Current Affairs

In my latest Bloomberg column I consider William F. Buckley’s old conundrum:

William F. Buckley famously said he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.

Here is part of my take:

For better or worse, direct rule by Buckley’s 2,000 American citizens probably would mean a slower pace of immigration, less emphasis on free trade, more law and order politics, and a blunter form of nationalism in foreign policy.

Those don’t match my policy preferences (I am more of a globalist, and also a professional academic), but I fear what the Harvard faculty could bring. I can imagine an America closer to Bernie Sanders’s vision, with single-payer health insurance, levels of taxation exceeding 50 percent of GDP, levels of immigration unsustainable with a large welfare state, too many aggressive attempts to legislate equal treatment for various groups, excessive fondness for a universal basic income, and too many humanitarian interventions abroad.

Don’t forget:

It’s a good rule of governance that policy cannot race too far ahead of the citizenry, and I don’t view faculty as a class of people well-suited for that kind of humility.

But for the Fed and the EPA, among other areas, I very much want Harvard.  My conclusion is this:

The real issue here isn’t intellectuals versus populism writ large. There is a time and place for populist sentiment, but an excess can be counterproductive on its own terms. As expertise is pushed out the door, the citizenry itself gets a bad name, precisely when we most need it to step up to the plate and demand some excellence.

Do read the whole thing.

I should note that on this topic I have been very much influenced by my colleague David Levy and also his work with Sandra J. Peart, see for instance their newly arrived book Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy.

Martin Feldstein had a recent piece in the WSJ that defended the idea of a border tax adjustment, which would be a part of the proposed corporate tax reform. He points out that if imports were no longer deductible, and exports received a subsidy, then the border adjustment would not distort trade. Rather the effect would be exactly offset by a 25% appreciation of the dollar. I certainly understand that this would be true of a perfect across-the-board border tax system. But is that what we will have?

1. Will the subsidy apply to service exports? (Recall that services are a huge strength of the US trade sector.) Let’s take Disney World, which makes lots of money exporting services to European, Canadian, Asian and Latin American tourists visiting Orlando. Exactly how will Disney determine the amount of export subsidy it gets? Do they ask each tourist what country they are from, every time they buy a Coke? That seems far fetched—what am I missing? If Disney doesn’t get the export subsidy, then the 25% dollar appreciation would hammer them, and indeed the entire US service export sector.

2. What about all those corporate earnings that are supposed to be repatriated? (And future earnings as well.) If the dollar appreciates by 25%, then doesn’t this hurt multinationals? Or am I missing something?

Update: It just occurred to me that corporate cash stuffed overseas is probably held in dollars. But future overseas earnings may still be in local currency.

Keep in mind that the prediction of 25% dollar appreciation is from the supporters of the plan, like Martin Feldstein. If you did this sort of adjustment without any dollar appreciation, the impact would be devastating on companies like Walmart. Given the Fed’s 2% inflation target, how could they pass along a (effective) 25% tariff on almost everything they sell?

There are other points of value at the link.  I agree with Scott’s most general claim that the case for this tax has not yet been made.

A few years ago I wrote this about Bolivia:

It is much debated in Bolivia whether corruption is going up or down.  I believe it is going up, but partially for good reasons.  For instance the construction sector is doing well, and construction tends to be corrupt in many countries, for reasons intrinsic to the activity itself (e.g., lots of big contracts, easy to claim invisible expenses, etc.).  That means higher corruption but also a better corruption than the penny ante bribes of a shrinking economy.

I still think that is correct, and at the time it didn’t meet up with mass moral opprobrium, even though with some very very small chance I may have condemned the citizenry of Bolivia to corrupt, exploitative rule for ever and ever.  I should add that such points are standard fare in the literature, see for instance the book on corruption by Susan Rose-Ackerman.

Now, these days, with more American status relationships on the line, everyone is up in arms because Peter Thiel had the following exchange with Maureen Dowd:

When I remark that President Obama had eight years without any ethical shadiness, Mr. Thiel flips it, noting: “But there’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring.”

As I interpret Peter, he is not saying it would have been good to have an exogenous increase in the corruption of Obama the individual.  Rather, had some other conditions been different/better, the overall level of corruption in government would have been higher and that combination might very well have been a net plus.  If you would like a “left wing example,” had the fiscal stimulus been twice as large, corruption in government probably would have been higher too (pointing out “the stimulus wasn’t very corrupt” is missing the point and in fact is a sign that you are a rampant mood affiliator, determined to restore the mood you feel is just, rather than tracing the analytic point at hand).  In other words, Peter’s point is entirely defensible and probably correct.  He’s not saying that “corruption is good.”

