Economics, Austerity and the Selective Use of Data
Policy makers in the US and Europe seized on the paper as proof that cutting stimulus and social programs was a good idea, and proceeded to do so with abandon. Of course, right wingers wanted to cut money to social programs anyway, and would have done so regardless, but the paper was held out as scientific proof that it was a solid plan of action.
I won’t comment on how strange it was that Republicans were interested in science at all, given recent efforts to politicize the NSF and micromanage the grant decision process.
The trouble was that the results presented in RR were shown to be based on the selective use of data. Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old graduate student, obtained the dataset from RR themselves and couldn’t reproduce the results.
In fact, he found that the only way to accurately reproduce the results in RR’s paper that showed that high debt restrained economic growth was to exclude important cases. When including the missing data, high debt was associated with consistently positive growth, though modestly slowed.
Originally, I took the view that this was a case of sloppy science. RR had a dataset, got some results which fit the narrative they were pushing and didn’t pursue the matter any further. Reading Herndon’s paper, however, I changed my mind.Herdon took the data and did what any analyst would do when starting exploratory analysis, he plotted it (see figure on the right). Debt to GDP ratios and growth are both continuous measures. We can do a simple scatterplot and see if there’s any evidence that would suggest that the two things are related.
To me, this is a pretty fuzzy result. Though the loess curve (an interpolation method to illustrate trend) suggest that there is *some* decline in growth overall, I’d still ding any intro stats student for trying to suggest that there’s any relationship at all. There is no way that RR, both trained PhD’s and likely having the help of a paid research assistant, didn’t produce such a plot.
Noting that the loess curve drops past approximately 120%, I calculated the median growth for each country represented. Only 7 countries have had debt to GDP ratios greater than 120% in the past 60+ years: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the United States. Out of these only two had (median) negative growth: Belgium (-.69%, effectively zero) and the United States (-10.94%), which has only had a debt to GDP greater than 120% one time. All other countries has positive growth under high debt, even beleaguered Japan. New Zealand can even claim a strong 9.8% growth under high debt. The US, then, is a major outlier, possibly bringing the entire curve down.
As this doesn’t fit their story, RR’s solution was to categorize debt to GDP ratios into five rough classifications, and calculate the mean growth within each group. This is a common trick to extract results from bad data. It’s highly tempting for researchers (and epidemiologists do it far too often), but a bad idea to present it without all the caveats and warnings that should go with it.
I’m not surprised that ideologues such as RR would be so keen to produce the result they did. After all, they published the popular economics work “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” where they try to suggest that budget policy of the US in 2013 should somehow be informed by the economy of 14th century Spain.
I am, however, surprised that reviewers let this pass. If I would have been a reviewer, I would have:
1) pointed out the problems of categorization, where data doesn’t require it
2) noted that categorizing the data (or even plotting it) tears out temporal correlation. For example, one data point from 2008 (stimulus) may be put in the high debt category, but another from 2007 (crash) in the low debt category. While budgets of one year may have little to do with the budget of another, the economy of one year is likely related to the economy of the previous year.
3) questioned the causal mechanisms behind debt and growth. This is obviously a deep question for economists (and not epidemiologists), but of particular import. When does the economy start to react to debt? I’m pretty sure that there is a lag effect as spending bills tend to space disbursements over the course of the fiscal year.
The RR debacle should be a lesson, not only to economists, but to all scientists. While we may always be under pressure to produce results and hope that those results fit and support whatever position we take, shoddy methods don’t get us off the hook. In RR’s case, I would call this fabrication. A good many studies are merely guilty of wishful thinking, but the chance always exists that someone will come out of the woodwork and expose our flaws. After all, that’s what science is all about.
Phony Economic “Uncertainty”
I’ll take an aside from Kenya to write on an excellent article I found on Bloomberg on the subject of economic “uncertainty.” During the run up to the 2012 election and the subsequent debates on the now almost forgotten “fiscal cliff,” Republicans and their faithful believers spread wacky ideas that American business was crippled by not knowing what their tax rate would be in 2013.
Caroline Baum on Bloomberg claims, rightly, that this was a manufactured panic, though I would argue that our academically challenged politicians seriously believed what they were peddling.
Republicans in Congress claimed that businesses were sitting on cash, unwilling to invest until they knew what their tax rate would be next year (as if tax rates are ever set in stone). What’s more, raising taxes on “job creators” would bring the U.S. economy to its knees.
The premise behind this is fantastical. If businesses are sure that they’ll make a profit, they’ll invest the money today. I think it’s ridiculous to assume that single digit tax increases will somehow get in the way of moving ahead with business.
She points out, though, that the whole thing was fantasy:
— The private sector added 675,000 jobs, making it the second-best quarter since the recession ended in June 2009.
— Business spending on equipment and software rose 12.4 percent annualized, the biggest increase since the third
quarter of 2011.
— Business sales rose an annualized 4.2 percent (assuming no change for December), the strongest quarter of 2012.
The most perplexing part of the whole “kowtow to the American economic elite or else you’ll be unemployed” idea is the notion that somehow CEO’s hand out jobs like candy. “Job creators” don’t create jobs unless there is demand for products, either domestically or abroad (don’t forget that the US is an export giant). Republicans, so opposed to handouts, imply that somehow it is the responsibility of business to provide jobs without the expectation of return.
