Monday, October 17, 2016

Levinson on growth

I disagree rather profoundly with crucial parts of Marc Levison's essay "Why the Economy Doesn't Roar Anymore" in the Saturday Wall Street Journal.

Yes, growth is slow. Yes, the ultimate source of growth is productivity. But no, sclerotic productivity is not "just being ordinary." No, our economy is not generating as much productivity growth as is possible, so just get used to it. No, productivity does not fall randomly from the sky no matter what politicians do.

Mark starts well, with a nice and vivid review of the post WWII growth "miracles."

He stumbles a bit at the 1973 Yom Kippur war and oil embargo
"Politicians everywhere responded by putting energy high on their agendas. In the U.S., the crusade for “energy independence” led to energy efficiency standards, the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, large government investments in solar power and nuclear fusion, and price deregulation. [JC: ?? The 1970s had price controls, not deregulation!] But it wasn’t the price of gasoline that brought the long run of global prosperity to an end. It just diverted attention from a more fundamental problem: Productivity growth had slowed sharply."
"The consequences of the productivity bust were severe.."
More good descriptions of eurosclerosis follow. But you see him veer off course, as  he sees little connection between the litany of ham-handed responses to the oil shock and the decline in productivity.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds

"Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds" is the title of a remarkable post by Cass Sunstein.
It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

If you think that Barack Obama has been a terrific president (as I do) and that Hillary Clinton would be an excellent successor (as I also do), then you might want to consider the following books, to help you to understand why so many of your fellow citizens disagree with you:

“Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott.....
and  closes
Having read these books, you might continue to believe that progressives are more often right than wrong, and that in general, the U.S. would be better off in the hands of Democrats than Republicans. But you’ll have a much better understanding of the counterarguments -- and on an issue or two, and maybe more, you’ll probably end up joining those on what you once saw as “the other side.”
Most public intellectual commentary these days takes a tone of parochial demonization -- the hilarious "how Paul Krugman made Donald Trump possible" is good to ponder. When such people even consider views the other side, it's  bulveristic speculation -- did bad childhoods make them evil, or are they bought? The next sentence usually bemoans polarization. This piece by Sunstein is a breath of fresh air.

Those who listen buy themselves an ear.  I usually find I disagree with Sunstein about most things (though his attempt to rein in regulation from inside the Administration is both praiseworthy and instructive in its failure). But knowing that his opinions come from such consideration, they carry more weight. It's more effective than upping low Krugmanian insult to high Bergeracian disdain.

I'm sure many of my blog readers could suggest additional books for Mr. Sunstein -- Friedman, Sowell, Murray, and so on. That's not the point. When grandma sends you books about how to clean your room, you never read them. If you want to send suggestions, send good liberal and progressive books that lovers of freedom should read.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Volume and Information

This is a little essay on the puzzle of volume, disguised as comments on a paper by Fernando Alvarez and Andy Atkeson, presented at the Becker-Friedman Institute Conference in Honor of Robert E. Lucas Jr. (The rest of the conference is really interesting too, but I likely will not have time to blog a summary.) 

Like many others, I have been very influenced by Bob, and I owe him a lot personally as well. Bob pretty much handed me the basic idea for a "Random walk in GNP" on a silver platter. Bob's review of a report to the OECD, which he might rather forget, inspired the Grumpy Economist many years later. Bob is a straight-arrow icon for how academics should conduct themselves. 

On Volume:  (also pdf here

Volume and Information. Comments on “Random Risk Aversion and Liquidity: a Model of Asset Pricing and Trade Volumes” by Fernando Alvarez and Andy Atkeson 

John H. Cochrane
October 7 2016 

This is a great economics paper in the Bob Lucas tradition: Preferences, technology, equilibrium, predictions, facts, welfare calculations, full stop.

However, it’s not yet a great finance paper. It’s missing the motivation, vision, methodological speculation, calls for future research — in short, all the BS — that Bob tells you to leave out. I’ll follow my comparative advantage, then, to help to fill this yawning gap.

Volume is The Great Unsolved Problem of Financial Economics. In our canonical models — such as Bob’s classic consumption-based model — trading volume is essentially zero.