Now, to be sure, there is another dimension here.  The incoming Trump administration is showing too many signs of being corrupt, and many people are condemning it on these grounds.  Peter’s remark does not fit into that narrative and Peter has been a significant Trump supporter.  But let’s think about this a little more.   First, is there a role for some outsiders who eschew the dominant moral choruses of approbation and condemnation, in favor of making other, different points?  I certainly hope so, because often I try to be one of them (though unlike Peter I have not supported Trump).  Second, Peter is not an outsider in this process, rather he has taken on an important position on the Trump transition team.  Given that reality, you can’t expect him to produce a quotation here condemning Trump.  So he instead makes some other (valid) outsider-like point about corruption.  Now, you might object to Peter’s role on the transition team, but that is old news at this point.  You shouldn’t be holding any extra grudge against him for his corruption answer.  And above all, keep in mind these are reporter-chosen excerpts from a four-hour dinner/interview, and so we don’t know the surrounding context and qualifications and possibly accompanying off the record statements.

People, you need to pick your targets.  Get upset about the things worth getting upset about, such as the absence of a sustained foreign policy plan to head off imminent volatility in global relations.

How many of you have been expecting that heading?  Of course it involves cows:

A Dutch woman has seen her request for Swiss citizenship refused for the second time by local residents who object to her media campaigning against cowbells and other Swiss traditions.

Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands but grew up in Switzerland from the age of eight, speaks fluent Swiss German and has children with Swiss citizenship.

A vegan and supporter of animal rights, she gained a reputation in her community of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the canton of Aargau, after campaigning against cowbells, claiming they were damaging to cows’ health.

She has also objected to hunting and piglet racing, and complained about the noise of church bells in the village, campaigns that have seen her regularly interviewed in the Swiss press over the past few years.

Last November, Holten had her citizenship application turned down for the second time by the residents’ committee.  That’s despite her meeting all legal requirements and the municipal and cantonal authorities having no formal objection.

In Switzerland local residents often have a say in citizenship applications, which are decided primarily by the cantons and communes where the applicant lives, rather than federal authorities.

In Holten’s case it seems her campaigning has not won her many friends in the village, with the president of the local branch of the Swiss People’s Party, Tanja Suter, telling the media that Holten has a “big mouth”.

The commune did not want to give Holten the “present” of Swiss citizenship “if she annoys us and doesn’t respect our traditions”, said Suter.

Is this not what politics should be about, namely the relationship between man and nature?  Here is Gipf-Oberfrick, the community in question:

swiss

Here is the full story, with a variety of interesting points and examples at the link, via Ted Gioia and Dan Wang.

Following up on yesterday’s discussion, I received this in my email:

I think you protest society (and whatever you think the cause is) on the unconditional probabilities but only protest cops on the conditional probabilities.

That is from a very high quality correspondent.  Since I think BLM is in large part trying to raise consciousness about society at large, and not just complaining about the cops, it is fine for them to protest the large number of bad outcomes for many black people without getting too caught up in the “conditional upon x, y, and z, is a cop more likely to shoot a black or a white person?” sort of question.  Body cameras, reforming/ending the War on Drugs, stronger civil liberties, and other changes make sense for macro reasons, no matter what your view on the conditional probabilities.  So a big chunk of your 300+ comments are simply off the mark.

My response to the correspondent included the following good advice:

Every movement…has a smart version and a stupid version, I try to (almost) always consider the smart version.  The stupid version is always wrong for just about anything.

If you focus on the stupid version, you too will end up as the stupid version of your own movement.

RMB accounted for 98% global bitcoin trading volume over past six months

Here is the link, picture, and source.  Of course that is all about capital controls, and a capital control-evading mechanism is what Bitcoin has evolved into.  I wonder how it will evolve further, especially if the Chinese crack down on the practice, which they are more than capable of doing.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, I know that so many of you are full of excuses.  Here is one part of the column:

If we’re really headed off the cliff, selling all equities has to be better than doing nothing. Buying nonleveraged puts would be a possible Step 2, and most of the people in my Twitter feed have the smarts to figure out the mechanics. If it’s geopolitical and indeed market volatility you expect, deal in VIX options instead; VIX measures of volatility are lower than a few years ago, giving you a juicy target if you are sure volatility will rise. I get that this is somewhat hard, but if you’re right about Trump you can make a fantastic rate of return by acting on your worries. If you’re capable of getting an MBA at a good school, this learning should not be off-limits to you.

