The overreaction to the Truss macro policy

It has been extreme:

I know an unpopular economic policy when I see one. And the consensus among economists about the tax cuts and deregulations announced last week by UK Prime Minister Liz Truss is almost universally negative. Larry Summers noted: “I think Britain will be remembered for having pursued the worst macroeconomic policies of any major country in a long time.” Willem Buiter described it as “totally, totally nuts.” Paul Krugman is skeptical. As Jason Furman summed it up: “I’ve rarely seen an economic policy that is as uniformly panned by economic experts and financial markets.”

That is from my latest Bloomberg column.  I certainly can see reasons why one might oppose the plan, but the skies are not going to fall:

I see no evidence that the markets are beginning to doubt the UK’s ability to repay its debts. The UK, and earlier Great Britain, has arguably the best debt repayment history of all time (though it did default on some of its debts to Italian lenders in the 13th century). It even repaid its extensive debts from the Napoleonic Wars, though they were more than 200% of GDP.

There are different ways you might measure the marginal cost of UK government borrowing, but I don’t see any measure where it is high and under many measures it is negative in real terms.  Remember when people used to tell us this meant there was no major problem on the fiscal side?

I do criticize the Bank of England for not doing more to reign in inflation, plus the government should have coordinated better with the Bank.  And don’t forget this:

The Truss plan offers many admirable deregulations, including an attempt to get the UK economy to build more residential structures, as it so badly needs. It is difficult to say now just how successful this plan will be, but it is definitely a step in the right direction, as are most of the other deregulations, including lifting the ban on onshore wind generators. By calling the Truss plan the worst thing ever, commentators make it unlikely that these ideas will get the approbation they deserve.


Monday assorted links

1. Why are New Yorkers eating dinner at earlier times? (NYT)

2. Jacques Dreze has passed away.

3. Kindergarten rank matters.

4. CIA launches first podcast.

5. “Its people would benefit from something approximating “state capacity libertarianism with Somali

6. Median home value on Martha’s Vineyard rose from 700k to $1m over the span of the last year.  A local’s dissection of local NIMBYism.

7. How is drug decriminalization going in Oregon?

Petrov Day!

Today we honor Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov whose calm actions and general humanity helped to prevent a nuclear war on September 26th, 1983. The NYTimes reported the events on Petrov’s death in 2017.

Early on the morning of Sept. 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov helped prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

A 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, he was a few hours into his shift as the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States, when alarms went off.

Computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.

“For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock,” he later recalled. “We needed to understand, ‘What’s next?’ ”

The alarm sounded during one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines commercial flight after it crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a congressman from Georgia. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Soviet leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an American attack.

Colonel Petrov was at a pivotal point in the decision-making chain. His superiors at the warning-system headquarters reported to the general staff of the Soviet military, which would consult with Mr. Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack.

After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.

As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched.

Colonel Petrov died at 77 on May 19 in Fryazino, a Moscow suburb, where he lived alone on a pension. The death was not widely reported at the time. 

From the comments, more on health care

Again this comment is from Sure:

The US does not have a healthcare system. It has several. Medicare is single payer option with overwhelmingly private provision and some alternative administrative choices with a thick skim of secondary overlays of private health insurance. The Indian Health Service is full Beveridge. Kaiser is a single private system with nearly full vertical integration. Tricare is a social insurance model with limited private provision. Employer based healthcare is privately funded (with a generous tax break on said provision), privately administered (subject to millions of pages of regulation), and privately provisioned (with minor exceptions for state funded hospitals and the like). Then we have health sharing which are explicitly not health insurance, but involve “voluntary” assumption of costs by members, often linked by religious belief.

Then you have the growing cash healthcare option where providers take all comers, but only those who can put cash on the barrel because the paperwork is too expensive. And of all the ways healthcare is administered in this country, this and the VA are the only ones that do not run the full gamut of provision (at least not yet).

I have worked for most of these. All of them are larger systems than multiple small European countries. All of them are wildly more expensive than similar mechanisms of provision overseas. All of them suffer from intrusive, expensive meddling by politicians and bureaucrats that result in active degrading of patient care in my experience.

