Monday, November 29, 2010

Euro Indigestion

Kevin Drum picks up on an interview with author Barry Eichengreen, who has written on the possible demise of the Euro.
What’s your view now?
Rarely does an academic have the privilege of a real-time test of his hypothesis. With the benefit of that test, I would now say that I was both right and wrong. I was right in that, yes, if the Greek government were to announce tomorrow that it had decided to reintroduce the drachma, it would precipitate the mother of all financial crises. Everyone would know that its intention was to depreciate the new drachma, so in the first minute everyone would rush to get their money out of the country, out of its banks, and out of its bond market. The result would be the biggest bank run and financial crisis the world has ever seen. This danger is a formidable deterrent to even contemplating going down this road. So I think the argument I made in 2007, that attempting to exit the euro area would be the equivalent of burning down your own house in order to find a way out, was exactly right. 
In what way were you wrong?
I was wrong in that, as Paul Krugman observed earlier this year, if the house is burning down anyway, then the normal advice not to play with matches loses much of its force. If there’s a run on your banking system anyway, then the deterrent to action no longer applies. If there’s a run on your banking system and you have to close down your banks and financial markets anyway, you may want to take that opportunity to reintroduce your own currency. I still don’t think that things will be allowed to get to this point, but I no longer attach a zero probability to a country’s exiting the euro — just a close to zero probability. Never say never, but I still believe that the euro is an example of a path-dependent historical process that is unlikely to be reversed.
I think he's probably right. But I'm also not entirely sure of that. So far there's been no sign of a serious run on any euro-area banking system, but there have been signs of a "bank walk," for lack of a better term. And that could lead to a run on one bank which, in turn, could lead to a run on so many banks that the European monetary authorities can't stop it. Megan McArdle's warning that pundits "have started seeing Creditanstalt everywhere" is a good one, but this is still a scary process we're going through. I'm not sure exactly what nonzero probability Eichengreen would attach to a euro breakup, but even five or ten percent is pretty serious. Buckle up.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Starve the Beast?

Kevin Drum quotes Bruce Bartlett as he exposes the Republican tax cutting obsession for the fraud it is.
A prime reason why we have a budget deficit problem in this country is because Republicans almost universally believe in a nonsensical idea called starve the beast (STB). By this theory, the one and only thing they need to do to be fiscally responsible is to cut taxes. They need not lift a finger to cut spending because it will magically come down, just as a child will reduce her spending if her allowance is cut — the precise analogy used by Ronald Reagan to defend this doctrine in a Feb. 5, 1981, address to the nation.
Bruce goes on to look at the empirical evidence — namely that spending went down after the Clinton tax increases and up after the Bush tax cuts — and concludes that STB is a "crackpot theory." True! But what makes it even more crackpotty is that basic economic principles, of the kind that Republicans are endlessly lecturing the rest of us about, predict the same thing. If you raise taxes to pay for government programs, you're essentially making them expensive. Conversely, if you cut taxes, you're making government spending cheaper. So what does Econ 101 say happens when you reduce the price of something? Answer: demand for it goes up.
Cutting taxes makes government spending less expensive for taxpayers, which makes them want more of it. And politicians, obliging creatures that they are, are eager to give the people what they want.

Result: lots of spending and lots of deficits.

If you want to reduce spending, the best way to do it is to raise taxes so that registered voters actually have to pay for the services they get. I don't have a cute name for this theory, but it's true nonetheless. For a while, anyway. Until it's not.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Folly of Simpson and Bowles

Kevin Drum points out the glaring flaw in the Simpson-Bowles chairman's mark proposal by the Deficit Commission....that it ignores healthcare costs.
Here's the problem: most plans to reduce the long-term deficit consist of three things: shiny baubles, smoke and mirrors, and actual deficit reduction measures. You want to minimize the former and emphasize the latter, and on that score I don't think Simpson-Bowles does very well.
Their discretionary cuts are a combination of baubles and smoke and mirrors. The baubles are the trivia, like cutting printing costs and eliminating earmarks. The smoke and mirrors comes from vague non-choices like cutting the federal workforce 10% or pretending that a spending cap will actually accomplish anything. Discretionary spending isn't really a long-term problem in the first place, but if you're going to address it anyway, then address it by proposing actual program cuts. You think manned space exploration is a boondoggle and you want to cut NASA's budget in half? Fine. You think ethanol subsidies are outrageous and you want to eliminate them? Great. You think our nation would be safe with nine supercarrier groups instead of a dozen? Preach it. But that's what it takes to cut the discretionary budget: cuts to real programs, not handwaving about caps and generic rollbacks.

