly data, only 2 quarters appear to show a 0.7% difference and all the others are less.  I understand that compounding can do weird things, but how can the string of numbers represented by the green bars net to 0.7%?  What it looks like they did is just read off the last bar, which would be appropriate if they were doing some sort of cumulative model, but that is not how the chart is built.  If we interpolate actual values and are relatively careful about getting the compounding right, the difference is actually about 0.45%.  So now we are down to less than half the number Drum quoted see update above (I sent an email to the study author for clarification but have not heard back.  Update:  he was nice enough to send me a quick email).

So let's accept this 0.45% 0.7% number for a moment.  If GDP started somewhere around 16 trillion in 2010, if we apply a 0.45% the quarterly growth numbers from his chart, we get an incremental economic activity from 2011 through 2013:Q2 of about $333 billion.

So now look at the spending side.  The source says that discretionary spending fell by about 2% of GDP over this period.  From the graph above, it seems to bite pretty early, but we will assume it fell 1/12 of this 2% figure each quarter, so that by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 we get a fall in spending by 2% of GDP.  Cumulatively, this would be a reduction in spending over the 2.5 years vs. some "non-austere" benchmark of $388 billion.

Thus, in exchange for running up $677 billion $388 billion in additional debt, we would have had $445 billion $333 billion in incremental economic activity.  A couple of reactions:

  1. Having the government borrow money and spend it definitely increases near-term GDP.  No one disputes that.  It is not even in question.  Those of us who favor reigning in government spending acknowledge this.  The question is, at what cost in terms of future obligations.  In fact, this very study Drum is quoting says

    Economists agree that failure to shrink prospective deficits and debt will bestow significant economic consequences and risks on future generations. Federal deficits drive up interest rates, “crowding out” private investment. If government borrowing supports consumption (e.g., through Social Security and major health programs) rather than public investment, the nation’s overall capital stock declines, undermining our standard of living. The process is slow but the eventual impact is large.2 In addition, accumulating debt raises the risk of a fiscal crisis. No one can say when this might occur but, unlike crowding out, a debt crisis could develop unexpectedly once debt reached high levels.

    High deficits and debt also undermine the efficacy of macroeconomic policies and reduce policymakers’ flexibility to respond to unexpected events. For example, in a recession, it would be harder to provide fiscal stimulus if deficits and debt already were high. Furthermore, fiscal stimulus might be less effective then. Additional deficit spending could be seen as pushing the nation closer to crisis, thereby forcing up interest rates and undercutting the effects of the stimulus. With fiscal policy hamstrung, the burden of counter-cyclical policy is thrust on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) but, particularly in a low interest-rate environment, the FOMC may be unable (or unwilling) to provide additional monetary
    stimulus.

  2. I guess we have pretty much given up on the >1 multiplier, huh?  Beggaring our children for incremental economic growth today is a risky enough strategy, but particularly so with the implied .66 .85 multiplier here.

This is not the first time Drum has taken, uh, creative data approaches to cry "austerity" during a mad spending spree. 

Eeek! Austerity! Oh, Never Mind.

Yesterday I challenged a graph by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones as being a disingenuous attempt to paint US government spending as some sort of crazed austerity program which is making the recovery worse.  He uses this graph to "prove" that our fiscal response to this recession is weak vis a vis past recessions.  The graph is a bit counter-intuitive -- note that it begins at the end of each recession.  His point is that Keynesian spending needs to continue long after (five years ?!) after the recession is over to guarantee a good recovery, and that we have not done that.

Click to enlarge

For anyone not steeped in the special reality of the reality-based community, it is a bit counter intuitive for those of us who have actually lived through the last 5 years to call government spending austere.

The key is in the dates he selects.  He leaves out the actual recession years.  So by his chart, responses that are late and occur after the recession look better than responses that are fast and large but happen during the recession.  This seems odd, but it is the conclusion one has to draw.

I took roughly the same data and started each line two years earlier, so that my first year is two years ahead of his graph and the zero year in my graph is the same as the zero point in Drum's chart.  His data is better in the sense that he has quarterly data and I only have annual.  Mine is better in that it looks at changes in spending as a percentage of GDP, which I would guess would be the more relevant Keynesian metric (it also helps us correct for the chicken and egg problem of increased government spending being due to, rather than causing, economic expansion).

