Analysis and Commentary by Roosevelt Fellow Mike Konczal

Live at The Nation: Free Trade Isn’t about Trade. It’s About Bureaucrats—and Guns. Free trade agreements like the TPP have provisions that are designed less for trade, and more about replacing public bureaucrats with private, corporate ones. I think there’s a lot out there about the corporate welfare elements about TPP, which are definitely true, but I think this element of who has the final say over how our economies are regulating is equally important. Check it out!

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About a month ago, I interviewed the great historian Eric Foner about his Civil War and Reconstruction MOOC, the experience of teaching those time periods to students, and his work’s relationship to the left now for The Nation. I forgot to post it here; I’m doing so now because the third and final part of the MOOC, The Unfinished Revolution: Reconstruction and After, 1865-1890, has just started and you can still sign up. (All the lectures will eventually end up on youtube. Here are links to the first class on the buildup to the Civil War and the second class on the Civil War itself.)

Foner is a great lecturer, and the lectures are his class, the final time he teaches it at Columbia, recorded and broken up into segments. It’s especially awesome to get to sit in on Foner lecturing about Reconstruction, given that he wrote the book that still defines the period. I highly recommend checking it out.

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Every policy lever available was pulled in order to create our system of mass incarceration over the past 40 years. Reformers will have to be equally clever and nimble in trying to challenge and dismantle this system. And one important lever that I hadn’t thought much about in this context is the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA, or Obamacare) expansion of Medicaid. This expansion is being blocked in 22 states, which is preventing 5.1 million Americans from getting health-care.

This came up in an excellent interview between Connor Kilpatrick and the political scientist and incarceration scholar Marie Gottschalk over at Jacobin. Commenting on the limits of the current wave of bipartisan support against incarceration, Gottschalk notes that “If you care about reentry and about keeping people out of prison in the first place, there’s no public policy that you should support more strongly now than Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion gives states huge infusions of federal money to expand mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and medical care for many of the people who are most likely to end up in prison. It also allows states and localities to shift a significant portion of their correctional health care costs to the federal tab.” Similar concerns were raised by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig at The New Republic.

I immediately got Gottschalk’s new book Caught, the subject of the Jacobin interview, and though I just started the book I highly recommended it as a guide to where the prison state stands in 2015. But I wanted to know more about the relationship between Medicaid and deincarceration.

So I reached out to friend-of-the-blog Harold Pollack. Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is also Co-Director of The University of Chicago Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He has published widely at the interface between poverty policy and public health, and he also writes for a wide variety of online and print publications. He is also a thoughtful scholar on health care and crime policy and how they interact in communities.

Mike Konczal: How important is the Medicaid expansion for deincarceration?

Harold Pollack: I’m convinced that Medicaid expansion is essential for this problem. It’s essential for two different purposes. First, individuals in this population need health services, and there needs to be a clear way that individuals can get access to services from qualified providers. The Medicaid expansion does that.

Secondly, the entire ecosystem of care requires proper financing. And for historical reasons, mental health and substance abuse services have been put into their own silos. They are not properly financed, except through a patchwork of safety net funding streams that don’t particularly work well. They have also been poorly-integrated with standard medical care.

Let’s talk about individuals first. In what ways could Medicaid benefit people who are or are likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system?

Think about who is not eligible for Medicaid before health reform. A low-income male who is not a veteran or a custodial parent, or who doesn’t qualify for Ryan-White HIV/AIDS benefits. They may have a serious substance abuse problem, but that wouldn’t qualify them for federal disability benefits. They, with the expansion, can get access to Medicaid simply because they are poor.

The criminal justice population is quite varied, but there are a couple of key areas in which Medicaid expansion would be especially beneficial for them. With the expansion, Medicaid can now cover basic outpatient substance abuse treatment. This is true for both Medicaid and private insurance after health reform. And ACA provides these services in a way that is much more integrated with people’s regular medical care.

One basic challenge with drug and alcohol treatment is that these services are in a separate system that people don’t want to use, and don’t use. With the Medicaid expansion, you can go to a neighborhood clinic and they can help you get Methadone or Suboxone. They can also get you the psychiatric care you need within the same umbrella of your regular care. So it is much more likely that people will use it.

