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John Quiggin

Reverse engineering Ross Douthat

by John Quiggin on June 26, 2014

Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction? The optimal choice is not to choose.

I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s <a href=””http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/349428/missing-point-conservative-reform”>plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”

In this NYT piece, Ross Douthat tries to respond to Yglesias. He ends up both confirming the point regarding climate change and illustrating the true nature of reform conservatism. [click to continue...]

Education and opportunity

by John Quiggin on May 22, 2014

I’ve got a piece up at the Chronicle of Education, with the title Campus Reflections (paywalled, but there’s a version at my blog) making the point that a higher education system is, in important respects, a mirror of the society that created it, and that it helps to recreate. If that’s true, it follows that the idea of education as a route to equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcomes, is misconceived. This idea has always been popular among social democrats and even more so by advocates of ‘The Third Way’, who needed it to justify their abandonment of policies aimed at equalising outcomes.

Thinking about the point in this more general context, I’d want to qualify the ‘mirror’ claim a bit. There have been important instances where access to education has been substantially more egalitarian than access to resources in general, so that education did serve to promote equality of opportunity and perhaps also some equalisation of incomes (since it reduced the correlation between access to good jobs and ownership of wealth). The creation of universal public education systems in the 19th century was one example. These systems were far from being equal: they typically streamed students along class lines. But even giving working class kids the basics of literacy and numeracy was a big step forward, and there were opportunities for the bright and determined to do much better than that. The GI Bill in the US was another (if readers can point me to a good source of more detailed info on this I’d be grateful).

But, to the extent that education is a market commodity, it will be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. So, in the absence of a strong policy push in the opposite direction, unequal access to education for young people will reflect the unequal wealth and income of their parents. The US higher education system, like the health system, mirrors the outcomes of labor and capital markets pretty closely. It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.

Piketty crossing the Delaware

by John Quiggin on May 18, 2014

Like lots of other readers of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, my big concern is not with the accuracy of the diagnosis and prognosis but with the feasibility of the prescription. Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax requires an end to the capacity of capital to escape taxation by exploiting the limitations of national taxations system, through tax havens, transfer pricing, artificial corporate structures and so on.

Given the limited record of success in past efforts to control global tax evasion and avoidance, Piketty is reasonably pessimistic about efforts in this direction. But the latest news from the OECD is remarkably positive. All members of the OECD (notably including evader-friendly jurisdictions like Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland) have agreed to a system of automatic information exchange for tax purposes. Moreover, the “too big to jail” status of major banks engaged in facilitating tax evasion and money laundering, may finally be coming to an end.

On the face of it, the oft-repeated, but so far unjustified claim that “the days of tax havens are over“, may finally be coming true, at least for all but the wealthiest individuals. But the crackdown on individual tax evaders only points up the ease with which corporations (and individuals with the means to establish complex corporate structures) can avoid tax through a mixture of legal avoidance and unprovable evasion (for example, by illegal but unprovable internal transfers).

At the core of the problem is the ability to establish corporations in ways that make their true ownership impossible to trace. And, the jurisdiction most responsible for this is not a Caribbean island or European mini-state, but the “First State” of the US - Delaware, which has long been the preferred location for US incorporation by reason of its business friendly laws.

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Wealth: earned or inherited?

by John Quiggin on May 6, 2014

The efforts of the right to discredit Piketty’s Capital have so far ranged from unconvincing to risible (Chris picked up a particularly amusing one from Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, to which I won’t bother linking). One point raised in this four-para summary by the Economist is that ” today’s super-rich mostly come by their wealth through work, rather than via inheritance.” Piketty does a good job of rebutting this, but for those who haven’t acquired the book or got around to reading it, I thought I’d repost my own response, from 2012.

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Right wing tribalists: A lost cause

by John Quiggin on April 30, 2014

Rightwing tribalism seems to be the topic du jour, or maybe I’m noticing it more having just done a long-planned post on the topic. Here are some recent examples

and relatedly

  • Digby in Slate on Southern white males as a voting bloc unremittingly hostile to the Dems on tribal grounds (my thoughts on this here)

Over the fold, I’ve reprised the piece (from a 2007 review of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher) when I first realized the central role of tribalism, as opposed to ideology or economic self-interest, in contemporary rightwing politics. Rereading it, I’m happy with most of the analysis, though obviously, with my characteristic over-optimism and shortening of time-frames, I did not anticipate the full tenacity of rightwing resistance on this issue.

