Current Affairs

1. When it comes to South Carolina, he is a cornball, but a likable one.

2. He played Strato-O-Matic baseball as a kid.  No mention of Jim Bunning in that context.

3. After two years at Harvard, he had taken only Econ 101.  Later Dale Jorgensen became his mentor.

4. He is a fan of Borges, with the influence coming from his wife, who has taught Spanish literature.

5. He regrets his earlier tough rhetoric on the Japanese central bank.

6. Greenspan’s marriage proposal to Andrea Mitchell was riddled with his trademark ambiguity.  Bernanke, in contrast, proposed after two months of courtship.

7. Bernanke underestimated the extent of the housing bubble.  Various negative consequences were to ensue from the collapse of housing prices.

8. “I had never gone overboard on libertarianism…”

9. Ben got really, really mad at the AIG chief executives, in fact he “seethed.”

10. The Fed did not have a good, legal way to bail out Lehman.  It needed a buyer, and no buyer was to be found.  A short-term infusion of cash would not have sufficed.  And Ben was afraid at the time that if he confessed the Fed’s impotence in this regard, the market reaction would have been negative.

11. The idea of a mortgage cram down made good sense but was never politically feasible.

12. “So, by setting the interest rate we paid on reserves high enough, we could prevent the federal funds rate from falling too low.”

13. I found the discussions of Wachovia and WaMu came the closest to offering new perspective and information.  Perhaps he was able to say more because these actions did not skirt the possibility of the Fed exceeding its mandate.

14. He had a favorable impression of the frankness of John McCain.

15. He thought QE should been done through the purchase of corporate bonds, but the Fed didn’t have the right kind of authority at that time.

16. He argues that the idea of ngdp targeting is too complicated and could not easily be made credible, given that the Fed has built up its reputation as an inflation fighter.  It also raises the risk that a non-credible ngdp target wouldn’t boost output, but would deliver price inflation, thereby resurrecting stagflation as a potential problem.  (By the way, here is Scott’s response.)

17. He is still upset at the coverage he received from Paul Krugman.

18. In Nunavut he passed on raw seal meat and a dogsled ride.

The bottom lines: This book has way, way more economics than I expected and probably more than the publisher wanted.  It really is Ben’s attempt to defend his place in history, and yes the book does deliver a huge dose of Bernanke.  This is not ghostwritten fluff.  It does not however dish much “dirt” or shed much new light on the key episodes of the financial crisis.  Both in public and in the book Ben has been extremely gentlemanly.  Still, as I kept on reading I could not escape the feeling that he is deeply, deeply annoyed by many of his critics, and very much determined to tell the story from his point of view.  That is what you get from this book.

Chapter Summary
Information is convex to noise. The paradox is that increase in sample size magnifies the role of noise (or luck); it makes tail values even more extreme. There are some problems associated with big data and the increase of variables available for epidemiological and other “empirical” research.

Here is a bit more information:

Greater performance for (temporary) “star” traders We are getting more information, but with constant “consciousness”, “desk space”, or “visibility”. Google News, Bloomberg News, etc. have space for, say, <100 items at any point in time. But there are millions of events every day. As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door. Likewise we are getting more data. The size of the door is remaining constant, the theater is getting larger. The winner-take-all effects in information space corresponds to more noise, less signal. In other words the spurious dominates.

That is from a Marc Andreessen link (but what is the source?).  He also links to the March Playboy piece on why the world is getting weirder all the time, previously linked by MR but worth a reread nonetheless.

I have been predicting this, Emma Jacobs covers it in the FT:

This new breed of tutors catering to undergraduates is growing (admittedly from a low base). Once the guilty secret of schoolchildren seeking to get into selective schools or gain top marks in exams, private tutors are now helping British undergraduates and even postgraduates at universities. As many teenagers and twenty-somethings start their new university terms, some will be seeking the help of tutors, like Ms Kasson. Some even assist graduates applying for jobs in banks and professional services firms.

Edd Stockwell, co-founder of Tutorfair, a non-profit organisation that also provides tutoring to children whose parents cannot afford the fees, has seen the number of requests for degree-level tutorials double in the past year. Luke Shelley, director of Tavistock Tutors, says its services for undergraduates have grown “rapidly” in the past six years.

There will be very large classes, such as MOOCs and based on the kind of resources you find on  And there will be very small classes, perhaps of one or two.  It’s the in-between class size, of say two hundred students, that doesn’t always make sense.

Do however note this:

In Ms Mali’s experience it is the parents that are driving the undergraduate tuition business. “Sometimes you do wonder if [the child would be more successful] if they allowed them to fail.”

This is an under-discussed point in today’s ideological environment.

Despite the cloud cast by the Volkswagen scandal, automakers are proposing that they be allowed a 70 percent increase in the nitrogen oxides their cars emit, unreleased documents show, as part of new European pollution tests.