Here are the results (I tried to use roughly the same colors for the same data series, but who in the world with the choice of the entire color pallet uses two almost identical blues?)

recession-redux2

You can see that Drum makes spending look lower in the current recession by carefully dating the data series to the peak of the spending, rather than comparing it to pre-recession levels.  The right hand scale is the difference in government spending as a percentage of GDP from the -2 year.  So, for example, in the current recession government spending was 34.2% in 2007 and 41.4% in 2009 for a reading of 7.2% in year 0.

Even with the flat spending over the last three or four years in the current recession (flat nominal spending leads do a declining percent of GDP) the spending increase from pre-recession levels is still about twice as high as in other recent recessions.

Does this look like austerity to anyone?

Deceptive Chart of the Day from Kevin Drum and Mother Jones to Desperately Sell the "Austerity" Hypothesis

Update:  OK, I pulled together the data and did what Drum should have done, is take the graph back to pre-recession levels.  Shouldn't it be even better if the increase in spending came during the recession rather than after?  See update here.

Kevin Drum complains about US government austerity (I know, I know, only some cocooned progressive could describe recent history as austerity, but let's deal with his argument).  He uses this chart to "prove" that we have been austere vs. other recessions, and thus austerity helps explain why recovery from this recession has been particularly slow.  Here is his chart

Austerity_2_WM_630

This is absurdly disingenuous.  Why?  Simple -- it is impossible to evaluate post recession spending without looking at what spending did during the recession.   All these numbers begin after the recession is over.  But what if, in the current recession, we increased spending much more than in other recessions.  We would still be at a higher level vs. pre-recession spending now, despite a lack of further increases after the recession.

In the time before this chart even starts, total state, local, Federal spending increased from 2007 to 2008 by 10.2%.  It increased another 11.1 % from 2008 to 2009.  So he starts the chart at the peak, only AFTER spending had increased in response to the recession by 22.5%.  Had he started the chart at the correct date and not at a self-serving one, my guess is that it would have shown that in this recession we increased spending more than any other recent recession, not less.  So went digging for some data.

I actually have a day job, so I don't have time to create a chart of total government spending since 1981, so I will look at just Federal spending, but it makes my point.  I scavenged this chart from Factcheck.org.  The purple bars are the year that each of Drum's data series begin plus the year prior (which is excluded from Drum's chart).  Essentially the growth in spending between the two purple lines is the growth left out just ahead of when Drum started each data series in his chart.  The chart did not go back to 1981 so I could not do that year.

click to enlarge

Hopefully, you can see why I say that Drum is disingenuous for not going back to pre-recession numbers.  In this case, you can see the current recession has an unprecedented pop in spending in the year before Drum starts his data series, so it is not surprising that post recession spending might be flatter (remember, the pairs of purple lines are essentially the change in spending the year before each of Drum's data series).  In fact, it is very clear that relative to the pre-recession year of 2008 (really 2007, but I will give him a small break), even after 5 years of "austerity" our federal spending as a percent of GDP will be far higher than in any other recession he considers.  In no previous recession in this era did post recession spending end up more than 2 points higher (as a percent of GDP) than pre-recession levels.    In this recession, we are likely to end up 4-5 points higher.

By the way, isn't it possible that he has cause and effect reversed?  He argues that post-recession recovery was faster in other recessions because government spending kept increasing over five years after the recession is over.  But isn't it just possible that the truth is the reverse -- that government spending increased more rapidly after other recessions because recovery was faster, thus increasing tax revenues. Congress then promptly spent the new revenues on new toys.

Let's look at the same chart, highlighted in a different way.  I will circle the 4-5 years included in each of Drum's data series:

spending-2

You can see that despite the fact that government spending in these prior recessions was increasing in real terms, it was falling in two our of three of them as a percentage of GDP (the third increased due to war spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, spending which I, and I suspect Drum, would hesitate to call stimulative, particular since he and others at the time called it a jobless recovery).

How can it be that spending was increasing but falling as a percent of GDP?  Because the GDP was growing really fast, faster than government spending.  This does not prove my point, but is a good indicator that recovery is likely leading spending increases, rather than the other way around.

Keynesian Multiplier of 0.05

So much for that Keynesian stimulus notion (emphasis in the original)

With everyone focused on the 5th anniversary of the Lehman failure, we are taking a quick look at how the world's developed (G7) nations have fared since 2008, and just what the cost to restore "stability" has been. In a nutshell: the G7 have added around $18tn of consolidated debt to a record $140 trillion, relative to only $1tn of nominal GDP activity and nearly $5tn of G7 central bank balance sheet expansion (Fed+BoJ+BoE+ECB). In other words, over the past five years in the developed world, it took $18 dollars of debt (of which 28% was provided by central banks) to generate $1 of growth. For all talk of "deleveraging" G7 consolidated debt has been at a record high 440% for the past four years.