What can be done about rightwing tribalism? There’s no point in traditional strategies of compromise and bargaining. The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. So, as Bouie observes, the moment Obama adopts a policy favored by the right, they turn against it.

The strategy of trying to frame issues in rightwing terms, pushed by Lakoff and others, is similarly hopeless: it’s not the issues, but the people that are the problem. There’s one big exception to this: if they issue can be framed as Big Government vs the little guy, as in the cases of NSA surveillance and, more interestingly, of attempts by utilities to suppress rooftop solar power using ALEC-backed legislation, it’s possible to make common cause with at least some on the right, who hate “the guvment” even more than liberals and environmentalists. But that’s only true of a minority of the right, and a handful of issues.

Most of the time, none of these strategies will work. The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity, and persuading non-tribalists of conservative inclinations that they should not ally with this group. And of course, waiting for time and demography to take their course, as has already happened to a substantial extent.

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Tu Quoque

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2014

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[^1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[^2], [^3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, the Kochs and so on). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

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Monday photoblogging: Lakes

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2014

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Lakes Eacham and Barrine in the Atherton Tablelands, Queensland

Salon has a couple of interesting articles about millennials. Tim Donovan focuses on the plight of young people without college education who are suffering the combined effects of long-term growth in inequality and the scarring that comes from entering the worst labor market in at least a generation[^1]. Elias Isquith has a piece debunking Rand Paul’s prospects of pulling the millennial vote (I’ve seen a few of these lately, which may or may not mean anything), which includes the following observation

Despite the fact that a whopping 51 percent of millennials believe they’ll receive no Social Security benefits by the time they’re eligible, and despite the fact that 53 percent of millennials think government should focus spending on helping the young rather than the old, a remarkable 61 percent of young voters oppose cutting Social Security benefits in any way, full stop.

The idea that “Social security won’t be around long enough for me to collect it” is a hardy perennial, and thinking about it led me to the following observation:

It’s now possible for someone to have spent their entire working life believing that Social Security would not last long enough for them to receive it, and now to have retired and started collecting benefits. This belief has been prevalent at least since the early years of the Reagan Administration when it was pushed hard by David Stockman, and I’m going to date it to the first big “reform” of the system in 1977. Someone born in 1952, who entered the workforce in 1977 at the age of 25, would now be turning 62 and eligible to collect Social Security. [click to continue...]

I’m very grateful to Ingrid for setting up this discussion of capabilities. I enjoy the general discussions of social and political issues we have here at CT, but this is one of many venues for such discussion (among the best, I think, but I would say that). What’s truly unique for me is the opportunity to discuss the issues raised by my own academic work in an environment that is totally different from those offered by the economics profession.

As has already been mentioned, most of the discussion of capabilities has concerned poor/developing countries. Moreover, most of it has been qualitative rather than quantitative. One consequence is that, although the idea of capabilities has been around for a while now, its impact on the policy process in developed countries has been modest at best.

My own work on capabilities, represented by an article[1] published last year in the Journal of Health Economics has also had a modest impact, but for very different reasons. While not strictly quantitative, it’s mathematical, more so than the average reader of JHE tends to be comfortable with, and its direct relevance to policy is limited by the fact that we are, at least to start with, not addressing distributional issues.

The main objective is to explore the idea that capabilities can provide a basis for allocating health care resources based on the QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year) measure. in previous work, we looked at the “welfarist” idea that policy should be based on maximizing lifetime expected utility. It turns out that, considered purely as a technical problem, this can’t be done, except in very special cases. The appeal of capabilities is that they provide a non-welfarist (or at least ‘extra-welfarist’ in that it is more than a simple expected utility maximization) rationale for policies involving scarce resources like health care.

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The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

by John Quiggin on February 15, 2014

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
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Macroeconomics made easy?

by John Quiggin on February 10, 2014

In my book, Zombie Economics, I started the account of macroeconomics with the observation

Macroeconomics began with Keynes. Before Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, economic theory consisted almost entirely of what is now called microeconomics. The difference between the two is commonly put by saying that microeconomics is concerned with individual markets and macroeconomics with the economy as a whole, but that formulation implicitly assumes a view of the world that is at least partly Keynesian.