It is true that stock markets don’t typically predict “black swan”-style political catastrophes, but that is like saying sports betting markets don’t usually predict upsets. The point remains that upsets are not the norm, and if markets don’t predict them probably you should not expect them. But if you do nonetheless, go ahead and bet (or invest) accordingly.

What about the notion that market timing is a bad idea for amateurs, and how would you know when to come back into the market with your funds? That’s a fair worry, but not if you think the U.S. is headed for fascist catastrophe or rule by a KGB cabal.

I do give an answer at the end, and it is all the more worrying.

So if people have bifurcated mental modes, and their behavior is ruled so often by inertia, opposing the worst aspects of a Trump administration is going to be all the harder for most of us.

Which is all the more reason to short the market.

By now I’ve queried quite a few people, and I’ve yet to hear of anyone being short.  You might argue that stock markets don’t reflect social welfare, which is fair enough.  But then what market prices would you propose we look at?  Consumer durables for instance are doing fine.  Or is there no market discipline on your view at all?

Several loyal MR readers requested I cover this topic.  My views are pretty simple, namely that I am a fan of the movement.  Police in this country kill, beat, arrest, fine, and confiscate the property of black people at unfair and disproportionate rates.  The movement directs people’s attention to this fact, and the now-common use of cell phone video and recordings have driven the point home.

I don’t doubt that many policemen perceive they are at higher risk when dealing with young black males, and that is part of why they may act more brutally or be quicker to shoot or otherwise misbehave.  I would respond that statistical discrimination, even if it is rational, does not excuse what are often crimes against innocent people.  For instance, a man is far more likely to kill you than is a woman, but that fact does not excuse the shooting of an innocent man.

I also don’t see that citing “Black Lives Matter” has to denigrate the value of the life of anyone else.  Rather, the use of the slogan reflects the fact that many white people have been unaware of the extra burdens that many innocent black people must carry due to their treatment at the hands of the police.  The slogan is a way of informing others of this reality.

“Black Lives Matter” is a large movement, if that is the proper word for it, and you can find many objectionable statements, alliances, and political views within it.  I don’t mean to endorse those, but at its essence I see this as a libertarian idea to be admired and promoted.

The non-deductibility of imports is simply crazy. It will immediately increase inflation. Take IKEA, for example, they cannot source locally, they will increase prices immediately by 20%, or whatever the tax will be. At all effects, it is a flat tariff of 20% on every import. This guy seems to want to transform the US into North Korea. And think about the distortions: Boeing will become a purchasing company, making more money using the tax-credit to buy prosciutto and Camembert to sell to retailers at prices lower than the marginal cost, than producing planes.

That is Coasean reasoning from Massimo, there are other good comments as well.  For instance Bob noted:

There will be a huge move to asset based leasing. So Wal-mart, instead of borrowing money will sell thier real estate to a REIT and lease it back. They essentially can keep the deduction.

Public land would be interesting.

That was a request for topic coverage from Ryan, from last night.  Here is a 2014 CRS survey piece with good background information.

I can think of a few reasons for federal government ownership of public land:

1. For some specific purpose, such as a national park or a nuclear weapons facility or the White House.

1b. There is a conservation argument for land holdings, but again I think it has to be for a specific purpose, thus collapsing into #1 proper.

2. As a revenue-maximizing strategy, a’la Irvine Company, so the government can sell off pieces of land successively, over time, to take in more revenue than if it sold off everything all at once.

3. To hold land off the market and thus force more people to squeeze into cities, thereby reaping extra returns to scale and density, shades of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

4. To limit rent-seeking games, since much of the land might be low value in the present, but a race to homestead it would consume resources.  In the longer run, that homesteading race would lead to suboptimal owners, since we don’t now know exactly what the land will be good for.

5. It’s the only way we can run an asset surplus, since cash would be grabbed by the political process and redistributed.  Think of it as akin to those poorer villages where you save in the form of cows or pigs, because your uncle cannot come to you when he needs to fund a wedding and demand a piece of the pig.

I say #1 is unproblematic and can be decided on a case-by-case basis.  #2 is fine if the government were doing that, but they’re not.  #3 would seem to require much more federal ownership of land than what we have.  It’s still much, much cheaper to live in Idaho.  #4 is an OK argument, but I don’t see why it would apply to properly done land auctions, which is indeed how federal disposal of the land has evolved.