The theory of stimulus -- taking money out of the productive economy, where it is spent based on the information of hundreds of millions of people as to the relative value of millions of potential investments, and handing it to the government to spend based on political calculus -- never made a lick of sense to me.  I guess I would have assumed the multiplier in the short term was fractional but at least close to one, indicating in the short run that if we borrow and dump the money into the economy we would get some short-term growth, only to have to pay the piper later.  But we are not even seeing this.

The Problem with Infrastructure

Obama, accompanied by the usual chorus on the Left including Kevin Drum, is yet again trumpeting infrastructure spending as a partial economic solution for what ails us, in part based on a McKinsey Global Institute report.   Infrastructure is like education (the other half of the Obama "plan") -- it's hard to find anyone against it per se, it is easy to find examples of it failing, and it is really hard to craft programs at the Federal level that really improve anything.

Having been inside the McKinsey sausage factor for five years, I was loath to just accept their conclusion without seeing the data, so I read the section of the report on infrastructure.  Having read the report, I still don't see how they got to the under-funding number.  Some of the evidence is laughably biased, such as pronouncements from the American Society of Civil Engineers, who clearly would be thrilled with more government infrastructure spending.  The rest comes from something called the world economic forum, but I simply don't have the energy right now to follow the pea any further.

I had two reactions to this plan:

  1. Presumably what infrastructure projects we choose matters, so how can we have any confidence (given things like our green energy investment program) that these investments will be chosen wisely and not based on political expediency?
  2. From my experience, and also from the McKinsey numbers, most of the infrastructure needs are refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure, rather than new infrastructure.  But politicians are typically loath to make these kind of investments, preferring to offer new toys to voters rather than saying all that money was spent just to keep their existing toys.  Just look at the DC metro system, which is still pursuing expensive expansion plans at the same time it refuses to perform capital maintenance and replacement on its current crumbling infrastructure.  Or look at Detroit which is falling apart but still wants to spend $400 million on a new hockey rink.

I was pleasantly surprised that McKinsey actually raised both of these issues as critical.  To the point about project selection:

To effectively deploy additional investment in infrastructure, the United States will have to improve its performance on project election, timely delivery and execution, and maintenance and renewal. This could raise the overall productivity of US infrastructure by as much as 40 percent and generate more economic impact for every dollar spent. And there is added pressure to raise infrastructure productivity today: as commodity prices rise, input costs are going up as well. In extreme circumstances, this can even lead to spot shortages of asphalt and other critical materials, making productive use of such assets even more important.

One of the most effective ways to make infrastructure investment more productive is to choose the right mix of projects from the outset. Too often, the primary approval criteria for project selection in the United States are political support and visibility rather than comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.129 Even when economic analysis is used, it is not always rigorous, or it may be disregarded in actual decision making. When state and local governments choose sub-optimal projects, the cost of financing rises, so focusing on those projects with the clearest returns is a crucial part of taking a more cost-effective approach for the nation as a whole.

In addition, planners at all levels of US government tend to have a bias toward addressing congestion and bottlenecks by building new capacity. But rather than immediately jumping to build new infrastructure projects to solve problems,
planners and project sponsors might first consider refurbishing existing assets or using technology to get more out of them. (See “Better maintenance, optimization, and demand management can extend the life of existing infrastructure assets” later in this chapter.)

The McKinsey study is not arguing for Keynesian digging holes and filling them in again.   They are arguing for infrastructure spending but only if it is better targeted than such programs have been in the past.   Anything about this Administration (or any other Administration, really) that gives you confidence this will happen?

In fact, they argue that a large reason for under-developed infrastructure is not the spending level per se but the insanely inefficient way in which government spends the money

Delays and cost overruns are a familiar refrain in infrastructure projects. Boston’s Big Dig, for example, remains the costliest highway project in US history and was plagued by years of delay and shoddy construction. Originally estimated at $2.6 billion, it now has a final price tag estimated by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation at $24.3 billion, including interest on borrowing. More recently, the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge is being completed almost a decade late, and its original budget of $1.3 billion has grown to more than $6 billion.

