George Selgin on Monetary Theory and Policy

He has begun work on a primer. In the first entry, he writes,

Central banks are, for better or worse, responsible for seeing to it that the economies in which they operate have enough money to operate efficiently, but no more. Shortages of money wastes resources by restricting the flow of payments, making it hard or impossible for people and firms to pay their bills, while both shortages and surpluses of money hamper the correct setting of individual prices, causing some goods and services to be overpriced, and others underpriced, relative to others. Scarce resources, labor included, are squandered either way.

I am going to raise an issue with this, but keep in mind that this is an issue I have with conventional monetary theory–it has nothing personal to do with Selgin.

I do not believe that the central bank can set the money supply. Instead, think in terms of Hyman Minsky’s aphorism: anyone can create money; the trick is getting it accepted.

Consider what is accepted as money these days: among consumers and retailers, credit cards and Paypal are accepted. In the “money market” where banks and Wall Street firms trade, government securities are sufficiently liquid to act as money.

With all of these alternatives available, it is difficult for the central bank to create a shortage of money. in response, people can just make a bit more use of the alternative methods.

Creating a surplus of money is possible, if the central bank wants to turn the printing presses loose. But small increases in what the central bank supplies will more probably be met by small decreases in the use of alternative payment systems, leaving no net effect on prices.

Again, mine is not a standard view.

Health Insurance Clientele Effects

In a comment, Spencer wrote,

You just can not resist claiming that firms were required to provide health insurance.

It may not matter whether you think of firms as obligated to provide health insurance or as incentivized to provide it. The trend toward reducing the number of full-time workers would be affected by rising health care spending nonetheless.

Workers differ in their preferences for employer-provided health insurance and take-home pay. This leads to clientele effects. That is, workers who place a high value on employer-provided health insurance will seek to be full-time employees. Workers who would rather receive more take-home pay and deal with health insurance some other way will instead prefer to be hired as contractors.

As health care spending rises, these clientele effects get stronger. One would expect to see more workers noticing that they can get higher take-home pay as contractors, and one would expect to see firms notice that their compensation costs for hiring contractors are coming down relative to the cost of hiring full-time workers.

Robert Solow on the Casualization of Labor

He writes,

The proportion of part-time workers has been rising: both those who prefer it that way and those who would rather have a full-time job. So is the number of temporary workers, whether employed through agencies or on their own. So are the numbers of workers on fixed-term contracts and independent contractors, many of whom are doing the same work as they once did as regular employees. These are all good-faith members of the labor force; they are employed but without what used to be thought of as a regular job.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

My guess is that the most important policy variable influencing this is the requirement that full-time employment come with health insurance. “Casualization” is the market’s way of working around this requirement, which has become increasingly onerous as medical treatments have become more intensive in their use of physical capital (devices of all sorts) and human capital (medical specialists).

Axel Leijonhufvud vs. MIT Economics

He writes,

For concreteness, think of a controlled experiment in a natural science as an example of a closed system. The conditions of an experiment controlled in this sense are never met or approximated in macroeconomics. (Adding more variables to the right handside of our regression equations will never get us there). But in constructing intertemporal models – such as in DSGE – we insist on the make-believe that the macroeconomy is a closed system

Link found here, thanks to a pointer from Mark Thoma.

Leijonhufvud was an early influence on me, and I still feel a strong affinity towards him.

From Genes to Institutions?

According to Jason Collins, Oded Galor and Quamrul Ashraf will soon write,

there is little evidence to support the claim that the variation in institutions across societies is driven by differences in their endowment of specific genetic traits that might govern key social behaviors.

I believe that in Hive Mind Garett Jones endorses the view that higher average IQ can lead to better institutions. So I will want to read the Galor-Ashraf paper when it appears.

Racism Everywhere

Carlos Lozada writes,

“So many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority,” Kendi writes. They did so by promoting freedom but forgetting equality; by placing the burden of combating racism on black shoulders, not white ones; by implicitly accepting notions of inferiority, no matter how righteous their indignation; by conflating anti-racist claims and racist fears in an effort to claim a moralizing middle ground.

He is reviewing a book by Ibram X. Kendi, along with another book also focused on the history of racism by Nicholas Guyatt. It is too bad that Lozada did not include (and probably will never read) Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. Lozada would have learned that racism became “scientific” in the latter part of the 19th century, and that American progressive economists too the lead in developing and implementing policies, including the minimum wage, that were intended to prevent “race suicide.”

The theory of race suicide was that members of inferior races could subsist on less than what superior races required. This meant that inferior races could drive wages below what the superior races needed to live on. Hence, the need for a minimum wage.

By the way, while I am not especially keen to read Kendi’s book, I would be curious to know what he means by “assimilationist thinking” and why it is a boo-phrase.

