Anil Kashyap on Greece

Probably the best analysis so far. Mostly, it is a recap of the past. But in talking about the pending referendum, he writes,

if the public sides with Tsipras government, then there will be a very sharp recession over the next few months. Tax collection is likely to collapse. The Tsipras government is unlikely to survive the economic collapse.

He also writes,

Greece should have defaulted in 2010. Its debt burden then was unsustainable and nothing since then has changed this. It is true that financial markets were much more jittery at that time, but the money that was raised to pay off the creditors in that bailout could have been diverted to support Greece and other weak countries. Once the bad rescue of 2010 was undertaken, it was inevitable that some form of debt relief was going to be necessary.

Imagine how different the political dynamics in Europe would have been if the German and French banks had been explicitly bailed out.

Pointer from John Cochrane (and from Greg Mankiw and James Hamilton). Of course, I think that explicit bailouts are exactly what the political system will not allow. Even going forward, I still think that “opaque bailout” is the most likely outcome. But I also think that there are some lessons for us.

1. At some point, you do run out of other people’s money (that is actually more true for us than for Greece, because we are bigger and therefore harder to bail out).

2. When you run out of other people’s money, political tensions rise considerably. See my essay Lenders and Spenders.

When Economists Were Right, Allegedly

Richard Baldwin writes,

Barry Eichengreen added specificity to this in January 2009 with his insightful column “Was the euro a mistake?”, noting: “What started as the Subprime Crisis in 2007 and morphed in the Global Credit Crisis in 2008 has become the Euro Crisis in 2009. Sober people are now contemplating whether a Eurozone member such as Greece might default on its debt.” He wrote that the alternative to default was “fiscal retrenchment, wage reductions, and assistance from the EU and the IMF for the cash-strapped government.”

He predicted – again dead on – that “[t]here will be demonstrations against the fiscal cuts and wage reductions. Politicians will lose support and governments will fall. The EU will resist providing financial assistance for its more troublesome members. But, ultimately, everyone will swallow hard and proceed … In the end, the EU will overcome its bailout aversion.” The farsightedness is astounding. In January 2009, few knew the Greeks had a problem serious enough to require debt restructuring.

Pointer from Brad DeLong, via Mark Thoma.

That sounds impressive. He also cites other economists. But a couple of cautionary notes.

1. The best way to develop a reputation as far-sighted is to make many vague, conditional predictions. Later, you call attention to those that sound correct, and if necessary you wiggle out of those that sound incorrect by pointing out the conditions or taking advantage of their vagueness. I am not accusing Eichengreen of doing this. I have others in mind. But what might Baldwin have found had he had searched through past articles and looked for bad predictions?

2. How best to generalize this point? My guess is that “Economists’ predictions should always be taken as gospel”

3. Is the correct lesson that we should pay attention when economists warn about sovereign debt issues? Consider that many of us have issued warnings about the United States.

Opaque Defaults

James Hamilton writes,

The bottom line for me is that Greece’s current debts and any new loans that get extended from here are not going to be repaid in the present-value sense defined above. The current debt load and its associated interest bill are simply too big. The only solution is default on a significant portion of outstanding Greek debt. Indeed, significant debt restructuring is a necessary step for Greece to move forward, whether within the euro or based on a new currency. My view is that any realistic negotiations at this point simply have to take those facts as given.

My bottom line is to suggest that in forecasting the outcome of sovereign debt crises, assume that everyone’s goal is to make defaults as opaque as possible. For a small country like Greece, there ought to be many ways to do this. When the crisis hits Japan, it will be more difficult. When it hits the U.S., it will be more difficult still. But by then the international technocrats will have had a lot of practice.

Payroll Taxes in Europe

In France, the rate is 42 percent; in Germany, it is 39 percent; in Italy, 40 percent; and in Spain, 37 percent.

That is from Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Jared Meyer Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young. I see it as saying “left-wing economics is bad for children and other living things,” but they are trying to position it differently. In any case, they are suggesting that we could be headed for much higher payroll taxes ourselves.

I had not realized that these tax rates are so high. I find it hard to reconcile Germany’s relatively low unemployment rate with this high payroll tax rate.

Government Debt, Off Balance Sheet

John Cochrane writes,

Guaranteeing more than half of financial sector liabilities is impressive. But most of us don’t know how large financial sector liabilities are. GDP is about $17 Trillion. $43 Trillion is a lot.

This is only financial system guarantees. It doesn’t include, for example, the federal debt. It doesn’t include student loans, small business loan guarantees, direct loan guarantees to businesses, the ex-im bank and so on and so forth. It doesn’t include non-financial but likely bailouts like auto companies, states and local governments, their pensions, and so on.

He cites analysis from the Richmond Fed.

Not to worry, of course. Debt is just something we owe to ourselves.