Next up are their tax reform proposals, which are almost entirely smoke and mirrors. You can make any deficit reduction plan easier by proposing a tax system that (you claim) will boost growth rates by 1% per year. Run that out over 50 years and economic growth will take care of half your problem. Hooray! But the evidence that this will actually happen is close to zero. Our current tax system just isn't that inefficient. Pretending that a better tax regime will supercharge economic growth isn't as bad as relying on the infamous troika of waste, fraud, and abuse, but it's close.

Their Social Security proposal is.....actually not bad. With one change I could probably accept it as is. Still, even though I favor taking action on Social Security now, this is basically a bauble. It's reponsible for only a small part of the long-term deficit, and it's not something that rises forever. It's a one-time increase associated with the retirement of the baby boomer generation.
And then you get to healthcare. This is the big one. This is 90% of our long-term deficit problem. I don't have any real problem with tackling inefficient discretionary programs or sprucing up the tax code or fixing Social Security. But burbling on at length about this stuff mainly serves to allow us to avoid talking about our real problem. Because, as Derek says, it's too hard. But that's like an alcoholic nattering on about putting a taxi service on speed dial or remembering to take his vitamins every day.  
Those are great ideas, but they're basically distractions that prevent you from facing up to the fact that you need to stop getting hammered every night.

The whole point of a deficit reduction commission is that they can address the hard truths that a bunch of politicians can't. If Simpson-Bowles were really dedicated to hard truths, their report would have said two things in no uncertain terms. First, we're not going to waste too much time on discretionary spending or Social Security. They're shiny baubles that distract us. So here are links to half a dozen good plans for reining in both of them. Go ahead and read them at your leisure.

Second, healthcare costs are going up. We're getting older, medical technology is advancing, and the spending curve on healthcare heads to infinity if we don't do something about it. So we've decided that essentially our entire report is going to be about healthcare because we want to rub your faces in the fact that you have to deal with it whether you like it or not. This means, at a minimum, two things: (1) distilling the best ideas around for reining in rising healthcare costs, and (2) acknowledging that costs are going to go up anyway and we're going to have to raise taxes to deal with it.

But as hard truths go, I guess that's a little too hard. Tax increases! Paying doctors less! Telling the American public that they can't have every procedure they want just because they want it! Besides, we just spent over a year passing healthcare reform, and we're all exhausted. PPACA made only modest progress on cost controls, and that was hard enough. Better to just do some handwaving about a cap on growth rates and call it a day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lying for Fun and Political Profit

Sully on the role of the Big Lie in modern American politics.
It seems to me that the last year or so in America's political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama's presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse - the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus - were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran's regime - and destruction of its legitimacy from within - was portrayed as a function of Obama's weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform - almost identical to Romney's, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies - was turned into a socialist government take-over.
Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain - pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I'm exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector's in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don't think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies - "death panels," "out-of-control" spending, "apologies for America" etc. - designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people's minds in the midst of a brutal recession. And integral to this process have been conservative "intellectuals" who should and do know better, but have long since sacrificed intellectual honesty for the cheap thrills of enabling power-grabs.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Truth About Social Security

Kevin Drum posts the chart that shows clearly that the projected shortfall in Social Security is manageable.

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I guess that Social Security is going to be back in the news when the president's deficit commission reports back, so I want to take this chance to post the single most important chart you'll ever see about the finances of Social Security. Here it is:

This is from page 15 of the latest trustees report. What's important is that, unlike Medicare, Social Security costs don't go upward to infinity. They go up through about 2030, as the baby boomers retire, and then level out forever. And the long-term difference between income and outgo is only about 1.5% of GDP.
This is why I keep saying that Social Security is a very manageable problem. It doesn't need root-and-branch reform. The trust fund makes up Social Security's income gap for the next 30 years, so all it needs is some modest, phased-in tweaks that cut payouts by a fraction of a point of GDP and increase income a fraction of a point. Here's a proposal from Jed Graham that's designed to cut benefits a bit for high earners and encourage them to retire later, and maybe it's great. I haven't looked at it in detail. But the point is that the changes he recommends are fairly small. Any plan for fixing Social Security requires only tiny benefit cuts and tiny revenue increases. It's just not that big a deal.