The reason is beautifully set out in Nancy Stokey and Paul Milgrom’s no-trade theorem, which I call the Groucho Marx theorem: don’t belong to any club that will have you as a member. If someone offers to sell you something, he knows something you don’t.

More deeply, all trading — any deviation of portfolios from the value-weighted market index — is zero sum. Informed traders do not make money from us passive investors, they make money from other traders.

It is not a puzzle that informed traders trade and make money. The deep puzzle is why the uninformed trade, when they could do better by indexing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A first step to progressive consumption taxes

What's an easy way to get going on progressive income taxes? Simply remove all limits on contributions to and withdrawals from IRAs. (I thank my Hoover colleague Michael Bernstam for this clever idea, and the Hoover coffee room for bumping us into each other.)

Background: Once people see that a consumption tax, in place of income tax, corporate tax, estate tax, etc. is much simpler and more economically efficient, the natural question is "what about progressivity?" The answer is that there are lots of ways to make a consumption tax progressive.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Trump Taxes

As I see it, important points about the Trump tax affair are not yet reflected in media coverage. 1) This affair reflects the intrinsic difficulties of an income tax. A consumption tax can be more progressive -- Mr. Trump would have likely have paid a lot more. 2) Raising personal income tax rates and especially capital gains and estate tax rates will do little to raise tax payments from the likes of Mr. Trump. No taxable income = no tax at any rate. It will likely have the opposite effect, making more lawyer, accountant, and lobbyist time worthwhile.

The main issue, really, is not what taxes Mr. Trump did or did not pay after the big loss. The big issue is what taxes he did or did not pay beforehand.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


I did an EconTalk Podcast with Russ Roberts. The general subject is economic growth, the reasons it seems to be slipping away from us and policies (or non-policies) that might help.

As in other recent projects (growth essaytestimony) I'm trying to synthesize, and also to find policies and ways to talk about them that avoid the stale left-right debate, where people just shout base-pleasing spin ever louder. "You're a tax and spend socialist" "You just want tax cuts for your rich buddies" is getting about as far as "You always leave your socks on the floor" "Well, you spend the whole day on the phone to your mother."

We did this as an interview before a live audience, at a Chicago Booth alumni event held at Hoover, so it's a bit lighter than the usual EconTalk. This kind of thought helps the synthesis process a lot for me.  Russ' pointed questions make me think, as did the audience in follow up Q&A (not recorded). Plus, it was fun.

I always leave any interview full of regrets about things I could have said better or differently. The top of the regret pile here was leaving a short joke in response to Russ' question about what the government should spend more on. Russ was kindly teeing up the section of the growth essay "there is good spending" and perhaps "spend more to spend less" ideas in several other recent writings. It would have been a good idea to go there and spend a lot more time on the question.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Furman on zoning

On this day (Clinton vs. Trump debate) of likely partisan political bloviation, I am delighted to highlight a very nice editorial by Jason Furman, President Obama's CEA chair, on the effects of housing restrictions. A longer speech here. The editorial is in the San Francisco Chronicle, ground zero for housing restriction induced astronomical prices. Furman:
 When certain government policies — like minimum lot sizes, off-street parking requirements, height limits, prohibitions on multifamily housing, or unnecessarily lengthy permitting processes — restrict the supply of housing, fewer units are available and the price rises. On the other hand, more efficient policies can promote availability and affordability of housing, regional economic development, transportation options and socioeconomic diversity...
...barriers to housing development can allow a small number of individuals to enjoy the benefits of living in a community while excluding many others, limiting diversity and economic mobility. 
This upward pressure on house prices may also undermine the market forces that typically determine patterns of housing construction, leading to mismatches between household needs and available housing. 
What's even more praiseworthy is what Furman does not say: "Affordable" housing constructed by taxpayers, or by forcing developers to provide it; rent controls; housing subsidies; bans on the construction of market-rate housing (yes, SF does that); bans on new businesses (yes, Palo Alto does that), and the rest of the standard bay-area responses to our housing problems.  The first few may allow a few lucky low-income people to stay where they are, as long as they remain low-income, but does not allow new people to come chase opportunities. Subsidies that raise demand without raising supply just raise prices more. As in child care or medicine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Negative rates and inflation