Finally, their recommendation focuses more on maintenance and the prosaic, rather than expensive sexy headline grabbing investments (cough California high speed rail cough) that politicians prefer

Another major strategy for increasing infrastructure productivity involves maximizing the life span and capacity of existing assets. In many cases, directing more resources to these areas may be a more cost-effective choice for policy makers than new build-outs.

First, there is a need to focus more attention on maintenance, refurbishment, and renewal. This is an increasingly urgent issue for the nation’s aging water infrastructure, much of which was built in the years immediately after World War II; some of the nation’s oldest pipe systems are now more than a century old. Even more recent water treatment plants will need refurbishment: many built in the
1970s after passage of the Clean Water Act will soon require rehabilitation or replacement. Proactive maintenance to upgrade and extend the life of these aging systems is becoming a more urgent priority.

The study uses a GDP multiplier of 1.77 for infrastructure spending, which explains why their claimed GDP impacts are so high.  Using this kind of chicked-in-every-pot high multiplier will of course make infrastructure spending seem like a no-brainer.  Of course those of us with more sympathy towards Austrian economics, wherein recessions are caused by misallocations of capital, will worry that this kind of government spending program, shifting private resources to public decision makers to spend, will only double down on the same crap that caused the recession in the first place.  I grew up with Japan's MITI being praised as a model by the American Left, watched the lost decades that followed this government-directed investment program, and believe that a similar reckoning is coming in China.

A Couple of Thoughts About Reinhart & Rogoff

As quick background, R&R had a study that found that higher government debt levels correlated to lower, even negative, economic growth.  More recently, others have found computational errors that exaggerated this result, and have criticized their methodology, particularly their approach to weighting data from different countries and years.

A few thoughts:

  1. A major reasons the errors were found is that R&R actually made their data available for replication.  This is apparently rare - certainly it is rare in the climate world.  I am glad they are getting kudos for this and hope the academic world can find a way to incentivize / force more data sharing
  2. I would not have expected a direct relationship between country debt levels and economic growth.  What I would expect is that growth can still be good at higher debt levels, but the risk of hitting a tipping point starts to rise dangerously with debt levels.  Eventually levels get so high that an interest rate shock or liquidity shock is almost inevitable
  3. More than a relation between GDP growth and absolute debt levels, I would have expected a relationship between GDP growth and changes in debt level.  Absolute government debt levels may represent resources removed from the productive economy years and decades earlier.  Increases in government debt represent recent decreases in capital available for productive use.

Sequester Fear-Mongering, State Version

The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening.  I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media.  Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge.  Case in point, from here in AZ.  This is a "news" article in our main Phoenix paper:

Arizona stands to lose nearly 49,200 jobs and as much as $4.9 billion in gross state product this year if deep automatic spending cuts go into effect Friday, and the bulk of the jobs and lost production would be carved from the defense industry.

Virtually all programs, training and building projects at the state’s military bases would be downgraded, weakening the armed forces’ defense capabilities, according to military spokesmen.

“It’s devastating and it’s outrageous and it’s shameful,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told about 200 people during a recent town-hall meeting in Phoenix.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to harm Arizona’s economy dramatically,” McCain said.

Estimates vary on the precise number of jobs at stake in Arizona, but there’s wide agreement that more than a year of political posturing on sequestration in Washington will leave deep economic ruts in Arizona.

Not a single person who is skeptical of these estimates is quoted in the entirety of the article.  The entire incremental cut of the sequester in discretionary spending this year is, from page 11 of the most recent CBO report, about $35 billion (larger numbers you may have seen around 70-80 billion include dollars that were going away anyway, sequester or not, which just shows the corruption of this process and the reporting on it.)

Dividing this up based on GDP, about 1/18th of this cut would apply to Arizona, giving AZ a cut in Federal spending of around $2 billion.  It takes a heroic multiplier to get from that to  $4.9 billion in GDP loss.  Its amazing to me that Republicans assume multipliers less than 1 for all government spending, except for defense (and sports stadiums) which magically take on multipliers of 2+.

Update:  I wrote the following letter to the Editor today:

I was amazed that in Paul Giblin’s February 26 article on looming sequester cuts [“Arizona Defense Industry, Bases Would Bear Brunt Of Spending Cuts”], he was able to write 38 paragraphs and yet could not find space to hear from a single person exercising even a shred of skepticism about these doom and gloom forecasts.

