Month: December 2011

New evidence that being underwater on your house limits labor mobility

Rortybomb has long argued there is no significant effect.  I’ve never had a horse in this race, in any case here are new results from Plamen Nenov, on the job market from MIT:

The present paper studies the impact of a housing bust on regional labor reallocation and the labor market. I document a novel empirical fact, which suggests that, by increasing the fraction of households with negative housing equity, a housing bust hinders interregional mobility. I then study a multi-region economy with local labor and housing markets and worker reallocation. The model can account for the positive co-movement of relative house prices and unemployment with gross out-migration and negative co-movement with in-migration observed in the cross section of states. A housing bust creates debt overhang for some workers, which distorts their migration decisions and increases aggregate unemployment in the economy. This adverse effect is amplified when regional slumps are particularly deep as in the recent U.S. recession. In a calibrated version of the model, I find that the regional reallocation effect of the housing bust can account for between 0.2 and 0.5 percentage points of aggregate unemployment and 0.4 and 1.2 percentage points of unemployment in metropolitan areas experiencing deep local recessions in 2010. Finally, I study the labor market effects of two policies proposed for addressing the U.S. mortgage crisis.

I’m still not taking sides here, just fyi.

How cosmopolitan should Germany be?

Here is one report:

There may be a crisis in the eurozone, but the shopkeepers and stallholders on German streets are expecting another bumper season. The financial markets are in disarray, but consumer confidence in Germany is up.

Total unemployment is at a 20-year low.  Here is another report:

…the Munich-based Ifo institute reported restrictions faced by German businesses in obtaining credit had relaxed this month – despite the weaknesses across much of the eurozone banking system.

The percentage of companies complaining about restrictive credit policies fell from 23.1 per cent in October to 22.4 per cent in November – one of the lowest figures recorded since the survey started in 2003, according to Ifo.

It’s fine to assert that a bigger and badder eurozone crisis will crush the German economy, and maybe it will, with reasonable probability I would say.  But a lot of the Germans don’t think so, and I see a lot of — I’ll call it moralizing rather than wishful thinking — unjustified claims about this topic, every day now.  Germany is selling more and more to developing nations.  And if the euro evolves into a northern European currency it will be stronger but that is unlikely to destroy German exports.  Switzerland is struggling in export markets, but for a long time they have succeeded with a strong safe haven currency.  Germany has had a stronger currency in the past and they did well before the eurozone, believe it or not.  Germany might rather have “the Swiss problem” than co-write loans to Italy.  They just need to survive the transition.  Keep in mind that, unlike with a TARP to U.S. banks, there are no realistic conditions under which Germany can simply foreclose on the fine nation of Garibaldi and Cavour.

Everyone is saying Germany should do the cosmopolitan thing and underwrite the weaker countries.  I am a cosmopolitan but I have questions.  Are those people consistent cosmopolitans?  What should the United States be doing today for other countries?  For Mexican immigrants (as opposed to American bondholders to Mexico)?  For China?  Are we doing it?  Are you advocating it?  I don’t see it.  What are we doing for Mali?  That’s real suffering, yet we ignore it without much guilt.  Should we feel worse, if we had written and ratified a treaty specifying that we are not obliged to bail out Mali?

Here is one recent report about the plan the EU has in mind; we will see soon enough.  Here is evidence that some kind of big plan — or at least a plan for a plan — is coming soon.

Assorted links

1. Markets in everything, and an opposite of sorts is here.  Both involve baked goods, and “Green energy is people!”

2. Infants prefer a nasty moose if it punishes an unhelpful elephant.

3. New economic history blog from Bloomberg; where is the RSS feed?

4. What kind of bug is the eurozone bug?  And Kroszner (and others) on the euro, and the new disaster movie about the euro.

5. Good review of Graeber.

Launching the Innovation Renaissance

Launching the Innovation Renaissance (Amzn link, B&N for Nook, also iTunes) my new e-book from TED books is now available!  How can we increase innovation? I look at patents, prizes, education, immigration, regulation, trade and other levers of innovation policy. Here’s a brief description:

Unemployment, fear, and fitful growth tell us that the economy is stagnating. The recession, however, is just the tip of iceberg. We have deeper problems. Most importantly, the rate of innovation is down. Patents, which were designed to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, have instead become weapons in a war for competitive advantage with innovation as collateral damage. College, once a foundation for innovation, has been oversold. We have more students in college than ever before, for example, but fewer science majors. Regulations, passed with the best of intentions, have spread like kudzu and now impede progress to everyone’s detriment. Launching the Innovation Renaissance is a fast-paced look at the levers of innovation policy that explains why innovation has slowed and how we can accelerate innovation and build a 21st century economy.

Here is a blurb from Paul Romer (NYU):

Progress comes from improvements in both our technologies and our rules. Alex Tabarrok makes a compelling case that in the United States, our rules on patents, education, and immigration are holding us back. If you want to think clearly about policies that matter for growth, turn off the TV, stop surfing the web, and read this book!

I discuss prizes and education in Launching and so was especially pleased to get this endorsement from Tom Vander Ark, formerly the president of the X PRIZE Foundation and the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now CEO of Open Education Solutions.

If you’re a fan of MarginalRevolution like I am, you’ll want to read Tabarrok’s latest book. If you’re interested in innovation like I am, you need to read Launching the Innovation Renaissance. Alex poses thought experiments from patents to prizes, from health to education to immigration. He skewers Soviet-style employment bargains and offers insightful alternatives to improve our educational system. Alex is occasionally snarky, often witty, always incisive. Read this on your next flight.