Long before Keynes, neoclassical economists had both a theory of how prices are determined in individual markets so as to match supply and demand (“partial equilibrium theory”) and a theory of how all the prices in the economy are jointly determined to produce a “general equilibrium” in which there are no unsold goods or unemployed workers.

I went on to observe how the pre-Keynesian approach had been revived by the “New Classical” school, and how the apparent convergence with “New Keynesian” economics had been shown to be illusory after the failure of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models to deal with the 2008 financial crisis and the subsquent, still continuing, depression.

With all of this, though, I still never thought of academic macro, in either saltwater or freshwater form, as being a simple reversion to the pre-Keynesian notion of general equilibrium, with no concern about aggregate demand or unemployment, even in the short run. It turns out that, at least for a large segment of the profession, this is quite wrong. I’ve just received a book entitled Big ideas in Macroeconomics: A nontechnical view by Kartik Athreya, an economist at the Richmond Federal Reserve who made a splash a few years back with a piece entitled Economics is Hard. Don’t Let Bloggers Tell You Otherwise, which, unsurprisingly, did not endear him to bloggers. As a critic of mainstream macro, I’m briefly mentioned, and I just got a review copy.

The new book is an attempt to simplify things, and indeed it has proved enlightening to me and also to Herb Gintis who contributes a blurb on the back, commending it as an accessible and accurate description of the dominant way of thinking about macroeconomics.

The easiest way to see why the book is so striking is to list some topics that do not appear in the index (and are not discussed, or only mentioned in passing, in the text). These include: unemployment, inflation, recession, depression, business cycle, Phillips curve, NAIRU, Taylor Rule, money, monetary policy and fiscal policy.

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Work and beyond

by John Quiggin on February 9, 2014

A little while ago, Ross Douthat tweeted a link to this Aeon article of mine, reflecting on Keynes ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, which gave rise to some interesting discussion (Memo to self: Find out about Storify). Now he’s addressed the topic in the New York Times, linking directly to Keynes essay. There’s some interesting food for thought here. Unfortunately, it’s mixed up with some silly stuff reflecting his job as the NY Times token Republican, in which capacity he has to do some damage control over the exposure of the latest Repub lie saying that Obamacare will cost 2.5 million jobs. As Douthat delicately puts it “this is not exactly right”. But, although his heart clearly isn’t it, he tries to construct a narrative in which the Repubs might be right for the wrong reasons, or, in an even less-felicitous defence, mean-spirited and inaccurate but justified by the success of Reaganism thirty years ago.

More interesting though, is Douthat’s discussion comparing idealised hopes for a post-work society with the reality in which well-educated professionals are working longer hours than ever, while many at the bottom end of the income distribution, particularly poorer men have withdrawn from the formal labour force altogether (presumably, relying on disability benefits or scraping a living in the informal economy). One possible solution to this problem, is simply to give the poor more money, for example, in the form of a basic income, and not worry about whether they choose to work. Douthat isn’t too happy about this idea, saying

Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted. The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.

But this position elides a bunch of crucial issues.

First, while work may be necessary to “dignity, mobility and social equality” in a market society, it certainly isn’t sufficient. For unionised US workers in the mid-20th century, earning middle-class incomes in relatively secure jobs and expecting better for their children, work was, arguably both necessary and sufficient to achieve a fair measure of these things. But an at-will employee, juggling two or three tenuous jobs that pay $7.25 an hour, and looking at a steady decline in real income, is scarcely getting much in the way of dignity, let alone mobility or social equality.

Equally importantly, market work isn’t the only kind of work people can do, and certainly not the most valuable. Most obviously, there’s the raising of children. The US the developed countries that does not provide any kind of paid parental leave, and even the legislative provision for unpaid leave (12 weeks a year for mothers in firms with more than 50 employees, nothing for fathers) is incredibly stingy. The idea that the ‘rugged individualists’ who block any improvements to these conditions actually care about the dignity of the working class is simply laughable.

I don’t need to tell Douthat any of this. It’s all in his book Grand New Party with Reihan Salam, notably including a proposal for a full year of paid parental leave. The book received cautiously respectful reviews from many in the centre and centre-left, but fell entirely flat with its intended audience in the Republican Party.