The sequester rhetoric that Giblin credulously parrots is part of a game that has been played for decades, with government agencies and large corporations that supply them swearing that even trivial cuts will devastate the economy.  They reinforce this sky-is-falling message by threatening to cut all the most, rather than least, visible and important tasks and programs in order to scare the public into reversing the cuts.  The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on military.

It is a corrupt, yet predictable, game, and it is disappointing to see the ArizonaRepublic playing along so eagerly.

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Forgetting the Fed -- Why a Recovery May Actually Increase Public Debt

Note:  I am not an expert on the Fed or the operation of the money supply.  Let me know if I am missing something fundamental below

Kevin Drum dredges up this chart from somewhere to supposedly demonstrate that only a little bit of spending cuts are needed to achieve fiscal stability.

Likely the numbers in this chart are a total crock - spending cuts over 10 years are never as large as the government forecasts and tax increases, particularly on the rich, seldom yield as much revenue as expected.

But leave those concerns aside.  What about the Fed?  The debt as a percent of GDP shown for 2012 in this chart is around 72%.  Though it is not labelled as such, this means that this chart is showing public, rather than total, government debt.  The difference is the amount of debt held by federal agencies.  Of late, this amount has been increasing rapidly as the Fed buys Federal debt with printed money.  Currently the total debt as a percent of GDP is something like 101%.

The Left likes to use the public debt number, both because it is lower and because it has been rising more slowly than total debt (due to the unprecedented growth of the Fed's balance sheet the last several years).  But if one insists on making 10-year forecasts of public debt rather than total debt, then one must also forecast Fed actions as part of the mix.

Specifically, the Fed almost certainly will have to start selling some of the debt on its books to the public when the economy starts to recover.  That, at least, is the theory as I understand it: when interest rates can't be lowered further, the Fed can apply further stimulus via quantitative easing, the expansion of the money supply achieved by buying US debt with printed money.  But the flip side of that theory is that when the economy starts to heat up, that debt has to be sold again, sopping up the excess money supply to avoid inflation.  In effect, this will increase the public debt relative to the total debt.

It is pretty clear that the authors of this chart have not assumed any selling of debt from the Fed balance sheet.  The Fed holds about $2 trillion in assets more than it held before the financial crisis, so that selling these into a recovery would increase the public debt as a percent of GDP by 12 points.  In fact, I don't know how they get the red line dropping like it does unless they assume the current QE goes on forever, ie that the FED continues to sop up a half trillion dollars or so of debt every year and takes it out of public hands.

This is incredibly unrealistic.  While a recovery will likely be the one thing that tends to slow the rise of total debt, it may well force the Fed to dump a lot of its balance sheet (and certainly end QE), leading to a rise in public debt.

Here is my prediction:  This is the last year that the Left will insist that public debt is the right number to look at (as opposed to total debt).  With a reversal in QE, as well as the reversal in Social Security cash flow, public debt will soon be rising faster than total debt, and the Left will begin to assure us that total debt rather than public debt is the right number to look at.

Words That Have Been Stripped of Any Meaning: "Spending Cuts" and "Austerity"

I have already written that the supposed European austerity (e.g. in the UK) is no such thing, and "austerity" in these cases is being used to describe what is merely a slowing in spending growth.

Apparently the same Newspeak is being applied to spending cuts in the US.  How else  can one match this data:

With these words from President Obama (my emphasis added)

"If we're going to raise revenues that are sufficient to balance with the very tough cuts that we've already made and the further reforms in entitlements that I’m prepared to make, then we’re going to have to see the rates on the top two percent go up"

Seriously?  The only small reductions in the budget were because some supposedly one-time expenses (like TARP bailouts, war costs, and stimulus spending) were not repeated.  Allowing one-time costs to be, uh, one-time does not constitute "tough cuts."

Tough cuts are when we knock government spending back down to 19-20 percent of GDP.  Clinton level spending in exchange for Clinton tax rates.   That's my proposed deal.

You Ungrateful Slobs Should Be Thankful That The Federal Government Is Running Up Huge Debt

I know what you are thinking -- in this post title Coyote has engaged in some exaggeration to get our attention.  But I haven't!  Felix Salmon actually says this, in reaction to a group of CEO's who wrote an open letter to the feds seeking less deficit spending.

MW-AR995_debt_f_20120607165649_ME.jpgThere are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up.

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government. And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money.