There’s very good evidence that alcohol and illicit drug treatment reduces criminal offending. [Editor note: Both this study and this study, obtained via follow-up email, show treament reduces violent and property crime enough to far pass a cost-benefit test.] Both It partly reduces criminal offending by reducing the need to commit property crimes to get the substances. It also reduces offending by allowing people to be more functional, and thus more likely to stay employed. Especially in the case of alcohol, people getting their substance abuse under control makes it less likely that they’ll be intoxicated, and thus less likely to commit crimes or be victims of crime.

What about those with mental illness?

When it comes to those with serious mental illness, we end up using local jails to try and manage them. It’s important that they can get access to help and mental health treatment outside of the criminal justice itself. It’s ironic that when someone with psychiatric disorders is inside the jail, they do have access to some of these services. But those services are often unavailable or totally disconnected when they leave the jail.

We don’t really know whether, or by how much, these services can be expected to reduce offending among this group. This remains a hypothesis that depends on how well we actually implement programs. Much will depend on how effectively we can implement Medicaid expansion.

How does this element of Medicaid deal with the traditional criticisms of the program?

Medicaid has many shortcomings. It doesn’t pay a market rate for important services. But for all of its faults, Medicaid recipients are grateful to have it. The satisfaction they have is quite high compared to traditional health insurance. Medicaid gives people access to the basic health care that they need to stay healthy and improve their lives. It is also genuinely designed for people who have no money, which is really important for these indigent populations. Medicaid is inferior to private insurance in terms of reimbursement to providers, but it’s better for really poor people than any private insurance I’ve seen, because it’s been road tested for a long time in meeting the needs of indigent people.

And as I mentioned, ACA is especially important, because the ACA includes very specific components in the area of mental health and substance use.

One thing I’ve noticed is that for all the talk about ending mandatory minimums, most of the real energy is about giving judges flexibility to ignore mandatory minimums. But that put a lot of pressure on keeping recidivism down, because judges, especially elected ones, won’t ignore long records.

Deincarceration requires the puzzle pieces to fit together to be sustainable and politically tenable. That requires that we deal with the real-life problems people face when they are released. It requires monitoring and people have access to services, both to improve their quality of life and to reduce the probabilities that they will reoffend.

If we just release people without support services, my fear is that it will not go well. Then it will ultimately generate political backlash. I’m very heartened that we are reducing the mandatory minimums, in particular for older offenders who tend to be less violent. It’s essential that we address the excessive sentencing. But we also have to do what we need to do to make this effective.

Even if judges can reduce sentencing, they are ultimately dependent on the available resources to help and monitor the people that come before them. And if judges don’t see those services, then they aren’t going to use their discretion to release many of these people as early as they might.

And if property crimes are being committed by people under criminal justice supervision, and they have a history of violent offending, then they are much more likely to be sent back with a pretty serious sanctions.

Tell me more about the second issue, how the ACA rationalizes the funding stream for these services.

We’ve had a messy system in the past, and we’ll ultimately rationalize it under Medicaid. Safety net providers for substance abuse and mental illness have always been paid for by a patchwork of public funding through obscure agencies and local governments. It has always been a huge challenge where access has been inadequate, with long waiting lines, and the services provided were often quite forbidding. Given this separate funding, it’s very difficult to integrate this in with people’s overall health care. When you have these silos of places to go, with one for mental health, another silo for substance abuse, and another for safety net health care, that person isn’t going to get the integrated care they really need. The ACA is trying to bring those things together.

Many of these issues will still be in play going forward, but it will be in the context of a coherent system that at-least addresses these issues within the context of broader health care.

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I have a new Score column up: Why Are Liberals Resigned to Low Wages? It deals with the three key political institutions that are responsible for wages remaining low, both over the past generation and in the Great Recession. It also tries to understand “liberal nihilism”, or the weird glee that results when wages aren’t seen as also having an institutional component to them, and thus are no longer a political challenge.

I hope you check it out!

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A blog post responding to a blog post responding to a blog post. Who says the blogosphere is dead?

Recently I wrote about Larry Summers demolishing an argument about robots and our weak recovery on a panel. Jim Tankersley called up Summers to further discuss the topic, and put his interview online as a response meant to correct and expand on my post. But I don’t think we disagree here, and if anything Summers’ interview shows how much the consensus has changed.

Before we continue, I should clarify what we are talking about. When people talk about “the robots,” they are really telling one of three stories:

1. Technology has played an important role in the economic malaise of the past 35 years, broadly defined as a mix of stagnating median wages, increased inequality, and weakening labor-force participation.