Have negative interest rates boosted inflation? Here is a nice graph (source macro-man blog, HT FT alphaville)

Source: Macro-man blog
Not really. Explanations? Choose the chicken or the egg:

1) But for negative rates, inflation would have been even lower

2) We're living in a Fisher effect world. Lower rates lower inflation. (Which is arguably a good, if unintended, thing)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Immigration, trade, and child care

Both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton want to lower the cost and, presumably, increase the amount of child care. A quick economics quiz: What is the policy change that would have the greatest such effect?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Testimony 2

On the way back from Washington, I passed the time reformatting my little essay for the Budget committee to html for blog readers. See below. (Short oral remarks here in the last blog post, and pdf version of this post here.)

I learned a few things while in DC.

The Paul Ryan "A better way" plan is serious, detailed, and you will be hearing a lot about it. I read most of it in preparation for my trip, and it's impressive. Expect reviews here soon. I learned that Republicans seem to be uniting behind it and ready to make a major push to publicize it. It is, by design, a document that Senatorial and Congressional candidates will use to define a positive agenda for their campaigns, as well as describing a comprehensive legislative and policy agenda.

"Infrastructure" is bigger in the conversation than I thought. But since there is no case that potholes caused the halving of America's trend growth rate, do not be surprised if infrastructure fails to double the trend growth rate. It's also a bit sad that the most common growth idea in Washington is, acording to my commenters, about 2,500 years old -- employment on public works.

Washington conversation remains in thrall to the latest numbers. There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%. Chicagoans used to get excited about the 40 degree February thaw.

The quality can be very very good. Congressman Price, the chair of my session, covered just about every topic in my testimony, and possibly better. Congressional staff are really good, and they are paying attention to the latest. If you write policy-related economics, take heart, they really are listening.

The questions at my hearing pushed me to clarify just how will debt problems affect the average American. What I had not said in the prepared remarks needs to be said. If we don't get an explosion of growth, the US will not be able to make good on its promises to social security, health care, government pensions, credit guarantees, taxpayers, and bondholders. Something's got to give. And the growing size of entitlements means they must give. Even a default on the debt, raising taxes to the long-run Laffer limit, will not pay for current pension and health promises. Those will be cut. The question is how. If we wait to a fiscal crisis, they will be cut unexpectedly and by large amounts, leaving people who counted on them in dire straits. Greece is a good example. If we make sensible sustainable promises now, they will be cut less, and people will have decades to adjust.

Ok, on to html testimony:

Growing Risks to the Budget and the Economy.
Testimony of John H. Cochrane before the House Committee on Budget.
September 14 2016

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

I am John H. Cochrane. I am a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University1. I speak to you today on my own behalf on not that of any institution with which I am affiliated.

Sclerotic growth is our country's most fundamental economic problem.2 From 1950 to 2000, our economy grew at 3.6% per year.3 Since 2000, it has grown at barely half that rate, 1.8% per year. Even starting at the bottom of the recession in 2009, usually a period of super-fast catch-up growth, it has grown at just over 2% per year. Growth per person fell from 2.3% to 0.9%, and since the recession has been 1.3%.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


I was invited to testify at a hearing of the House budget committee on Sept 14. It's nothing novel or revolutionary, but a chance to put my thoughts together on how to get growth going again, and policy approaches that get past the usual partisan squabbling. Here are my oral remarks. (pdf version here.) The written testimony, with lots of explanation and footnotes, is here. (pdf) (Getting footnotes in html is a pain.)

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

Sclerotic growth is our country’s most fundamental economic problem. If we could get back to the three and half percent postwar average, we would, in the next 30 years, triple rather than double the size of the economy—and tax revenues, which would do wonders for our debt problem.

Why has growth halved? The most plausible answer is simple and sensible: Our legal and regulatory system is slowly strangling the golden goose of growth.