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

I seldom do this, but let's take this apart paragraph by paragraph:

There are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up. 

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government.

Duh.  Of course they are talking about the government deficit and not total deficit.   But he is setting up the game he is going to play throughout the piece, switching back and forth between government debt and total debt like a magician moving a pea between two thimbles.  We can already see the game.  "Look folks debt is not a threat, it is going down", but it is going down only at this total public and private debt number.  The letter from the CEO's made the specific argument that rising government debt creates current and future issues (see: Europe).  Just because all debt may be going down does not mean that the rise of one subset of debt is not an issue.

Here are two analogies.  First, consider a neighborhood where most all the residents are paying down their credit card debt except for Fred, who is maxing out his credit cards and has just taken out a third mortgage.  The total debt for your whole neighborhood is going down, but that does not mean that Fred is not in serious trouble.

Or on a larger scale, take consumer debt.  Most categories of consumer debt are falling in the US.  But student debt is rising alarmingly.  Just because total consumer debt may be falling doesn't change the fact that rising student debt is a serious threat to the well-being of a subset of Americans.

And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money

What??  Whoever said that the role of the Federal government is to offset changes in corporate borrowing?  In his first paragraph, he already called the rise in total debt "alarming", and I get the sense that both CEO's and consumers agree and so they have been trying to reduce their debts.  So why should the Feds be standing athwart the private unwinding of an "alarming" problem?    And how does he know CEO's and their corporations are part of this deleveraging?  I see no evidence presented.  Corporate debt is but a small part of total US debt.  Corporations may be a part of this, or not.

In fact, they are not.  Corporate borrowing in the securities market has increased almost every quarter since 2008, such that total corporate bond debt is about 10-15% higher than in 2008 (see third chart here).  And here is total debt to GDP broken down by component  (this is for non-financial sectors) source.

Government debt is basically offsetting the consumer deleveraging.  Since consumers have to eventually pay this government debt off, as they are taxpayers too, then the government is basically flipping consumers the bird, forcing them to take on debt they are trying to get rid of.  Hard working consumers think they are making progress paying off debt, but the joke is on them - the feds have taken the debt on for them, and the bill will be coming in future taxes for them and their kids.

He might argue, "this is Keynesianism."  But is it?  If corporations are actually deleveraging, we still don't know how.  Is it through diverting capital investment to debt repayment (as I think Salmon is assuming) or are they raising capital from other sources and rejiggering the right side of their balance sheets?  And even if this deleveraging is coming at the expense of corporate investment, I thought Keynesians virtually ignored investment or "I" in their calculations  (you remember, don't you, from macro: C+I+G+X-M?).  In fact, if I remember right, "I" is treated as an exogenous variable in the famous multiplier "proof".

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

This is the real howler -- that "markets" are sending a low-interest signal.  Markets are doing nothing of the sort.  The Federal Government, via the Fed, is sending this signal with near-zero overnight borrowing rates and $30-$40 billion a month in money printing that is used to buy up government debt from the market.  If any signal is being sent at all, it is that the Federal Government is main economic priority is continuing to prop up the balance sheet and profitability of major US banks.

Investment is also not solely driven by the price of funds.  There must be opportunities where businesses see returns that justify the spending.  Unlike the Federal government, which is A-OK blowing billions on companies like Solyndra, businesses don't invest for the sake of spending, they invest for returns.  A soft economy combined with enormous government driven uncertainties (e.g. what will be our costs to comply with Obamacare) are more likely to affect investment levels than changes in interest rates.

 Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

This is where economic thinking has ended up in 2012:  To Salmon, it does not matter where the Federal government spends this money, so long as it is spent.  He never even tries to justify that the government is running up debt in a good cause, because what it spends money on does not matter to him.  For him, the worst possible thing for the economy is for people to spend their money paying down debt.  Spend it on more drone strikes or more Solyndras or more squirrel research -- it does not matter to Salmon as long as the money is used for anything other than to pay down debt.

Here is the bottom line:  Businesses and individuals are trying to reduce their debt.  And many hard-working people think they are being successful at this.  But the joke is on them.  The government is running up trillions in debt in their name, thwarting American's desire to de-leverage.  Mr. Salmon wants us to thank the government for this.  Hah.

All-in-all, this is an awful argument to try to justify Congressional and Presidential fecklessness vis a vis  the budget.