2. The Great Recession has led to such a weak and lackluster recovery in large part because of technology. In one version of this story, technology is simply taking all the jobs that would normally be found in a recovery. As the AP put it, “Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost… They’re being obliterated by technology.” (President Obama himself often mentioned this story throughout the dark period when unemployment was much higher.)

Another, more popular, version is that workers simply don’t have the skills required for a high-technology labor force. A representative quote from the Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in 2010: “the skills people have don’t match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs.”

3. We are moving to a post-work economy, one where robots substitute for human labor in massive numbers and fundamentally change society. Here’s an example. We may or may not be seeing the first hints of such a change now, depending on the story.

The story I said Summers (as well as David Autor) demolished is the second. There’s no evidence that we are having a technology renaissance right now, or that technology has contributed in a major way to the weak recovery, or that a skills gap or other educational factor is holding back employment, or that highly skilled workers are having a great time in the labor market. The arguments against this story from the original post are pretty damning, and Summers either reiterates them or doesn’t walk them back in the Washington Post column. (Let’s leave the third story to science fiction speculation for now, noting that the second story getting demolished means it isn’t happening now, and that it’s hard to imagine robot innovation when labor is so cheap and abundant.)

However, Summers does argue for the first story as well, the one in which technology has played a role in the malaise of the past 30 years. As he tells the Post, “In the 1960s, about 1 in 20 men between the age of 25 and 54 was not working. Today, the number is more like 1 in 6 or 1 in 7. So we have seen some troubling long-term trends, and they appear to be continuing trends.” Summers also notes, “to say that technology is important is not to say that technology is the only important factor, or even that it is the dominant factor.” He mentioned this as the conference as well; Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum noted it in their posts.

Intellectual Portfolio Rebalancing

When we think of the economic malaise of the past 30 years, we should probably think of it as a combination of technology, globalization, sociology, and public policy. Tankersley wants to emphasize technology as a piece of this story, and I agree it should be there.

But here’s what I find interesting. Whenever we have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas get more weight than others. And what strikes me about this conversation is how much technology and skills have been deemphasized relative to other stories since the Great Recession, especially those of public policy.

This is a pretty quick and important change. Almost ten years ago, Greg Mankiw could write, “Policy choices […] have not been the main causes of increasing inequality. At least that is the consensus, as I understand it, of the professional labor economists who study the issue.” Brad Delong also said in 2006 that he “can’t see the mechanism by which changes in government policies bring about such huge swings in pre-tax income distribution.” Skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and technology were assumed to cover the entire inequality story.

That consensus is weaker now than it was then. Certainly the argument for SBTC, while always shaky, has taken a hit. You can see it with Summers himself in the Washington Post, where he notes that “changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, more and more inequality research is focused on institutional factors, ranging from marginal tax rates to the minimum wage to the inefficiency and growth of the financial sector to deunionization.  And as the Mankiw quote hints, 10 years ago you’d be less likely to hear, as Summers says at the Washington Post, that a “combination of softer labor markets and the growing importance of economic rents” are an essential part of inequality spoken with the same confidence as you see here. I read that as a major change of the consensus.

This is a major rebalancing of our intellectual portfolio of inequality stories, a change that I think is opening up a much more rich and accurate description of what has happened. I hope the research and conversation continues this way.

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So excited to be launching our new Financialization Project. Check out the website here. Part of the goal of the project is to define financialization, and we’ve focused on the changes to savings, power, wealth, and society that have occured over the past 35 years. We’ll have more there soon, but for now check out the general idea here.

We’re also releasing our first paper, “Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment,” by Roosevelt fellow J.W. Mason. There’s a great writeup of the paper by Lydia DePillis – “Why companies are rewarding shareholders instead of investing in the real economy” – at the Washington Post.

There’s a ton in there, from the key intellectual, ideological, legal, and institutional changes that brought about the shareholder revolution, to reasons to doubt a credit crunch has played any kind of role in the Great Recession. But the core of it is told in these two graphs, dug out from detailed Compustat data:

The first figure shows that a firm borrowing $1 would correlate with an additional 40 cents of investment before the 1980s. Since the 1980s that has collapsed. Today, there is a strong correlation between shareholder payouts and borrowing that did not exist before the mid-1980s. Since the 1980s, shareholder payouts have nearly doubled; in the second half of 2007, aggregate payouts actually exceeded aggregate investment.