Under the new plan, cars in Europe would for the first time be tested on the road, using portable monitoring equipment, in addition to laboratory testing.

The automakers, which include Volkswagen, General Motors, Daimler, BMW, Toyota, Renault, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Ford and Hyundai, are essentially conceding what outside groups have said for some time — that the industry cannot meet pollution regulations when cars are taken out of testing laboratories.

Here is the Danny Hakim NYT story.

Japanese females quietly overtake American females in terms of #labor force participation.


Noah writes: Note the big jump and trend break when Abe took office.

1. Labor force participation is down once again, and we cannot dismiss the notion that a new recession may be starting.  That said, at current margins I am not sure the traditional distinction between cyclical and structural factors still makes sense, so that word “recession” may be more misleading than illuminating.

2. Scott Sumner noted: “Some die hard opponents of “The Great Stagnation” had held out hope that a fall in U-6 unemployment (the broadest measure) would propel future growth.  Now even that option is mostly gone, as it plunged to 10.0% in September, the same level as in February 1996.)  It will go a bit lower, but it no longer represents a large cache of workers waiting in the wings to propel us forward.  Get ready for the new normal—3.0% NGDP growth—it’s coming soon.”

3. There is no wage acceleration gain to be seen in the report.

4. Paul Krugman is (correctly) morphing back into more of a supply-side interpretation of secular stagnation: “Second, secular stagnation — persistent difficulties in achieving full employment — is a real concern if potential growth is slowing due to a combination of demography and weak technological progress, which seems to be happening. Lower growth means lower investment demand, so getting the private sector to spend enough gets harder.”

5. The case for a Phillips curve appears weaker than ever.

6. There is more and more evidence that we’ve shifted into a new regime where wage growth for most income classes simply doesn’t happen to any significant degree.  This may not last forever, but it remains the status quo and too many people find it too hard to wrap their heads around that.  That to me is the single biggest takeaway.

Neil Irwin at the NYT summarizes the report.

Are free trade agreements contagious?  The negotiations for TPP seem to be coming to a close, but there is the potential for a much more beneficial arrangement, namely for the subcontinent and thereabouts, can we toss in Ethiopia too?

India has said that all South Asian economies need to speedily work towards a free trade area within the region with a defined time-line, preferably 2020, as the first step towards achieving the joint vision of a South Asian Economic Union.

“I am confident that consensus can be achieved for a defined time-line for 100 per cent tariff liberalisation with special and differential treatment for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and vulnerable economies,” Commerce & Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said at the South Asia Economic Conclave organised by the Commerce Ministry and industry body CII on Tuesday.

While India has already allowed duty-free access to goods from LDC countries of South Asia as part of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), it is ready to go to 100 per cent for non-LDCs, too, as per the Safta roadmap agreed by India with Pakistan in November 2012, Sitharaman said.

At least four of the eight SAARC countries — which include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — are looking at a free trade area by 2020. India is willing to take asymmetric responsibility towards achieving the goal, she added.

The full story is here.

Here you will find the transcript, video, and podcast.  The summary is this:

Tyler and Harvard economist Dani Rodrik discuss premature deindustrialization, the world’s trilemmas, the political economy of John le Carré, what’s so special about manufacturing, Orhan Pamuk, RCTs, and why the world is second best at best.

Here is one excerpt from Rodrik, on why Turkey and some comparable countries did not fully modernize:

my general sort of question would be 50 percent structure, 50 percent agency, which is to say you start with a lot of initial conditions that aren’t very favorable. Going back to the 19th century, you start on the wrong end of the global division of labor. Everybody else is industrialized and you’re not, plus, then, the British come and they open up your trade regime and all the craft industries you have in the 18th century are just decimated because of imports from Britain and other Western Europeans.

Then you get defeated in a world war. You start in very inauspicious circumstances.

Then agency. What happened, for example, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was the leader who made Turkey, who took Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, erected the Turkish republic on top of that. He did a lot of very good things and a lot of very silly things, and we’re still living with the consequences of many of those things, including the good things.

I asked him this:

You were born in Turkey, you grew up in Turkey. I have so many questions about Turkey to ask you, but let me just try two or three. Let’s take the Turkish city of Konya. I’ve been to Konya. Outsiders sometimes call Konya the bible belt of Turkey. I’m not sure that’s a good comparison, but it’s a more religious city than Istanbul. It’s a kind of heartland city in Turkey.

Just a little simple question. I would put it this way. Do you trust the median voter in Konya?

And a short one from Rodrik again:

Culture is back in economics. I still have to be convinced that it’s actually adding a significant amount to what we learn.