Why Fewer Publicly Traded Firms?

Alex Tabarrok writes,

The total number of firms has dropped far less than the number of publicly traded firms, so in part this is probably due to laws affecting publicly traded firms in particular such as Sarbanes-Oxley. But there has also been a drop in the total number of firms. As a result, concentration ratios have increased which suggests that competition might have fallen.

Some possible stories.

1. The number of manufacturing firms declines as manufacturing declines as a share of GDP. Meanwhile, in the growing sectors of health care and education, government creates huge barriers to entry. It seems to actively encourage consolidation in health care.

2. The Internet and globalization create winners-take-most markets in several categories. Think of how many department stores were killed off by Wal-mart.

3. Lots of consolidation in finance. Remember that as recently as the 1970s banks were not allowed to cross state lines, so we probably had more banks than was efficient well into the 1990s.

I am not ready to buy the story that competition has fallen across the board. One of the big stories of the past couple decades is the big rise in prices in education and health care and the much slower rise in prices for manufactured goods. To me, that goes along more with a story of government policies to subsidize demand and restrict supply in the former sectors.

PSST: the idea is spreading

Mark Muro writes,

Adjustment happens, but it’s a far more painful process than the models and textbooks have imagined. Policy, and the economists, should take it seriously.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Difficulty with adjustment is the essence of the PSST story for recessions. If the economy were a GDP factory, then the factory foreman would be temporarily confused about which job to give to which person. Of course, for the factory foreman, substitute the set of entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs.

Muro cites three recent papers, two of which I have covered. The new one is by Danny Yagan, who writes,

living in 2007 in a below-median 2007-2009-fluctuation area caused those workers to have a 1.3%-lower 2014 employment rate. Hence, U.S. local labor markets are limitedly integrated: location has caused long-term joblessness and exacerbated within-skill income inequality. The enduring impact is not explained by more layoffs, more disability insurance enrollment, or reduced migration. Instead, the employment outcomes of cross-area movers are consistent with severe-fluctuation areas continuing to depress their residents’ employment. Impacts are correlated with housing busts but not manufacturing busts, possibly reconciling current experience with history. If recent trends continue, employment rates are estimated to remain diverged into the 2020s—adding up to a relative lost decade for half the country. Employment models should allow market-wide shocks to cause persistent labor force exit, leaving employment depressed even after unemployment returns to normal.

The standard remedies for adjustment, including trade adjustment assistance, and worker re-training, are among the least effective programs government has ever tried. Not surprisingly if decentralized entrepreneurs are having calculation problems, the socialist calculation problem proves worse.

The Rise of Mortgage Credit

Describing on a paper by Oscar Jorda and others, John Hamilton writes,

This “hockey stick” in mortgage lending was accompanied by a similar pattern in real house prices. These too had been largely stable for nearly a century. Since 1950, house prices have grown faster than inflation around the world.

My guess is that as of 1950, when the rise in mortgage credit began, there was too little mortgage borrowing. My guess is that since about 2000, there has been too much mortgage borrowing. In Minsky terms, we went from hedge finance in 1950 to speculative finance in the 1990s to Ponzi finance thereafter. Ponzi finance means that people get loans who cannot repay them except by getting new loans.

Earth Day Thoughts

Environmentalists and economists share a common interest in the use of scarce resources. However, environmentalism all too often lapses into primitivism, which is the instinct that humans should revert to prehistoric lifestyles.

For example, consider an ethic of leaving nature exactly as you found it. For a hunter-gatherer, this is a reasonable ethic. If you deplete one of your sources of food, that’s it.

As humanity discovered cultivation, industrialization, and digitization, we have transcended the limits of what we can hunt and gather. As Paul Romer points out, we obey the laws of physics. Our activities neither create nor destroy matter. What we do is transform matter into different forms that are more useful to us.

In this modern world, where we better ourselves by transforming matter, the price system is our guide to making the best use of resources. Environmentalists tend to be hostile to the price system, and instead they tend to want to impose their own rules for using resources.

One way to reconcile environmentalism with economics and the price system is to use the theory of externalities to propose ways for government to fine-tune prices, using taxes and subsidies. However, government technocrats will only imperfectly calculate externalities. These technical flaws do not preclude government intervention, but even an enlightened benevolent despot would be conservative about intervening because of the calculation problem.

An even bigger concern is that we do not have enlightened, benevolent despots. Instead, we have rent-seeking interest groups. And we have demagogues who appeal to primitivism.

I wish that economists would do more to expose the problems with primitivism. I cringe when I see college campuses espousing primitivist ideology under the guise of “sustainability” while their economics professors remain silent.

I have an extensive treatment of this issue in the forthcoming Specialization and Trade, where I include more facts and less rhetoric.