This next figure, a little harder to follow, uses flow-of-funds data to make the same point more dramatically.

These graphs plot corporate investment and shareholder payouts against cash flow from operations and net borrowing, respectively. Here the series are broken into three periods: 1952–1984; 1985 to the business-cycle trough in 2001; and 2002–2013. As the paper notes, the upper two panels show a strong relationship between corporate sources of funds and investment in the 1950s through the early 1980s: the points of the scatterplots fall clearly along an upward-sloping diagonal, indicating that periods of high corporate earnings and high corporate borrowing were consistently also periods of high corporate investment. The relationship between investment and the two sources of funds is still present, though weaker, in the 1985–2001 period.
But in the most recent business cycle and recovery, the correlations appear to have vanished entirely. The rise, fall, and recovery of corporate cash flow over the past dozen years is not associated with any similar shifts in corporate investment, which seems stuck at a low level of 1–2 percent of total assets. Similarly, the very large swings in credit flows to the corporate sector do not correspond to any similar shifts in aggregate investment. Turning to the lower two panels of Figure 6, which show shareholder payouts, we see at most a weak relationship with the two sources of funds in the earlier period. In the earlier period, it is payments to shareholders that are stable at 1–2 percent of corporate assets. In the most recent period, by contrast, payouts to shareholders vary much more, and appear more strongly associated with variation in cash flow and borrowing. The transitional period of 1985–2001 is intermediate between the two.
I hope you check out the full paper. Here’s the executive summary:
This paper provides evidence that the strong empirical relationship of corporate cash flow and borrowing to productive corporate investment has disappeared in the last 30 years and has been replaced with corporate funds and shareholder payouts. Whereas firms once borrowed to invest and improve their long-term performance, they now borrow to enrich their investors in the short-run. This is the result of legal, managerial, and structural changes that resulted from the shareholder revolution of the 1980s. Under the older, managerial, model, more money coming into a firm – from sales or from borrowing – typically meant more money spent on fixed investment. In the new rentier-dominated model, more money coming in means more money flowing out to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.
These results have important implications for macroeconomic policy. The shareholder revolution – and its implications for corporate financing decisions – may help explain why higher corporate profits in recent business cycles have generally failed to lead to high levels of investment. And under this new system, cheaper money from lower interest rates will fail to stimulate investment, growth, and wages because, as we show here, additional funds are funneled to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
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Everyone should take it easy on the robot stuff for a while.
There’s been a small, but influential, hysteria surrounding the idea is that a huge wave of automation, technology and skills have lead to a massive structural change in the economy since 2010. The implicit argument here is that robots and machines have both made traditional demand-side policies irrelevant or naïve, and been a major driver of wage stagnation and inequality. Though not the most pernicious story that gained prominence as the recovery remained sluggish in 2010 to 2011, it gained an important foothold among elite discussion.
That is over. They say Washington DC has had a huge crime decline, but I just saw one of the most vicious muggings I’m likely to see, one where David Autor and Larry Summers just tore this idea that a Machine Age is responsible for our economic plight apart on a panel yesterday at the Hamilton Project for the launch of a new Machine Age report. Summers, in particular, took an aggressive tone that is likely to be where liberal and Democratic Party mainstream economic thinking is in advance of 2016. It is a very, very good place.
As Larry Mishel noted in an American Prospect piece on the eve of the event, the robots and skills story has many problems. But I was genuinely surprised at how poorly those pushing the argument – Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the influential The Second Machine Age, were there – could address the pretty obvious counterarguments that were brought up. You can see the event at CSPAN here. This piece will mostly be blockquotes, because the quotes are too good to try and summarize. (Any transcribing errors are my own.)
First up, economist David Autor of MIT demolished the core claims in about a minute of speaking. For those with ears to hear it, this is him also moderating and walking back portions of his “job polarization” arguments from 2010. Autor:

I think there’s reason for some skepticism about how fast things are actually moving. There’s a lot of aggregate data that don’t support the idea the labor market is changing or the economy is changing as rapidly as this very dramatic story. The premium to higher education has plateaued over the last 10 years. We see evidence highly skilled workers have less rapid career trajectories and are moving into less skill occupation if anything. Productivity is not growing very rapidly, and a lot of the employment growth we’ve seen in the past 15 years has been in relatively low education, in-person service occupations.