Part of The Hole Germans Are Being Asked to Fill In

Greek Olympic venues.  I am sure that baseball field gets a lot of use.  And that state-of-the-art man-made kayaking course and associated stadium sure seem to be contributing a lot to GDP.

The whole world patted Greece on the back for completing this boondoggle when in fact we were just enabling an alcoholic, congratulating Greece for, in effect, driving home safely after drinking a fifth of tequila.

 

A Terrible Chart

OK, to go along with the bad study in the last chart, I will offer up a terrible chart.  From Kevin Drum:

Drum uses this chart to hammer home the point that the current deficit is Bush's, rather than Obama's fault.  I have absolutely no problem with blaming Bush for all variety of stupid spending and handing him a share of the blame for the Federal debt.   Even using this bad chart (more in a moment), I think Obama gets a lot of the blame, though.  The highlighted bars don't really substantially move the debt until 2009 and after, on Obama's watch.   His complete lack of any effort to take on the rising debt, to pare back past spending programs (or wars, or whatever) has been unparalleled.  In fact, I think it is his absolute indifference to deficit spending and the debt levels that saddles him with a lot of the blame.

Anyway, back to the chart.  Notice that these are just a few of the many components of Federal spending, all of which are increasing in this period.  Picking out which ones "caused the debt" is not a neutral procedure.  Money is fungible.  One could just as easily substitute rising Medicare and Social Security costs (or education funding or transportation funding or government employee salaries) for any of the bars above and be just as correct.  Even if one wanted to just look at Bush actions, one would reasonably need to include the debt associated with the costs of Medicare part D, something left off this chart presumably because Drum supports that particular spending.    All this chart does is demonstrate the biases or preferences of the author, showing us which categories of spending the author most opposes (or which the author feels Obama can't be blamed for, like the down economy).

By the way, the chart's construction actually worse than this, because the chart is only "public debt" rather than total debt (for example debt bought in QE is no longer public debt).  If one looks at public debt, the total number should have crossed 100% some time in the last year, rather than the 70% or so in the chart.   So there are a lot of other things, presumably that the author likes, that are also causing total debt to rise.  But these are hidden, because presumably the Fed only buys debt created by the good spending, and the public buys all the debt created by the bad spending.

Finally, my suspicion is that some of these numbers are just plain wrong.  The chart implies Fannie, Freddie, and Tarp are only going to cause a total of 1% of GDP in debt, or about $160 billion.  That is WAY below the loss numbers that Fannie and Freddie have already acknowledged, with more to come.

Real Reason for US Recession Uncovered

According to the RIAA prosecutors owned by the RIAA, it is all Kim Dotcom's fault:

Meanwhile, Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom is free on bail, living in his rented home near Auckland and awaiting extradition proceedings to begin in August. Dotcom along with Finn Batato, Julius Bencko, Sven Echternach, Mathias Ortmann, Andrus Nomm and Bram Van Der Kolk are charged with criminal copyright infringement and money laundering.

The men -- along with two companies -- are accused of collecting advertising and subscription fees from users for faster download speeds of material stored on Megaupload. Prosecutors allege the website and its operators collected US$175 million in criminal proceeds, costing copyright holders more than $500 billion in damages to copyright holders.

$500 billion is about 3.5% of US GDP.

Thinking About Greece

Mike Rizzo writes:

A typical sovereign government can secure funds from three “legitimate” places.*What are these sources?

  1. Taxes today.
  2. Taxes tomorrow. In other words we can borrow money today in order to build our bridge and then use future tax revenues to pay for the debt tomorrow. By the way, if the government is in the business of actually producing valuable “public goods” then you can easily think of this as value enhancing.
  3. Printing money. It’s not generally done this way, but in effect the monetary authorities can monetize the borrowing of a sovereign entity (how they do it is beyond the scope of this post). For simplicity, imagine instead that a central bank prints new bank notes from scratch, hands them to the Treasury, and then the Treasury spends them on goods and services. This is just another form of a tax, again beyond the scope of this post.