FYI, I began this book before I read a draft of Tyler’s book The Great Stagnation and was interested to see that although we share a few common themes that perhaps due to differences in personality Tyler focuses on describing problems while I am more excited to promote solutions!

“The moral superiority of the Germans”

Ryan Avent tweeted:

Dear @tylercowen, Germany and the periphery ARE morally equivalent.

How might a response go?  Not an argument that German citizens are morally superior to other Europeans; that would be false and indeed repugnant.  I mean the kind of “system-wide” moral judgments that progressives offer up when they judge the institutions of Denmark to be superior to the institutions of Mexico, of course without ever judging the residing individuals per se.  Let’s play at intellectual Turing test — with no commitment to endorsing these views — and draw up a short list of, dare I so label them, (ostensible) German moral superiorities:

1. When it comes to default, there is no moral equivalence of debtor and creditor.  The debtor is the one breaking the agreement and breaking his word.

2. When it comes to debt, the periphery countries simply don’t want to pay up.  Their national wealth is many times their gdp and thus much much greater than their debts, even for Greece.  It’s amazing how many people won’t come out and utter or recognize this simple truth.  Italy for instance doesn’t have to make a huge fiscal adjustment.

3. It is a privilege for a poorer country to be in an economic union with Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other wealthy EU countries, just as you might feel privileged to co-author a piece with a great scholar.  If the poorer countries have to engage in some economic sacrifice to stay on good terms in such a union, so be it.  There is also such a thing as catch-up growth, and it is robust in the broader world today, at least if a country is willing, like the East Asian countries have been, or for that matter Turkey and Brazil these days.  The sacrifices being asked from the periphery countries are quite small in comparison.

4. We did a deal with East Germany, and the terms of that deal violated a lot of precepts of economic theory.  It even included an overvalued currency for the poorer region and a long period of adjustment.  Yet we insisted up front that all dealings be done on the terms of the more successful region and culture, with very little compromise.  This transition, for all of its short-term flaws, will go down in the history books as a great long-run success.  In part it succeeded because it was all done on the terms of the values of the successful nations of northwestern Europe.  (I am surprised that this angle is not discussed more in the press, given Merkel’s own story.)

5. Economic unions do not succeed by lowering all members to the standards of the economically less successful and less responsible members.

6. If it wasn’t for us, would Greece, Spain, and Italy (plus Ireland and Belgium) all currently have technocratic, reform-oriented governments as they do?

7. If you are trying to estimate the future economic fate of a country, shouldn’t you put aside a bit gdp drops and the like, and instead look at what do people in that country esteem and which values are transmitted by their system of education?  Do read the Estonia story at the previous link.

8. The German emphasis on rules, and the attachment to the idea of an abstract order, worthy of loyalty in its own right, above and beyond any immediate personal connection or loyalty, is exactly what makes them able to run such a successful economy and successful social welfare state.  When it says “Don’t Walk,” they don’t cross the street, even if no cars are coming.  An economic union should be set up to support those principles, not tear them down, and social democrats should value this most of all.

Even if you disagree with these perspectives, they shape real world behavior.  And might you still bet on a country which stuck to them?  Be honest now.  Let’s go back into intellectual Turing test mode:

9. One clear warning sign of trouble is when you see “trade imbalances” put at the center of the argument, as if “being very productive” and “not being productive enough” were somehow the same kind of disease.

10. There is a view something like “Germany has benefited from the eurozone, and therefore it is obliged to…”, as if those arguments were stronger than the nine principles outlined above.  By the way, might left-wing American intellectuals occasionally engage in a bit of transference and view Germany as a stand-in for the American top earners, the American financial system, and so on?  It isn’t.

11. Another doozy is to think the problem is due to some weird German obsession with Weimar-era inflation, as if there is a need to apologize for an elderly uncle who went bonkers.  I would instead start with the simpler point that Germany does not want to transfer resources to countries which do not wish to pay back their creditors, and which will not commit to good economic policy in the future.

Let’s move out of Turing mode and back to Tyler.  I believe that the Germans have approached this crisis with some bad economic theories, a lack of understanding of how government spending cuts can be self-defeating in the short run, and a good deal of more or less deliberate self-deception about its partners in the union, not to mention Germany’s own ability and willingness to act “fully European.”  I’m also not sure that Germany has a path out of this which leaves their own financial system intact.  You can rack up the moral and practical minus points there in considerable number.  That said, I see a lot of intellectuals dismissing the perspective outlined above, rather than figuring out why it makes so much sense to so many people, not just in Germany.  I think the financial elites in the periphery countries themselves actually see it quite clearly.

The result is significant misunderstandings about what can happen and will happen in the eurozone.  Germany cannot and will not drop its moral perspective, even if there is some theory — and yes theory is the right word here, because no one knows these broad guarantees will work — of how a broader and far more costly commitment can set things right.

In reading American discussions of the eurozone, I am frequently reminded of earlier discussions of the Soviet Union.  Most outsiders simply didn’t realize how little social capital was left in the system, though some of the Soviet insiders did.  Might the same be true of the eurozone?  I’m not calling these countries corrupt, rather there may be remarkably little cross-national cultural capital, and remarkably little deep public support for a costly EU bargain, so little that many German (and other) insiders know that no grand bargain can be sustained or even seriously attempted.

I believe we need to be exposed to this moral perspective, and this intellectual Turing test, as a bracing slap in the face, as a wake-up call, and I see our unwillingness to do anything with this perspective, other than summarily dismiss it as a kind of tragic juvenile moralizing, as a sign of our own decline, right here in the USofA.

Addendum: This piece is actually pretty good.