The second point I want to make, when we think about how technology interacts with labor market we think of substitution of labor with machinery. […] What is neglected is that it complements us as well. Many activities require a mixture of things. it requires a mixture of information process and creativity, motor power and dexterity. if those things need to be done together if you make one cheaper and more productive, you increase the value of the other.

It got worse for the robots. Here’s Larry Summers:
On the one hand we have enormous anecdotal evidence and visual evidence that points to technology having huge and pervasive effects. Whether it is complementing workers and making them much more productive in a happy way, or whether it is substituting for them and leaving them unemployed can be debated. In either of those scenarios you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity.
So, on the one hand are convinced of the far greater pervasiveness of technology in the last few years, and, on the other hand, the productivity statistics on the last dozen years are dismal. Any fully satisfactory view has to reconcile those two observations and I have not heard it satisfactorily reconciled.
Summers also pointed out something that’s fairly obvious once you think about it: if this robot argument is true, doesn’t it mean a short-term job boom? (JW Mason once pointed out this is how Schumpeter thought of these types of “recalculation” business cycles.) Summers:
If you believe technology happens with a big lag and it’s only going to happen in the future, that’s fine. But then you can’t believe it’s already caused a large amount of inequality and disruption of employment today. […] Let’s take retailing. You can imagine you can have all kinds of spiffy technology so you no longer have to have people behind cash registers. The problem is you wouldn’t expect the people behind the cash registers would get fired before the people working the systems got the new systems working. […] I understand why it might take years for it all to have an effect. What I have a harder time understanding is how there can be substantial disemployment ahead of the effect of the productivity.
That is, if you thought that it just was impossible to put in these systems and so forth, then you might think that in the short run it would be a big employment boom. You have to keep your old legacy system going and you have to have a million guys running around figuring out how to put the new computer system in. 
The panel goes into a thing about how education will save us. Moar education! This is where Summers went harder than I had expected:
I think the [education] policies that Aneesh is talking about are largely whistling past the graveyard. The core problem is that there aren’t enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won’t get the jobs. Unless you’re doing things that have things that are effecting the demand for jobs, you’re helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs. […]
Folks, wage inflation in the united states is 2%. It has not gone up in five years. There are not 3% of the economy where there’s any evidence of hyper wage inflation of a kind that would go with worker shortages. The idea that you can just have better training and then there are all these jobs, all these places where there are shortages and we just need the train people is fundamentally an evasion. […]
I am concerned that if we allow the idea to take hold, that all we need to do is there are all these jobs with skills and if we can just train people a bit, then they’ll be able to get into them and the whole problem will go away. I think that is fundamentally an evasion of a profound social challenge.
But, but, but, if we don’t just educate people more, what can we even do? Summers:
What we need is more demand and that goes to short run cyclical policy, more generally to how we operate macroeconomic policy, and the enormous importance of having tighter labor markets, so that firms have an incentive to reach for worker, rather than workers having to reach for firms. […]
I think that the broad empowerment of labor in a world where an increasing part of the economy is generating income that has a kind of rent aspect to it, the question of who’s going to share in it becomes very large. One of the puzzles of our economy today is that on the one hand, we have record low real interest rates, that are expected to be record low for 30 years if you look at the index bond market. And on the other hand, we have record high profits. And you tend to think record high profits would mean record high returns to capital, would also mean really high interest rates. And what we actually have is really low real interest rates. The way to think about that is there’s a lot of rents in what we’re calling profits that don’t really represent a return to investment, but represent a rent.
The question then is who’s going to get those rents? Which goes to the minimum wage, goes to the power of union, goes through the presence of profit sharing, goes to the length of patents and a variety of other government policies that confer rents and then when those are received, goes to the question of how progressive the tax and transfer system is. That has got to be a very, very large part of the picture.
Two bonus quotes. First, someone immediately followed up that instead of the minimum wage, why don’t we just expand the earned income tax credit? Summers:
If we had the income distribution in the United States that we did in 1979, the top 1% would have $1 trillion less today, and the bottom 80% would have $1 trillion more. That works out to about $700,000 a family for the top 1%, and about $11,000 a year for a family in the bottom 80%.
That’s a trillion dollars. I don’t know what the number is, but my guess is that the total cost of the Earned Income Tax Credit is $50 billion. Nobody’s got on the policy agenda doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. The big, aggressive agendas are probably to increase it by a third or a half. So, I’m all for it, but we are talking about 2.5% of the redistribution that has taken place. So, you have to be looking for things and there’s no one thing that is going to do it. My reading of the evidence, it’s a fairly general evidence, is that while there may be some elasticity, the elasticity around the current level of the minimum wage is very low.
Nice. And from his introductory remarks, Robert Rubin casually mentions collective bargaining might be a solution to inequality, but also probably redistribution and a cultural and policy shift towards more free time and more leisure. Ya know, no biggie. Rubin:
We may need an increase in the income tax credit, not only for those who receive it at the present time but perhaps much further up the income scale. Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth […] If we have ever rapid technological development and it is labor displacing, at some point in the future — as I say, that may be some distant point in the future — should that lead to some basic change in our lifestyles with less work, more lecture and a richer, more robust use of that leisure? […] In addition to everything that needs to be done to enhance growth, tighten labor markets and to improve the position of middle and lower income workers, should there be increased redistribution to accomplish the broad objectives of our society?
(I looked at the left-liberals I knew active in policy circles in the 1990s who were in the room, wondering how they kept their heads from exploding at that moment.)
Perhaps this turn is just reflecting this very specific historical moment, and it could change again just as quickly. But the problems are real, and terrifying stories about robots taking all the jobs can no longer have the double function as a form of relief that we have no responsibility to try and address these problems. And it’s great to see prominent liberal economists doing that, especially in advance of the 2016 election.
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According to a new study by Marcus Hagedorn, Iourii Manovskii and Kurt Mitman (HMM), Congress failing to reauthorized the extension of unemployment insurance (UI) resulted in 1.8 million additional people getting jobs. But wait, how does that happen when only 1.3 million people had their benefits expire?

