Four posts yesterday. The first was “Bad Signs (New York Trivia)”:
Not a policy post, just a tiny public service intervention from a concerned citizen. So, a plea to Penn Station management: fix your signs! Not for my sake, since I know my way around, but for visitors.
I spend a fair bit of my life in Penn Station, and while it’s still a grim place, it’s not as grim as it used to be. The NJ Transit concourse is at least a bit less dreary than before; there’s a surprisingly decent raw bar/clam chowder place near that concourse; you can even get a fairly authentic goat curry.
But it seems as if nobody has bothered to fix the signs giving directions, which are now completely off. If, for example, you get off the 1-2-3 downtown (which I’m old enough to still think of as the IRT!) at the southernmost staircase, a short corridor takes you right to NJ Transit on your left and the escalator to Amtrak on your right. But right at the intersection where you should make those turns is a big sign telling you that both NJT and Amtrak are straight ahead. I’ve had friends from out of town wander for extended periods because the station seems determined to point you in the right direction.
So please, fix the darn signs.
Next up was a longish post titled “Why Don’t We Have Deflation:”
Whenever you see a piece suggesting that the US economy has entered a “new normal” of slow growth, you’re likely to see someone making the argument that if the economy actually had lots of excess capacity, we should be seeing deflation. And the question of why we don’t have deflation is a good one. It is, however, a question that people like me have answered repeatedly; unfortunately, it seems that this analysis hasn’t been making it to, say, a number of current and former Fed officials.
So here’s a restatement of what we think we know. Long-time readers will find this familiar, but as a number of commenters have wisely pointed out, there are a lot of people reading this blog now who weren’t reading it a year or two ago. (We’re adding Twitter followers at around 20,000 a month, which is some indication of the number of newbies).
OK, first things first: back when the crisis started, I did expect to see deflation, Japanese style, if it went on for an extended period. I was wrong — and I did what you’re supposed to do (but far too people actually do) when they’re wrong, which is to look for an explanation of your error that is consistent with the available evidence.
One immediate thing to look at was to see whether what was happening to inflation in the United States was consistent with historical experience of deep slumps that we know involved the economy operating well below capacity for an extended period. And it turned out that the Japanese deflation (which has never been very fast in any case) is pretty much unique. The IMF looked at Protracted Large Output Gaps — PLOGs — and found that in general inflation gets squeezed toward, but not below, zero:
And our own history actually points in the same direction: the 1930s were marked by sharp deflation in the early years, but considerable inflation as the economy partially recovered, even though unemployment remained very high.
So inflation seems “sticky”. But why? One immediate thought was that we might be looking at the effects of downward nominal wage rigidity: employers are very reluctant to engage in actual wage cuts. Way back in 1996 Akerlof, Dickens and Perry suggested that this would make inflation stubborn at low rates, breaking the usual link between high unemployment and disinflation.
Still, how can you tell if sticky inflation reflects sticky wages, as opposed to being the result of an economy that really doesn’t have very much slack? The answer is that sticky wages should leave a “signature” in the wage data: a large number of workers whose wages neither rise nor fall, and a rising number of such workers as the economy slumps. Sure enough, researchers at the San Franciso Fed found exactly that:
Actually, once you start looking for it, downward nominal rigidity is everywhere. For example, Catherine Rampell had a great piece pointing out that starting salaries at elite law firms have been frozen at precisely $160,000 for years:
The bottom line is that we have a lot of evidence suggesting that the failure of deflation to materialize reflects wage rigidity, not absence of economic slack. And it is therefore frustrating to see supposedly well-informed people talk about this issue as if none of that work had been done.
The third post of the day was “The Life Expectancy Zombie:”
So, one of the moments in my debate with JoScar — which wasn’t as bad as I felt, but should have gone much better — was my “wow” when JS raised the old line that life expectancy was 62 when Social Security started, so the program was no big deal.
Well, that’s still a “wow” thing: it’s incredible that people are still making that argument; when someone says something like that, he’s just proved himself ignorant, disingenuous, or both.
Let me just turn this over to the Social Security administration’s post on the issue:
If we look at life expectancy statistics from the 1930s we might come to the conclusion that the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would work for many years paying in taxes, but would not live long enough to collect benefits. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed only 58 for men and 62 for women, and the retirement age was 65. But life expectancy at birth in the early decades of the 20th century was low due mainly to high infant mortality, and someone who died as a child would never have worked and paid into Social Security. A more appropriate measure is probably life expectancy after attainment of adulthood.
As Table 1 shows, the majority of Americans who made it to adulthood could expect to live to 65, and those who did live to 65 could look forward to collecting benefits for many years into the future. So we can observe that for men, for example, almost 54% of the them could expect to live to age 65 if they survived to age 21, and men who attained age 65 could expect to collect Social Security benefits for almost 13 years (and the numbers are even higher for women).
Also, it should be noted that there were already 7.8 million Americans age 65 or older in 1935 (cf. Table 2), so there was a large and growing population of people who could receive Social Security. Indeed, the actuarial estimates used by the Committee on Economic Security (CES) in designing the Social Security program projected that there would be 8.3 million Americans age 65 or older by 1940 (when monthly benefits started). So Social Security was not designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits.
I should have been ready to see this zombie attack me during the debate, but I wasn’t. Silly me. Well, as a friend used to say, none of us are human.
He wonders whether JoScar is disingenuous, ignorant or both. It’s both. The last post of the day was “Of Cockroaches and Commissioners:”
Kevin O’Rourke points me to the FT’s Brussels blog, which passes on the news that various officials at the European Commission are issuing outraged tweets against yours truly. You see, I’ve been mean to Olli Rehn.
And the EC response perfectly illustrates why I do what I do.
What you would never grasp from those outraged tweets is that all my criticisms have been substantive. I never asserted that Mr. Rehn’s mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries; I pointed out that he has been promising good results from austerity for years, without changing his rhetoric a bit despite ever-rising unemployment, and that his response to studies suggesting larger adverse effects from austerity than he and his colleagues had allowed for was to complain that such studies undermine confidence.
It’s telling that what the Brussels blog calls a “particularly nasty attack” was in fact a summary of Paul DeGrauwe’s work indicating that European austerity has been deeply wrong-headed, in the course of which I quoted Mr. Rehn asserting, once again, that old-time austerian faith.
Now, it’s true that I use picturesque language — but I do that for a reason. “Words ought to be a little wild”, said John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.” Exactly.
Kevin O’Rourke refers to the “cocooned elites in Brussels”, which gets to the heart of the matter. The dignity of office can be a terrible thing for intellectual clarity: you can spend years standing behind a lectern or sitting around a conference table drinking bottled water, delivering the same sententious remarks again and again, and never have anyone point out how utterly wrong you have been at every stage of the game. Those of us on the outside need to do whatever we can to break through that cocoon — and ridicule is surely one useful technique.
There’s an especially telling tweet in there about how “unimpressive” I was when visiting the Commission in 2009. No doubt; I’m not an imposing guy. (I’ve had the experience of being overlooked by the people who were supposed to meet me at the airport, and eventually being told, “We expected you to be taller”). And for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about the Commission visit. Still, you can see what these people consider important: never mind whether you have actually proved right or wrong about the impacts of economic policy, what matters is whether you come across as impressive.
And let’s be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they’re focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.