How do we fix it? Our national political and economic debate just makes the same points again, louder, and going nowhere. Instead, let us look together for novel and effective policies that can appeal to all sides.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Glaeser and Summers on Infrastructure

Ed Glaeser has a superb essay on infrastructure at City Journal, titled "If you Build It.." I have a few excerpts, but do go and enjoy the whole thing. Larry Summers also has a new blog post on infrastructure, with some fascinating bits if you read carefully. I wrote about some of these issues in the WSJ and recent post, but not with Ed's clarity and erudition, nor Larry's imprimatur.

Glaeser starts with a clear summary paragraph:

Monday, September 5, 2016

Rosenberg in New York Times

Naomi Rosenberg's Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Times is the best piece of writing I have had the painful pleasure to read in a long time. The title is How to Tell a Mother her Child Is Dead. Warning: this is not an easy piece to read.

Read it. Read the whole thing. Read it again. There is no excerpt I can offer.

Why is it so good? She does not clear her throat. She does not introduce the subject -- the title did that. She dives right in: "First you get your coat."  She uses short, declarative, active sentences. The absence of contractions is powerful.

She does not beat us over the head with the obvious, or fill it with policy-blather. She reminds us of the daily tragedy in many cities, like my hometown of Chicago, that we must no longer ignore.

She reminds us of the deep humanity of doctors who pick up the pieces. The emergency room doctor who took care my mother could have been Dr. Rosenberg, and I will forever be thankful for her consideration. "You use the mother’s name and you use her child’s name."  Yes. Too often in our many doctor visits raising four children, someone addressed us as "Mom" and "Dad." We're not dumb. We know that means you can't bother to look down at the sheet in front of you to read and pretend to know who we are.

She reminds us to treat people in awful circumstances with the same humanity and respect as she treats her patients, not as numbers, abstractions, easy categories or talking points for longstanding policy arguments.

Had she said any of that, it would have been much weaker. She didn't need to say it. In all likelihood, neither do I.

Let us remember Dr. Rosenberg and her colleagues this labor day, as they will be at that painful work while we barbecue.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Settlement skulduggery

Andy Koenig had a WSJ oped on a subject getting far too little attention. When the government goes after big companies such as banks, and obtains huge out of court settlements, just where does the money go?
...In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group ["a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors"] has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America. April ... the Justice Department announced a $5.1 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs. In February Morgan Stanley agreed to a $3.2 billion settlement. Previous targets were Citigroup ($7 billion), J.P. Morgan Chase ($13 billion), and Bank of America,... $16.65 billion...
The money does not go to any individual who demonstrably lost money as a result of the banks' actions. Instead,
... a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but.

...Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements...

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Asset Pricing Mooc, Resurrected

The online class "Asset Pricing" is resurrected, at least half-way.

The videos, readings, slides/whiteboards and notes are all now here on my webpage.  If you just want the lecture videos, they are all on Youtube, Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

These materials are also hosted in a somewhat prettier manner on the University of Chicago's Canvas platform. You may or may not have  access to that. It may become open to the public at some point.

I'm working on the quizzes, problems, and exams, and also on finding a new host so you can have problems graded and get a certificate. For now, however, I hope these materials are useful as self-study, and as assignments for in-person classes. I found that sending students to watch the videos and then having a more discussion oriented class worked well.

What happened? Coursera moved to a new platform. The new platform is not backward-compatible, did not support several features I used from the old platform, and some of the new platform features don't work as advertised either. Neither the excellent team at U of C, nor Coursera's staff, could move the class to the new platform. And Coursera would not keep the old platform open. So, months of work are consigned to the dustbin of software "upgrades," at least for now.

Obviously, if you are thinking of doing an online course, I do not recommend that you work with Coursera. And make sure to write strong language about keeping your course working in the contract.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Micro vs. Macro

The cause of sclerotic growth is the major economic policy question of our time. The three big explanations are 1) We ran out of ideas (Gordon); 2) Deficient "demand," remediable by more fiscal stimulus (Summers, say) 3); Death by a thousand cuts of cronyist regulation and legal economic interference.

On the latter, we mostly have stories and some estimates for individual markets, not easy-to-use  government-provided statistics. But there are lots of stories.