The answer is by going off the normal path of these arguments in models, techniques and data. The paper has a nice write-up by Patrick Brennan here, but it’s one that doesn’t convey how different this paper is compared to the vast majority of the research. The authors made a well-criticized splash in 2013 by arguing that most of the rise in unemployment in the Great Recession was UI-driven; this new paper is a continuation of that approach.

Gold Standard Model. Before we go further, let’s understand what the general standard in UI research looks like. The model here is that UI makes it easier for workers to pass up job offers. As a result they’ll take a longer time to find a job, which creates a larger pool of unemployed people, raising unemployment. In order to test this, researchers use longitudinal data for individuals to compare the length of job searches for individuals who receive UI with those who do not.

This is the standard in the two biggest UI studies from the Great Recession. Both essentially use individuals not receiving UI as a control group to see what getting UI does for people’s job searches over time. Jesse Rothstein (2011) found that UI raised unemployment “by only about 0.1 to 0.5 percentage point.” Using a similar approach, Farber and Valletta (2013) later found “UI increased the overall unemployment rate by only about 0.4 percentage points.” These are generally accepted estimated.

And though small, they are real numbers. The question then becomes an analysis of the trade-offs between this higher unemployment and the positive effects of unemployment insurance, including income support, increased aggregate demand and the increased efficiency of people taking enough time to get the best job for them.

This is not what HMM do in their research. Either in terms of their data, which doesn’t look at any individuals, or their model, which tells a much different story than what we traditionally understand, or their techniques, which add additional problems. Let’s start with the model.

Model Problems. The results HMM get are radically higher than these other studies. They argue that this is because they look at the “macro” effects of unemployment insurance. Instead of just people searching for a job, they argue that labor-search models show that employers must boost the wages of workers and create fewer job openings as a result of unemployment insurance tightening the labor market.

But in their study HMM only look at aggregate employment. If these labor search dynamics were the mechanism, there should be something in the paper about actual wage data or job openings moving in response to this change. There is not. Indeed, their argument hinges entirely on the idea that the labor market was too tight, with workers having too much bargaining power, in 2010-2013. The end of UI finally relaxed this. If that’s the case, then where are the wage declines and corporate profit gains in 2014?

This isn’t an esoteric discussion. They are, in effect, taking a residual and calling it the “macro” effect of UI. But we shouldn’t take it for granted that search models can confirm these predictions without a lot of different types of evidence; as Marshall Steinbaum wrote in his appreciation of these models, when it comes to business cycles and wages predictions they are “an empirical disaster.”

Technique Problems. The model’s vagueness is amplified by the control issue. One of the nice things about the standard model is that people without UI make a nice control group for contrast. Here, HMM simply compare high-UI and low-UI duration states and then counties, without looking at individuals. They argue that since the expiration was done by Congress, it is essentially a random change.