So #5 is actually the main argument, at least once we get past #1.

Overall, I don’t see why the federal government needs to own about 28% of the country.  Nonetheless, in the meantime the government does allow grazing and mining to take place on those lands, often at below-market rents.  (By the way, for now I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.”  It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant.)

You will note that the federal government owns 47% of the land in “the West,” but only 4% of the land east of the Mississippi.  Unfortunately:

Congress in 1976 passed a law declaring that “the remaining public domain lands generally would remain in federal ownership.”

Though note a few days ago the House acted to ease land giveaways, so this may be changing.  Yet I feel no great thrill at simply giving this land to the state governments, though that may be an intermediate step toward privatization.

I would prefer to lower the percentage of federal land ownership in the West, but in the meantime I don’t see this as an incredibly pressing issue.  The government can either waste some of your land or some of your money, take your pick.  I do think the gdps of Nevada and Idaho could be higher, just not by that much.  Alaska may be a story of its own.

map_of_all_u-s-_federal_land

He summarizes the plan as follows:

The central concept put forward by Mr Ryan, which appears to have the support of Mr Trump, is to turn corporate income tax from a tax on the return to capital into a tax only on extraordinary profits. This would be done by taxing corporate cash flows. In addition to the major reduction of the overall rate, the system would change in three fundamental ways. First, all investment outlays can be written off in the year they occur rather than over time. Second, interest payments to bondholders, banks and other creditors will no longer be deductible. Third, companies will be able to exclude receipts from exports in calculating their taxable income and will not be permitted to deduct payments to foreign suppliers or affiliates from income.

I found this to be the paragraph I had not seen elsewhere:

Second, the tax change will capriciously redistribute income, increase uncertainty and place punitive burdens on some sectors. Think of a retailer who imports goods from abroad for 60 cents, incurs 30 cents in labour and interest costs, and then earns a 5 cent margin. With a 20 per cent tax, and no ability to deduct import or interest costs, the taxes will substantially exceed 100 per cent of profits even if there is some offset from a stronger dollar. Businesses that invest heavily, hire extensively and export a large part of their product will have negative taxable income on a chronic basis. It is hard to imagine that the political process will allow annual multibillion-dollar refunds, so they too may be victimised. Then there are the still unresolved questions of what the rules will be on interest deductibility for banks and of the treatment of businesses organised as partnerships that do not pay corporate taxes.

Here is the FT link, probably gated for most of you, WaPo link here.  Summers also argues the plan will worsen inequality, strengthen the dollar (possibly leading to EM crises), lead to a trade war, and erode the long-term tax base.

Just to refresh your memories here is Jared Bernstein on the same plan (mixed but mostly negative), and Martin Feldstein (positive).

Cliff Asness reports:

Maybe it’s just me but a lot of end-of-year commentary about financial markets in 2016, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, makes it sound as if it was a crazy year. It wasn’t. In fact, it was amazingly normal. This is true of at least the S&P 500 (I’m not going to be more ambitious here) which is what I think many of these commentators are talking about.1,2

Annualized daily volatility during 2016 came in at 13.1%. Based on rolling same-length periods going back to 1929 this falls at the 47th percentile.3 You say you don’t want to compare to the craziness of the Great Depression? Maybe that leads to everything else looking calm and you don’t think that’s meaningful. That’s reasonable. Well, that same value of 13.1% is at the 54th percentile since WWII and the 42nd percentile since 1990. Pretty darn normal. Maybe people are comparing to very recent times (I would argue in error) and have been lulled into a false sense of calmness now shattered by 2016? Nope, it’s still only at the 54th percentile when compared to the last five years. Realized daily volatility simply was not high in 2016 compared to pretty much any prior period (it certainly wasn’t exceptionally low either).

And:

The S&P 500 was +9.5% in price return in 2016.

Here is the source, there is further evidence and discussion of the metrics at the link.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The reports of Boko Haram and terror killings are well known, and they reflect the interlocking and sometimes deadly combinations of regional, religious, sectarian and ethnic identities in the country, not to mention extreme inequalities of income and opportunity. Yet Nigeria has about 180 million people and is larger than Texas. The violence is the most frequently reported story in the West, but the underlying reality is far more complex and shows positive features.