So, this is what the government budget identity looks like for “normal” countries:

G = T + the change in debt + the change in base money

I think this is a useful simplification, but I wanted to add a couple other refinements  (refinements by the way he did not neglect in his text, just did not put in the formula).  One other source of funds we have seen in Greece is what I would call Aid, which used to be humanitarian aid (think India in the 1970s) but today tends to be bailout money and debt forgiveness.  So we will write the equation

G = Taxes + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

But due to the Keynesian orientation of many commenters on the Greek and European situation, it becomes useful to expand the "taxes" term into some sort of base income, which I will just call GDP for simplicity, and some sort of tax rate t.  So then we get:

G = GDP x t + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

The Greeks can't print money (unless the EU does it for them) and at the moment no one in their right mind will lend to them without guarantees from stronger European countries (e.g. Germany).  If we call EU money printing for Greece or EU loan guarantee programs Aid, we get

G = GDP x t + Aid

As Rizzo noted, aid is drying up and Greek tax revenues are going down rather than up, so basically they are screwed.  The only out seems to be for Greece to exit the Euro and then, once on the drachma again, print money like crazy and inflate their way out of the debt.

But expanding the tax term reveals one more policy alternative that is being suggested.   Keynesians seem to believe there is a path out of this situation in Greece (or if Greece is too far gone, certainly in Italy and Spain) where money from some source  (aid, borrowing, whatever) is spent in the economy by the government in some way that is stimulative, thus increasing GDP and therefore taxes and allowing Greece to increase the money available to the government.  Since Aid is currently only be granted tied to "austerity" programs rather than stimulative spending, they feel Germany et al are following exactly the wrong course.

I am incredibly skeptical of this for two reasons, beyond just my general skepticism of Keynesian stimulus.  First, I have heard something akin to this in my personal experience.  For a short time in my life, during the Internet crazy period, I was brought in by some investors to look at their portfolio of languishing Internet plays (e.g. discountshoelaces.com)* and decide if they should keep pouring money in or shut down.  The plan I got from management was always - always - this stimulus approach.  They suggested that rather than cut back, the investors should give them a bunch of new money to really blow out the marketing effort, which would kick start their growth, etc. etc.

The problem was that they never, ever had a lick of evidence beyond just hope that the next $1 million would suddenly do what the last $10 million failed to do.  So we shut most of these efforts down.  Your first loss is your best loss, as they say.

Similarly, I don't think Keynesians can point to any example in history where this actually worked.   A country is drowning in debt, but suddenly a Hail Mary play of adding a huge chunk more to the debt and spending it on civil service worker salaries suddenly turned the tide.  Seriously, do people honestly think this will work?  Or are they just frustrated because they grew up with an assumption that there is always a public policy answer for everything and there just does not seem to be one here.

I have an emerging hypothesis, not backed by any evidence at this point, that the value of the Keynesian multiplier shifts as debt to total GDP increases.  I am not sure in actual practice it is ever above one, but if it were to be above 1 at 20% debt to GDP, it certainly is not going to be the same at, say, 150%.

OMG, Austerity!

via here

The UK line is particularly interesting, since that is the country that Krugman has declared is austerity-izing itself into a depression. As I have pointed out before, real government spending in UK has been and is still rising.  The percent of GDP of this spending has fallen a bit, but there is nothing about Keynesian stimulus theory that says changes in the percentage of government spending is stimulative, only its absolute value.

Here is one thing I would love to here Krugman et. al. opine on -- at what percentage of government debt to GDP does additional deficit spending become counter-stimulative.   I imagine there is an inverse relationship for deficit-funded stimulus, such that it has a larger effect at lower debt levels with a zero to negative effect at higher interest levels.

Update:  From another source, here is the UK in real $

New Greek Bailout Announced

It is an open question how long this bailout will plug the dam.  I continue to maintain the position that Greece is going to have to be let out of the Euro. Pulling this Band-Aid off a millimeter at a time is delaying any possible recovery of the Greek economy, and really the European economy, indefinitely.  All to protect the solvency of a number of private banks (or perhaps more accurately, to protect the solvency of the counter-parties who wrote the CDO's on all that debt).

Anyway, the interesting part for me is that with this bailout, the total cumulative charity sent the Greek's way by other European countries now exceeds Greek GDP, by a lot.

Will Reality Never Set In?

I had thought the situation in Greece would eventually hammer home for everyone the perils of reckless enlargement of the state and deficit spending.  But apparently, it is not to be.  This is how Kevin Drum describes the core problem in Greece:

the austerity madness prompted by the 2008 financial collapse

So the problem is not a bankrupt state, but the "austerity" which by the way has at best carved only a trivial amount out of spending.  And it was triggered not by a ballooning deficit as a percent of GDP and an inability to meet interest and principle payments, but by the US financial crisis.

This is willful blindness of absolutely astounding proportions.  Which means the same folks are likely just rehearsing to ride the US right into the same hole.

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