But a quick glance shows their high benefits states group had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent in 2012, while their low benefits states had an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Not random. As the economy recovers, we’d naturally expect to see the states with a higher initial unemployment rate recover faster. But that would just be “recovery”, not an argument about UI, much less workers’ bargaining power.

Data Problems. Their county-by-county analysis is meant to cover for this, but this data is problematic here. As Dean Baker notes in an excellent post, the local area data they use is noisy, confusing based on whether the state is where one works versus lives, and is largely model driven. The fact that much of it is model-driven is problematic for their cross-state county comparisons.

Baker replaces their employment data with the more reliable CES employment data (the headline job creation number you hear every month) and finds the opposite headline result:

It’s not encouraging that you can get the opposite result by changing from one data source to another. Baker isn’t the first to question the robustness of these results to even minor changes in the data. The Cleveland Fed, on an earlier version of their argument, found their results collapsed with a longer timeframe and excluding outliers. The fact that the paper doesn’t have robustness tests to a variety of data sources and measures also isn’t encouraging.

So data problems, control problems, and the vague sense that this is just them finding a residual and attribute all of it to their “macro” element without enough supporting evidence. Rather than turning over the vast research already done, I think it’s best to conclude as Robert Hall of Stanford and the Hoover Institute did for their earlier paper with a similar argument: “This paper has attracted a huge amount of attention, much of it skeptical. I think it is an imaginative and potentially important contribution, but needs a lot of work to convince a fair-minded skeptic (like me).” This newest version is no different.

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President Obama is going big on capital taxation in the State of the Union tonight, including a proposal to raise dividend taxes on the rich to 28 percent. The President is probably not going to frame this as a move away from the George W. Bush economy, but Bush’s radical cuts to capital taxes are part of his legacy that we are still living with. And it’s a part that the latest evidence tells us did a lot to help the rich without helping the overall economy at all.

In the response to Obama’s proposal, you are going to hear a lot about how lower dividend rates increase investment and help the real economy. Indeed, lowering capital tax rates has been a consistent goal of conservatives. As a result, one of the biggest capital taxation changes in history happened in 2003, when George W. Bush reduced the dividend tax rate from 38.6 percent to 15 percent as part of his rapid and expansive tax cut agenda.

There’s been a lot of research about the effect of this massive dividend tax cut on payouts to shareholders (kicked off by an important 2005 Chetty-Saez paper), but very little on its effect on the real economy. Did slashing the dividend tax rate boost corporate investments, perhaps because it made funding projects easier? We don’t know, and it’s not because economists aren’t interested; it’s because it’s very difficult to construct a control group with which to compare the results. Investments increased after 2003, but they likely would have to some degree independent of the dividend tax cut, as we were coming out of a recession. So did the tax cut make a difference?

This is where UC Berkeley economist Danny Yagan’s fantastic new paper, “Capital Tax Reform and the Real Economy: The Effects of the 2003 Dividend Tax Cut,” (pdf, slides) comes in. He uses a large amount of IRS data on corporate tax returns to compare S-corporations with C-corporations. Without getting deep into tax law, C-corporations are publicly-traded firms, while S-corporations are closely held ones without institutional investors. But they are largely comparable in the range Yagan looks at (between $1 million and $1 billion dollars in size), as they are competing in the same industries and locations.

Crucially, though, S-corporations don’t pay a dividend tax and thus didn’t benefit from the big 2003 dividend tax cut, while C-corporations do pay them and did benefit. So that allows Yagan to set up S-corporations as a control group and see what the effect of the massive dividend tax cut on C-corporations has been. Here’s what he finds:

The blue line is the C-corporations, which should diverge from the red-line if the dividend tax cut caused a real change. But there’s no statistical difference between the two paths at all. (Note how their paths are the same before the cut, so it’s a real trend in the business cycle.) There’s no difference in either investment or adjusted net investment. There’s also no difference when it comes to employee compensation. The firms that got a massive capital tax cut did not make any different choices about things that boost the real economy. This is true across a crazy-robust number of controls, measures, and coding of outliers.

The one thing that does increase for C-corporations, of course, is the disgorgement of cash to shareholders. Cutting dividend taxes leads to an increase in dividends and share buybacks. This shows that these corporations are in fact making decisions in response to the tax cut; they just happen to be decisions that benefit, well, probably not you. If right now you are worried that too much cash is leaving firms to benefit a handful of investors while the real economy stagnates, suddenly Clinton-era levels of dividend taxation don’t look so bad.