I’ll have a bit more to say about the kind of technological determinism that seeks to explain labour market polarisation as arising from computers and the Internet a bit later. For the moment, I’ll repeat the conclusion of my Aeon essay that a response to technological change that will preserve the link between work, dignity and equality will require both a reduction in total hours of work and an expansion in the range of social contributions regarded as work, beyond those that generate a market return

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Energy storage (dull but important)

by John Quiggin on February 3, 2014

OK, so energy storage isn’t the most exciting topic in the world, but it really matters. The problem of energy storage (or changes in energy use that make it unnecessary) is the biggest remaining obstacle to a transition to renewable energy. So, here are some observations, labelled for convenience and partly derived from this study by the US Department of Energy

(a) Any reversible energetic process represents a potential storage technology. Reversibility entails that some energy is stored (as potential or chemical energy) when the process goes one way, and released when it goes the other. Of course, the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that we will always add entropy (that is, lose useful energy) in this process
(b) Any technical or social change that shifts the time at which energy is finally used replicates the effects of storage
(c)Energy storage is in much the same position as renewable electricity generation was, say, 15 years ago.
(d) There are a lot of potential approaches, most of which have been developed in niches where particular characteristics are required. For example, car batteries need to store a lot of energy for given weight, household batteries need to store energy for a long time and so on. The needs of a renewable-dominated electricity system are very different and will require substantial modifications of these technologies
(e) With one big exception, there is currently no price incentive, in most jurisdictions to use storage technologies and therefore none are used
(f) The big exception is off-peak hot water. Coal and nuclear systems generate baseload supply when it is not needed for consumption. Price incentives are used to encourage people to store the resulting excess energy in the form of hot water
(g) There’s no technological obstacle, given the availability of smart meters, to changing the timing of hot water systems to reflect actual availability of excess electricity rather than reflecting the assumptions of a coal-based system
(h) All of this applies to electric cars. Even ignoring the possibility of feeding power back into the grid, the economics of electric cars would be drastically improved if they could be charged using low-cost power in times of excess supply (in the case of solar PV, around midday when lots of cars are sitting in parking lots)
(i) Something I just found out from the DoE study: Electric car batteries are considered unfit for services when they fall to 80 per cent of their original charge capacity (recall that energy density is critical for car batteries). But they still have a long potential life as static storage devices. This enhances both the economics of electric cars (since the battery has resale value) and of storage (since the opportunity cost is zero)

Here’s an older post, with a really simple example of how the argument works, once you get away from the fixation on replicating the characteristics of a coal-fired system.

New Old Keynesianism

by John Quiggin on January 22, 2014

The term “New Old Keynesian” was coined by Tyler Cowen a couple of years ago, to describe the revival of the view that the Keynesian analysis of recessions caused by lack of aggregate demand is relevant, not only in the short run (in this context, the time taken for wage contracts to reset, say 2-3 years) but in the long run (5 years or more) as well. When Cowen was writing, in September 2011, the New Depression could still, just about, be seen as a short run phenomenon[1]. In particular, the anti-Keynesian advocates of austerity in the US, UK and Europe were predicting rapid recovery.

As 2014 begins, it’s clear enough that any theory in which mass unemployment or (in the US case) withdrawal from the labour force can only occur in the short run is inconsistent with the evidence. Given that unions are weaker than they have been for a century or so, and that severe cuts to social welfare benefits have been imposed in most countries, the traditional rightwing explanation that labour market inflexibility [arising from minimum wage laws or unions], is the cause of unemployment, appeals only to ideologues (who are, unfortunately, plentiful).

So, on the face of it, Cowen’s “New Old Keynesianism” looks pretty appealing. But what are the alternatives? Leaving aside anti-Keynesian views for the moment, the terminology suggests four logical possibilities: Old Old Keynesianism, Old New Keynesianism, New Old Keynesianism and New New Keynesianism.

But do these logical possibilities correspond to actual viewpoints, and, if so, whose?

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The Repubs won’t Douthat

by John Quiggin on January 13, 2014

Ross Douthat is something of a punchline in these [arts parts . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network1). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.

In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.

By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.

Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.

This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.

Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.

But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.

It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.

And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.

It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.


  1. Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.