There is no good way to pay for healthcare in the US. Chances are, if you name an option somebody has at least failed to get the necessary buy-in at the state level. If you have some essential feature list, there is almost certainly an option that has already tried it.

Changing who signs the checks seems to make very minimal difference. We chase after crumbs by focusing on if the overall model should be more Kaiser or more IHS or more Medicaid.

The far bigger impact are the patients. We need 500 dollar chairs in the waiting room, to ensure that those with BMIs >50 will not have them collapse underneath their weight. We had to order a larger CT scanner a few years back when it was deemed unacceptable to send patients to the zoo for imaging. Opioid use means that I have to detail a lot of warm bodies to manage patients in withdrawal. I need an order of magnitude more warm bodies for suicide watch that my predecessors required back in the day according to the records (and for “low risk” suicide watches I can use telesitters to monitor multiple patients). I need huge numbers of social work hours because once patients hit the ED I need to deal with the complete lack of social service contact they had while homeless. The psychiatric population is an ever revolving door where I can make them basically normal (albeit low functioning) again with the aid of emergency required antipsychotic medications but will see them relapse once they hit the streets and discontinue care (and will have their best shot at long term recovery only once they victimize enough “good” people to get jailed). And, of course, I need an order of magnitude more expensive home health because everyone is single and estranged from the rest of humanity (most unmarried 30+ patients report having no one who can learn how to change dressings for example).

And, in spite of all this, survival rates for health matched controls are great. You get diagnosed with lung cancer? You survive longer and better in the states than your doppleganger in Britain or France. You need a liver transplant from Hep C? Get it here if you want lower rejection odds.

American healthcare starts with sicker patients and no amount of crafty planning about signing checks or shuffling patients is going to change that.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman.  Fun and easy to read, plus the first set of photo has perhaps the greatest photo I ever have seen, with the caption: “Agatha’s brother Monty liked flirting, ‘talking slang’ and ‘getting into tempers’.  He disliked any kind of work.  In later life he behaved badly with firearms and became addicted to morphia.”

Alan S. Blinder, A Monetary Fiscal History of the United States, 1961-2021.  A very good introduction to these topics from a mainstream point of view.

There is also Stephen M. Stigler, Casanova’s Lottery: The History of a Revolutionary Game of Chance.

And Sean Carroll, The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion.

Tom Mustill, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication.  Will the greatest achievement of AI be allowing us to speak with whales?

That was then, this is now…

Six days after Traphagen’s visit, U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed that work on the border wall that began under Trump is revving back up under Biden. In an online presentation Wednesday, CBP — the largest division of the Department of Homeland Security and home to the Border Patrol — detailed plans to address environmental damage brought on by the former president’s signature campaign promise and confirmed that the wall will remain a permanent fixture of the Southwest for generations to come.

Here is the full story, median voter theorem blah blah blah, via the wisdom of Garett Jones.

The economic policy that is Liz Truss

Liz Truss is facing her first cabinet row as she prepares to increase immigration to boost economic growth.

The prime minister is pushing for wide-ranging reform of Britain’s visa system to tackle acute labour shortages and attract the best talent from across the world.

In the coming weeks she intends to raise the cap on seasonal agricultural workers and make changes to the shortage occupations list, which will allow key sectors to recruit more overseas staff.

Truss has told colleagues that she is keen to recruit overseas broadband engineers to support the government’s pledge to make full-fibre broadband available to 85 per cent of UK homes by 2025. It has also been suggested that she could ease the English-language requirement in some sectors to enable more foreign workers to qualify for visas.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, has told colleagues he would support the changes only if they were shown to increase GDP per capita.

Here is the Times of London (gated) article.  Truss has a very definite plan to boost both high-skill immigration and building in Britain,  perhaps the two best policies for boosting growth.  And yet the silence from many of those who ought to approve has been deafening.  To be clear, it remains an open question whether Truss will be able to push through the relevant policies — but at least she is trying!

*Indigenous Continent*

The author is Pekka Hämäläinen, and the subtitle is The Epic Contest for North America.  Rich with insight on ever page, might it be the best history of Native Americans?  At the very least, this is one of the two or three best non-fiction books this year.  How is this for an excellent opening sentence:

Kelp was the key to America.