This is interesting for people interested more specifically in corporate finance theory. Because this is evidence against the theory that firms use the stock market to raise funding, and toward a “pecking order” theory that internal funds and riskless debt are far above equity in a hierarchy of corporate funding choices. In models like the latter, taxation of dividends does very little to impact the cost of capital for firms, because equity isn’t the binding constraint on marginal investment options.

President Obama will likely focus his pitch for the dividend tax increase on the future, when, in his argument, globalization and technology will cause compensation to stagnate while investor payouts skyrocket and the economy becomes more focused on the top 1 percent. But it’s worth noting that while capital taxes are a solution to that problem, the radical slashing conservatives have brought to them are also partly responsible for our current malaise.

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Is it useful to clarify data and claims in the economics blogosphere? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot, as there’s two sets of arguments that could use more light rather than heat.

What Happened in 2013? Sumner and Wren-Lewis

Scott Sumner wrote this about Simon Wren-Lewis:

“Simon Wren-Lewis also gets the GDP growth data wrong, in a way that makes austerity look worse. He claims that RGDP growth was 2.3% in 2012 and 2.2% in 2013 (the year of austerity in the US.) But that’s annual y-o-y data, and since the austerity began on January 1st 2013, you need Q4 over Q4 data. In fact, RGDP growth in 2012, Q4 over Q4, was only 1.67%, whereas growth in the austerity year of 2013 nearly doubled to 3.13%.”

There’s no getting it wrong here: there’s simply two methods. Is it better to take the average annual rates and compare them (as Wren-Lewis does) or is it better to look at strict endpoints (as Sumner does)? An important thing about looking at Q4 vs Q4 data, as Sumner does, is to make sure that you haven’t accidentally set up your endpoints to amplify a trend that isn’t there. That technique is very sensitive to where you put the endpoints.

And sure enough, the quarters before and after that range featured negative or near zero growth. What if you redo this moving the quarters back and forth one period? Well, Q1 over Q1 2014 data drops to 1.9%, while Q3 over Q3 2012 rises to 2.7% (Q1 over Q1 2012 was 2.1%). It’s not encouraging if your argument falls apart because you move the data one step. We can graph out the Q over Q data for every quarter in fact; note Sumner is points to a single quarter that obviously sticks out. There’s a reason people might want to average the data in these situations, as Lewis does.

Simon-Wren Lewis, whose blog I really enjoy, already pointed out austerity didn’t start on January 1st, 2013, of course. And it didn’t; note the more consistent growth in the graphic in late 2010. But even better, the fourth quarter of 2012 featured a massive decline in military spending. According to Alan Krueger for the White House, “A likely explanation for the sharp decline in Federal defense spending is uncertainty concerning the automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to take effect in January.” That’s an additional problem for setting up this issue this way.

What Did People Say Would Happen? Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs argues that people worried about additional austerity in 2013 were saying that it would cause another recession. Sachs: “Indeed, deficit cuts [especially in 2013] would court a reprise of 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely reduced the New Deal stimulus and thereby threw the United States back into recession.”

I paid a lot of attention to these debates, and saw three estimates of the impact of 2013 austerity on the recovery: Mark Zandi at Moody’s Economy, EPI, and the CBO. All three were close to each other in their estimates. None predicted that we’d go back into recession or have no growth.

What were they predicting? Zandi put it clearly: “Altogether, lower federal government spending and higher taxes are expected to reduce 2013 real GDP growth…With such a heavy fiscal weight on the economy, it is hard to see how growth could accelerate, at least in the first half of 2013.”

That’s consistent with what we’ve seen. A drag, preventing accelerate growth and delaying a takeoff in 2013 and into 2014. I don’t see how Sachs can obviously claim that these numbers aren’t consistent with the idea that the government has been a net drag since 2011, or point to a pickup in late 2014 as obviously disproving anything. Maybe on closer, empirical grounds you could (though the empirical literature is finding multiplers), but not at this high level.

In my original question about the Federal Reserve versus austerity in 2013, which seems to animate a lot of these debates, the issue I put forward was whether the Federal Reserve could hit the inflation target it announced with the Evans Rule shifting expectations and open-ended purchases to back that up, while government spending was a drag. It did not.

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