Steven Pinker on Money as a Consensual Hallucination

He writes,

Life in complex societies is built on social realities, the most obvious examples being money and the rule of law. But a social fact depends entirely on the willingness of people to treat it as a fact. It is specific to a community, as we see when people refuse to honor a foreign currency or fail to recognize the sovereignty of a self-proclaimed leader. And it can dissolve with changes in the collective psychology, as when a currency becomes worthless through hyperinflation or a regime collapses because people defy the policy and army en masse.

That is from p. 65 of The Blank Slate, which I am re-reading.

I would quibble that you do not get hyperinflation from a sudden loss of confidence in the currency. You get it when the government spends more than it taxes and loses the ability to borrow, so its only choice is to print money–and then people lose confidence in the currency.

The important social reality is that people are willing to lend to the government at affordable interest rates. That is what has the potential to suddenly change (see Greece) and that is why large deficits create potential instability.

The Age of Creative Ambiguity

Tyler Cowen writes,

File under “The End of Creative Ambiguity.” That file is growing larger all the time.

What is Creative Ambiguity? I would define it as the attempt by policy makers to ignore trade-offs and to deny the need to make hard choices. Consider the Fed’s balance sheet. One hard choice might be to sell its gigantic portfolio of bonds and mortgage-backed securities. That would depress the prices of those assets and make it harder for the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans. The other hard choice might be to provide whatever support is necessary to enable the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans, even if it means printing enough money to risk hyperinflation. Creative ambiguity means convincing investors that neither hard choice will be necessary. Perhaps that is even true.

However, if the Fed’s hard choices are to be avoided, then at some point the government must get its fiscal house in order. That is where the real creative ambiguity comes in. See Lenders and Spenders.

Should the CBO Use Dynamic Scoring?

John Cochrane writes,

Greg Mankiw has a nice op-ed on dynamic scoring

The issue: When the congressional budget office “scores” legislation, figuring out how much it will raise or lower tax revenue and spending, it has been using “static” scoring. For example, it assumes that a tax cut has no effect on GDP, even if the whole point of the tax cut is to raise GDP.

My thoughts.

1. I am against dynamic scoring. Dynamic scoring means using an economic model. I think that politicians and the press give too much credence to economic models as it is. Even static scoring requires some modeling, but the modeling has more to do with spreadsheet arithmetic as opposed to claiming to be able to predict economic behavior.

2. To the extent that the CBO has to predict economic behavior, I think it should present several scenarios, as opposed to a point estimate or a range. Cochrane says it well:

It’s a fact, we don’t know the elasticities, multipliers, and mechanisms that well. So stop pretending. Stop producing only a single number, accurate to three decimals. Instead, present a range of scenarios spanning the range of reasonable uncertainty about responses.

Responding to another point from Cochrane, Mankiw writes,

you need to specify how the government is going to satisfy its present-value budget constraint. You might be tempted to ask the model what happens if the government cuts taxes and never does anything else. But you won’t get very far. The model will tell you that the government has to do something else eventually, and it won’t tell you what will happen if the government tries to do something impossible.

What I hear Greg saying is that to properly do dynamic scoring, you would need to include a model of future policy responses. That is a point well taken, but I am not sure that I would restrict those policy responses to be only doing things that are possible. Policy makers are doing impossible (that is, unsustainable) things now. The challenge is to predict the outcome of undertaking unsustainable policies until you cannot do so any more.

Of course, the traditional “static” scoring does not solve the problem of how to predict the outcome of unsustainable policies, either.

The Harm of Government Debt

Tyler Cowen writes,

I worry that the general decline of discretionary government spending may make politics less stable (but also more interesting, not necessarily in a good way). When there is plenty of spending to bicker about, politics revolves around that question, which is relatively harmless. When all the spending is tied up, we move closer to the battlefield of symbolic goods, bringing us back to “less stable and more interesting.” If that is a cause, this trend is likely to spread.

For a longer essay on the way that government borrowing creates political friction, see my essay Lenders and Spenders.

529: Popular != Good Policy

Peter Suderman writes,

this episode and the swift bipartisan opposition it generated is so revealing, not only about the short term political instincts of the Obama administration, but about the longer term political and policy dynamics of sustaining the welfare state.

He is writing about President Obama’s proposal to tax savings from “529 plans” for college saving, which the Administration has since backed away from. I read Suderman as saying that the larger point is that when it comes to unsustainable fiscal policy, we have met the enemy and he is us. My comments:

1. Re-read Lenders and Spenders. Government debt inevitably leads to political strife.

2. 529 plans are regressive. Nearly all of the benefit flows to people with high incomes.

3. 529 plans are yet another enabler for colleges to boost tuitions.

4. 529 plans subsidize affluent people for doing what they would have done anyway–send their kids to exclusive, high-priced colleges.

529 plans are terrible public policy. Instead of demagogically criticizing the Administration’s proposal to tax them, I would say let’s get rid of them altogether.