Here is another excerpt:

Spain had a momentous head start in the colonization of the Western Hemisphere, but North American Indians had brought Spanish expansion to a halt; in the late sixteenth century there were no significant Spanish settlements on the continent — only petty plunder regimes.  North America was still essentially Indigenous.  The contrast to the stunning Spanish successes in Middle and South America was striking: how could relatively small Native groups defy Spanish colonialism in the north when the formidable Aztec, Inca, and May Empires had fallen so easily?  The answer was right in front of the Spanish — the decentralized, kinship-based, and egalitarian political regimes made poor targets for imperial entradas — but they kept missing it because the Indigenous nations were so different from Europe’s hierarchical societies.  They also missed a fundamental fact about Indigenous warfare: fighting on their homelands, the Indians did not need to win battles and wars; they just needed not to lose them.

The general take is that pushing out the Native Americans took longer than you might think, and also was more contingent than you might think.  The decentralized nature of North American Indian regimes was one reason why the Spaniards made more headway in Latin America than anyone made in North America.

To be clear, I am by no means on board with the main thesis, preferring the details of this book to its conceptual framework.  Too often the author heralds the glories of a Native American tribe or group, and along the way lets it drop that they numbered only 30,000 individuals, as was the case for instance with the Iroquois.  If you didn’t know the actual history of this world, and had read only this book, you would be shocked to learn that Anglo civilization was on the verge of subjugating one-quarter of the world.  Or that England had learned how to “take care of Ireland” in the seventeenth century, and it was only a matter of time before similar techniques would be applied elsewhere.  And it is not until p.450 that the author lets on how much technological progress the Westerners had been making throughout; somehow that part of the story is missing until the very end.

I cannot quite buy that “The Native Reservations were a sign of American weakness, not strength,” though I can see how they might be both (p.408).

Yet I think you can simply put all this aside and still get full value — and then some — from this book.  Among its other virtues, it is an excellent treatise on the 17th century and its energetic, exploratory nature.  Or for another example, I loved the p.152 discussion of whether Indians wanted the settlers to fence in their animals (the fences cut off travel paths for deer and other hunted animals, though the fences kept the settlers’ animals from destroying native crops).  The discussions of equestrianism are consistently excellent.

In the first twenty years of the United States, fights with Indians absorbed 5/6 of overall federal expenditure (p.343).

Here is a good NYT story about the book and its reception.  I would say that a Finnish white guy even tried to pull this off is a positive signal about its quality, at least these days.

As recently as 2019, his epic Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power was an MR “best book of the year.”  You don’t have to buy the whole story, and so I conclude that Pekka Hämäläinen is one of the more important writers of our time.

A White Supremacist Under Every Bed

AlphaHistory: The Red Scare (1947-57) was a decade-long period of intense anti-communist paranoia in the United States. During this period, millions of ordinary Americans were paralysed by an irrational fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ – the belief that thousands of communist agents and sympathisers were secretly living amongst them, plotting or waiting to overthrow the government.

Today, we live under the White Supremacist Scare, the irrational fear that there is a white supremacist under every bed. An email sent to the parents of University of Virginia students, for example, warns that “events have occurred on Grounds that have been cause for concern” and “the nature and timing of these events have caused some to speculate that they are linked or part of a larger pattern of racially motivated crimes…”. Here is one such event:

Last weekend, several community members reported that a flag bearing a symbol that looked either like a crown or an owl, depending on how the flag is held, was left on the grass near the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. That same person also left a check for $888.88 that was ultimately delivered, as a surprise, to a student’s room, and the check had the same symbol that was on the flag. As rumors swirled around this bizarre set of events, some speculated that the flag represented a white supremacist organization and that the check was somehow a targeted act of intimidation against a student of color.

A crown! An owl! A check for $888.88! Heil Hitler! It seems odd that giving a check to someone is “targeting” a person of color. But no matter. Logic isn’t important here. What else could this mean but white supremacy? Bear in mind that this is a university where streaking the lawn is a tradition and there are weird numbers, signs, and sigils all over campus.