For instance, the city of Lagos is in many regards a marvel of religious tolerance. Nigeria is about 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, and the area surrounding Lagos is also highly mixed in terms of religion. That may sound like a recipe for trouble, but in matters of religion Lagos is almost entirely peaceful. Religious intermarriage is common and usually not problematic, as is the case in many (not all) other parts of Nigeria as well. Many top Nigerian politicians have married outside their religion, kept two separate religions in the family and enjoyed continued political success.

Consider the scale and speed of this achievement. Lagos, with a population of about 20 million, is larger than many countries. It is the most commercially oriented part of Nigeria, and it grew so large only in the last few decades, as it attracted entrepreneurially minded people from many parts of Nigeria and other African countries. By one estimate, 85 new residents arrive every hour. That may sound chaotic, but in essence Nigeria has in a few decades created an almost entirely new, country-sized city built on the ideals and practice of religious tolerance. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim who was supported in his election by many Christian leaders, on the grounds that he would fight corruption more effectively. His running mate served as a Pentecostal pastor.

There are several other points, including an assessment of on the ground safety (better than you might think), do read the whole thing.

That may not be in the cards anytime soon, but at least it has surfaced as a potential option, along with EU membership, to be considered by Icelandic referendum.  Matt Yglesias questions whether this might be a mistake.

I see the creation of the euro as a big mistake, and in general I favor flexible exchange rates, but on this question there is a plausible case for Iceland joining up with the euro.

First, Iceland cannot defend itself and does not want to rely only on the United States.  European Union membership helps out on that front, and the EU has at least been claiming that new members also will be euro-using members.  Fishing rights are a big deal for Iceland, and maybe the country will decide it does better within EU structures.

Second, and more to the macroeconomic point, very small countries do not always do well with floating rates.  For instance, no one suggests that every household should have its own currency.  Iceland, with a population of about 330,000, may be small enough to make this comparison at least a bit apt.  Keep in mind the biggest exports are tourism, fish, and aluminum products, not much else.  Using the euro may help tourism a bit, while I suspect the fisheries and aluminum smelters can get by with a mix of a) not employing that much labor anyway, and b) making wages more flexible if need be, rather than needing a floating rate to stay competitive.

Another way to put the point is this: floating rates are most useful as a protection against nominal shocks, not real shocks.  But when an economy is sufficiently small, real shocks tend to be the more significant problem because usually there is not so much diversification.

On the macro front, so what if Iceland becomes the north Atlantic version of how Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador stand pegged with respect to the U.S. dollar?  Those economies have various troubles, but fixed exchange rates are fairly low on those lists.

Not long ago, the Icelandic economy was hit by a massive shock from capital flight, which in turn stemmed from a banking and real estate collapse.  Capital controls were imposed, in part because the flow of funds whiplash was so large relative to the size of the Icelandic economy.  Relying on continental, euro-denominated banking from Dutch, German, and other suppliers may well be a better option.  A true EU banking union, if one ever comes, would be better for Iceland yet.  In other words, in the eurozone Iceland might be better protected against at least some real shocks.

I don’t have a firm view here, so it is fine to think of my conclusion for Iceland as agnostic.  I ‘m just saying you can be a euro skeptic, and favor Icelandic euro membership, without fear of contradiction.  The European countries that should not be in the eurozone, such as Italy and Greece, are much bigger than Iceland and are also more economically diversified.

iceland

This was decided earlier in the year:

All computers used officially by public servants in Singapore will be cut off from the Internet from May next year, in an unprecedented move to tighten security.

A memo is going out to all government agencies, ministries and statutory boards here about the Internet blockade a year from now, The Straits Times has learnt.

There are some 100,000 computers in use by the public service and all of them will be affected.

“The Singapore Government regularly reviews our IT measures to make our network more secure,” a spokesman for the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said when contacted.

The move is aimed at plugging potential leaks from work e-mail and shared documents amid heightened security threats.

Trials started with some employees within the IDA – the lead agency for this exercise – as early as April. Web surfing can be done only on the employees’ personal tablets or mobile phones as these devices do not have access to government e-mail systems. Dedicated Internet terminals have been issued to those who need them for work.

The Straits Times understands that public servants will be allowed to forward work e-mails to their private accounts, if they need to.

Here is the article.  Here is Catherine Rampell on Trump and cybersecurity, she seems to be critical of what is possibly a Trump idea to have a White House without computers (without internet?).  That to me seems the only good procedural/bureaucratic idea I have heard from the incoming Trump administration.  Note that the government in Singapore is one of the smartest, forward-looking, and sophisticated in the world.  On this they are ahead of the curve (by the way I write more on the broader question here in my forthcoming The Complacent Class).