In terms of economic prospects, he picks Brazil as the most underrated country and India as the most overrated.  And you can see what he thinks of the idea of an independent Catalonia…

You should all buy and read Dani’s new book, Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, which I can recommend wholeheartedly and which I wrote a blurb for.

You can already rate restaurants, hotels, movies, college classes, government agencies and bowel movements online.

So the most surprising thing about Peeple — basically Yelp, but for humans — may be the fact that no one has yet had the gall to launch something like it.

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know: your exes, your co-workers, the old guy who lives next door. You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad, inaccurate or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.

Imagine every interaction you’ve ever had suddenly open to the scrutiny of the Internet public.

The piece is by the excellent Caitlin Dewey.  Currently the company is valued at $7.6 million.

Upending conventional wisdom, there is now a strong chance that all the European governments that have accepted or implemented unpopular EU/IMF austerity programs may be re-elected in the coming months or remain the strongest political force.

That is from Paul Taylor at Reuters, via YanniKouts.

Transport for London is preparing to launch a crackdown on Uber, proposing a series of new rules that will hit the popular minicab-hailing app in one of its most popular cities.

…The proposals include a minimum five-minute wait time between ordering a private hire vehicle and it arriving, and banning operators from showing cars for hire within a smartphone app – a hallmark of the American company’s service.

No, this is not from an Ayn Rand novel.

These proposed rules so nakedly protect rent-seekers and make life worse for consumers that I don’t think they will succeed. Even if the rules fail, however, we shouldn’t be complacent about the dangers to innovation.

What made Uber different and controversial is that their Ayn Rand loving CEO followed the adage that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Uber skirted the law and went to consumers directly about whether they wanted transportation innovation. Consumers around the world responded with a resounding Yes to the Uber-referendum so regulators and rent-seekers who want to control Uber now must also fight Uber-consumers. That genie won’t go back into the bottle.

In the usual scenario, however, innovation can be quashed before consumers have a chance to know what they are missing. Had the taxi companies had an inkling of what was coming it would have been easy to to pass stricter laws in advance that would have made Uber impossible to get off the ground. Of course, in many industries today the old guard does have an inkling of what is coming and that should frighten anyone who wants to see greater innovation.

Brink Lindsey is the editor, and I am one of the experts (is anyone an expert on economic growth?), here are the other contributors, and that is also a link to the underlying on-line symposium.  It is a $6.99 ebook on Amazon.  Here is Cato’s home page for the ebook.

China fact of the day

by on September 28, 2015 at 3:16 pm in Current Affairs, Data Source | Permalink

Financial services accounted for a whopping 20 per cent of China’s economic growth in the second quarter of 2015, according to a recently released breakdown of GDP data by the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics.

Of course that is not a good sign for third quarter gdp, or fourth quarter gdp for that matter.  The FT article is here.

Slate has an interesting interview with Leon Nayfakh speaking to John Pfaff, here is the critical excerpt from Pfaff:

What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

You will note that district attorneys are relatively politically independent at this level.  And this:

But just letting people out of prison—decarcerating drug offenders—will not reduce the prison population by as much as people think. If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country; we’d still have an enormous prison population.

Keep in mind that some in prison on drug charges are actually violent offenders who did a plea bargain down to a drug charge.

The interview also offers evidence against alternative explanations of the boom in the prison population, such as putting the blame on longer sentences.  Here is Pfaff’s home page and his related papers.

Not so well:

…the time when the country was able to make economically unprofitable investments on the basis of political motives is long gone. Beijing had intended to invest more than $900 billion in infrastructure expansion in Eurasia. However, the money is now needed to stabilize its stagnating economy and nervous financial markets. China‘s currency reserves decreased drastically in August.

Due to financing difficulties a number of infrastructure projects have come to a standstill. For example, the gas pipeline known as “Power of Siberia,” the subject of an agreement signed by Russia and China in May last year, is in danger of flopping. In addition to this, the release of funds for the construction of the Altai gas pipeline to connect western Siberia and China has been delayed indefinitely.

At a more basic level, the OBOR represents an economic step backwards: instead of placing more emphasis on domestic demand, Beijing is speculating on new export markets in unstable regions such as Pakistan. The overcapacity of Chinese state-owned enterprises are not addressed but simply exported abroad. In this way the leadership is hampering its own ability to overcome the structural crisis of the Chinese growth model.

For the time being, OBOR remains a speculative bubble…

At the same time, there is a lack of partners for the OBOR initiative: China is virtually on its own. The Chinese leadership has until now only been able to reach a handful of vague cooperation agreements, such as those with Russia and Hungary. But none of those states (and maybe not even China itself) know what OBOR really means. Xi Jinping wants to promote the idea of a “community of common destiny”. He has, however, not been able to convey what this term signifies and he has failed to convince other states why the OBOR should be attractive for other countries.

The full story is here, and here is my earlier post on The New Silk Road.