The UVA police and the FBI—yes, the FBI!—were called in to investigate (n.b. there isn’t even a hint of any crime!). And they got the culprit! Of course, what they discovered was entirely banal. Does it even matter?

“…we discovered that he is part of an organization focusing on micro-philanthropy that occasionally engages in random acts of kindness to current students.”

Moreover, the UVA administration is advertising their investigation, as if how seriously they took this potential threat is a credit to the organization instead of an embarrassment of poor judgment and fevered imagination.

The Truss economic plan

On Friday [as indeed it happened], Ms. Truss’ government is expected to announce a series of tax cuts, including cutting taxes for new home purchases as well as reversing planned hikes in the corporate tax and cutting a recent increase in payroll taxes. It will also abolish limits on bonuses for bankers and allow fracking for shale gas across the U.K.

The measures come in addition to a big government spending plan to cap household and corporate energy bills this winter that could cost the U.K. government roughly £100 billion, equivalent to about $113 billion, over the next two years.

The goal is to spur growth in an economy facing weak growth and high inflation, partly brought on by an energy price shock from higher natural-gas prices from the war in Ukraine, as well as a U.S.-style labor shortage. Absent the government bailouts, economists warned that many Britons would be unable to pay their energy bills this coming winter and thousands of companies would go broke…

The government is also planning a deregulation drive, in particular in the finance sector, to try to bolster London’s role as a business hub.

Taken together, the Truss plan is a bold but risky gamble that the payoff from higher growth will more than offset the risks from a big expansion in the government’s deficit and debt at a time of high inflation and rising interest rates, which will increase the cost of servicing the debt and could shake investors’ confidence in the U.K. economy and its currency.

Here is more from the WSJElsewhere Ryan Bourne covers the tax changes in more detail:

    • the recent 1.25 percent employer and employee national insurance tax rises have been reversed;
    • the basic rate of income tax would be cut from 20 percent to 19 percent;
    • the highest 45 percent marginal income tax rate would be abolished entirely, making 40 percent the top official marginal rate band;
    • stamp duty (the property transactions tax) on all transactions up to home values of £250,000 and £425,000 for first-time buyers has been scrapped;
    • the planned increase in the corporate profits tax has been abandoned (so maintaining it at 19 percent);
    • full and immediate expensing in the corporate tax code for the first £1 million invested in plant and machinery would be made permanent;
    • new investment zones would be introduced, in which there would be a 100 percent first year enhanced capital allowance relief for plant and machinery and building and structures relief of 20 percent per year.

And on regulation:

  • new investment zones would encompass streamlining existing planning applications (and these are potentially big zones, if the councils and authorities in discussions are any guide – the Greater London Authority, for example);
  • environmental reviews would be shortened and reformed;
  • childcare deregulation proposals (probably on staffing and occupational licensing) are forthcoming;
  • new planning reforms for housing are forthcoming;
  • the onshore wind generator ban will be lifted;
  • the fracking moratorium has been lifted;
  • the cap on bankers’ bonuses will be abandoned;
  • agricultural regulation will be reformed;
  • the sugar tax and lots of other anti-obesity regulations will be abandoned;
  • the arduous tax rules on contractors known as IR35 will be scrapped;
  • all future tax policy will be reviewed through this prism of simplification;
  • there will be an expansion of the number of welfare claimants who must submit to more intensive work coaching with the aim of increasing their hours

The FT details the negative reaction from UK bond, equity, and currency markets.  Furman and Buiter are very negative, Summers too.  In my view, these are mostly good policies, but how will all that borrowing go over?  And is the Bank of England up to doing the appropriate offsets?  I will cover these policies as they unfold…

What should I ask Ken Burns?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the beginning of his rather formidable Wikipedia entry:

Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American filmmaker known for his documentary films and television series, many of which chronicle American history and culture. His work is often produced in association with WETA-TV and/or the National Endowment for the Humanities and distributed by PBS.

His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019). He was also executive producer of both The West (1996), and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015). Burns’s documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge and 1985’s The Statue of Liberty) and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.

His forthcoming book is the lovely Our America: A Photographic History.  So what should I ask?