Here is one day's Wall Street Journal reading while waiting for a plane last Saturday:

1) Holman Jenkins,
... unbridled rent seeking.  That’s the term economists use for exercising government power to create private gains for political purposes. 
Channelling Jefferson,
Mr. Obama’s bank policy dramatically consolidated the banking industry, which the government routinely sues for billions of dollars, with the proceeds partly distributed to Democratic activist groups. 
His consumer-finance agency manufactured fake evidence of racism against wholesale auto lenders in order to facilitate a billion-dollar shakedown.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The new voodoo

Scott Sumner sums up contemporary stimulus proposals well
...Old hydraulic Keynesianism from the 1960s was already a pretty implausible model. But what's happened since 2009 involves not just one, but at least five new types of voodoo: 
1. The claim that artificial attempts to force wages higher will boost employment, by boosting AD.

2. The claim that extended unemployment benefits---paying people not to work---will lead to more employment, by boosting AD.

3. The claim that more government spending can actually reduce the budget deficit, by boosting AD and growth. Note that in the simple Keynesian model, even with no crowding out, monetary offset, etc., this is impossible.

4. More aggregate demand will lead to higher productivity. In the old Keynesian model, more AD boosted growth by increasing employment, not productivity.

5. Fiscal stimulus can boost AD when not at the zero bound, because . . . ?

In all five cases there is almost no theoretical or empirical support for the new voodoo claims, and lots of evidence against. There were 5 attempts to push wages higher in the 1930s, and all 5 failed to spur recovery. Job creation sped up when the extended UI benefits ended at the beginning of 2014, contrary to the prediction of Keynesians. The austerity of 2013 failed to slow growth, contrary to the predictions of Keynesians. Britain had perhaps the biggest budget deficits of any major economy during the Great Recession, job growth has been robust, and yet productivity is now actually lower than in the 4th quarter of 2007.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Interview, talk, and slides

I did an interview with Cloud Yip at Econreporter, Part I and Part II, on various things macro, money, and fiscal theory of the price level. It's part of an interesting series on macroeconomics. Being a transcript of an interview, it's not as clean as a written essay, but not as incoherent as I usually am when talking.

On the same topics, I will be giving a talk at the European Financial Association, on Friday, titled  "Michelson-Morley, Occam and Fisher: The radical implications of stable inflation at the zero bound," slides here. (Yes, it's an evolution of earlier talks, and hopefully it will be a paper in the fall.)

And, also on the same topic, you might find useful a set of slides for a 1.5 hour MBA class covering all of monetary economics from Friedman to Sargent-Wallace to Taylor to Woodford to FTPL.  That too should get written down at some point.

The talk incorporates something I just figured out last week, namely how Sims' "stepping on a rake" model produces a temporary decline in inflation after an interest rate rise. Details here. The key is simple fiscal theory of the price level, long-term debt, and a Treasury that stubbornly keeps real surpluses in place even when the Fed devalues long-term debt via inflation.

Here is really simple example.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Clinton Plan

The WSJ asked me to review the Hillary Clinton economic plan, motivated by her August 11 speech introducing it.  The Op-Ed is here.

I read a good deal of the "plan" on What I discovered is that there is so much plan that there really isn't any plan at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Zoning common sense

Kate Kershaw Downing has posted a worthy letter of resignation from the Palo Alto Housing commission, that seems to be going viral.

Palo Alto is absurdly expensive. People who want to come here for jobs can't afford to live anywhere nearby.  What to do about it?
 I have repeatedly made recommendations to the Council to expand the housing supply in Palo Alto so that together with our neighboring cities who are already adding housing, we can start to make a dent in the jobs-housing imbalance that causes housing prices throughout the Bay Area to spiral out of control. Small steps like allowing 2 floors of housing instead of 1 in mixed use developments, enforcing minimum density requirements so that developers build apartments instead of penthouses, legalizing duplexes, easing restrictions on granny units, leveraging the residential parking permit program to experiment with housing for people who don’t want or need two cars, and allowing single-use areas like the Stanford shopping center to add housing on top of shops (or offices), would go a long way in adding desperately needed housing units while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods and preserving historic structures throughout.