This is, of course, the government’s responsibility! It is exactly why we continue to invest in infrastructure improvement, have unemployment insurance, provide food stamps and bolster national defense. These expenditures are made knowing that returns are unlikely, but the infusing of cash into the economy keeps important sectors afloat and reduces overall volatility.
It’s ironic, given the anti-Keynesian bent of the Republican Party that prevents them from admitting it, that the US’s economic contraction in the last quarter of 2012 was due to defense cuts and had nothing to do with any type of fantastical “uncertainty.”
OK, back to bednets and Kenya.
Ben Bernanke Comes to the University of Michigan
Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, came and spoke at the University of Michigan today. Of course, I make sure never to miss an opportunity to check out high ranking government offices ask when they come and speak.
Bernanke addressed what one would expect, fiscal cliff issues, the debt ceiling and the role of the Federal Reserve itself.
The fiscal cliff: He started by reiterating the position that Obama took at his noon press conference. Namely, that Congress has no choice but to approve a raise of the debt ceiling as it has nothing to do with future spending, but rather covers spending that has already been approved by Congress. To not approve an increase in the debt ceiling would lead the US to default of its financial obligations and create chaos in the world economy.
This is, of course, completely true. People are basically suggesting that the government should save money by not paying the light bill. Shutting down the government may sound like a revolutionary affair, but the results would be disastrous, and as the interest on these bills would continue to accrue, we’d just end up losing money in the end.
The role of government in mitigating financial disasters: Bernanke discussed parallels of monetary policy between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, pointing out that efforts to reign in the depression were too cautious and conservative. Government may not do very well in times where the markets do well (since it doesn’t really have to do anything), but has much to do during a financial crisis.
Though a personal observation, the response to the Great Recession was far too conservative. We needed more stimulus, not less and the notoriously slow reaction of The United States Congress held us back in the end. Petty bickering and political brinksmanship shot us in the foot. We’ve certainly seen economic growth since, but unemployment gains have been anemic.
Global economic issues: Though Americans seem to be under the mistaken impression that the united States lives in a bubble, the truth is that we live in an interconnected world. Though the US has seen comparatively impressive gains compared with the rest of the world since the crash, continued problems in Europe and slowed growth in the emerging economies has held us back.
I’m not sure how one gets around China’s slowing pace of growth. Some of that is the result of intentional policy changes to cool down exports in order to create a stronger domestic market there. The Europeans, at the very least, are working to create a unified central bank, which should help mitigate problems in the future. How all the individual political players work this out, will remain to be seen.
Move to require auditing of the Fed: He mentioned the recent movement by House Republicans to require full auditing of the Federal Reserve. Bernanke argued that the Fed is already subject to an independent private sector reviewer. The GAO is also able to examine the Fed’s books and evaluate the inner workings of the at agency. What the GAO cannot do is evaluate specific monetary policy of the Fed. The reason for this, is that the Fed is an independent agency and a unique private-public mixture. If the GAO, or any other government body were able to say, audit and evaluate the implications of raising or lowering interest rates, the Fed would then become less than independent and be subject to the short term political interests of Congress.
Given the batshit nature of this particular Congress, we can be assured that this would result in chaos for the world economy. For proof, one would consider the policy roots of the financial crisis itself. Governments are not incentivized to reign things in when people are profiting. A politically compromised Fed would be even less likely to attempt to control an asset bubble. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue, but an independent central bank is not unique. The Bank of Japan also operates outside the political sphere of the Diet.
I’m pretty sure House Republicans knew all too well that the Senate wouldn’t approve the Bill. They had nothing to lose by signing it.
As Bernanke kept repeating, the “dual mandate” of the Fed is to manage price stability and maximize employment. It can be offered that the Fed, in fact, serves only the interest of the very wealthy. This may certainly be true. It has been my experience, however, that the intentions of policy makers are manifold and often what appears to be self-serving, is actually intended to serve the greater good. Knowing this, I tend to give policy makers the benefit of the doubt and at least listen to what they have to say (rather than have Ron Paul do all the talking for them).
I feel that Bernanke is no exception. I am definitely not stating that I trust him implicitly, or that I think that the policies of the Fed, or any other economic policy, are flawless. On the contrary, the brunt of the financial crisis can be attributed to poor policy making. However, it is irresponsible to disregard agencies such as the Federal Reserve. But it’s worthwhile to hear a man out.
Defense Spending and the Economy: Is there a link?
Today I encountered a discussion, where the participants emphatically maintained that the current US economic woes are to be blamed in part on increased US defense spending during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I countered and claimed that they have no relation at all. Of course, these people hate me now (thinking I was merely being difficult for the same of being difficult), but that’s ok. I’m used to it.
To test this hypothesis, I took data on US GDP (adjusted to constant 2005 dollars) and combined them with data on US defense spending (adjusted to constant 2010 dollars). The results can be seen to the left. The red line is defense spending. The blue line is GDP.
As I maintained, there is no obvious relationship between defense spending and economic growth. There are a couple of major blips in GDP growth, namely the collapsing of tech equities in the early 2000’s and the economic meltdown on 2007/8. There are no events in US GDP for drops during Clinton nor sudden increases in defense spending following 9/11.
In fact, as defense spending dropped pre-9/11, you can see the US economy was plugging along just fine. As defense spending went up post 9/11, the US economy maintained the same trajectory, minus the economic bumps.
Certainly, GDP is not the only economic marker we could use. I did the same thing with the unemployment rate.
Now, at first glance, this is a little more convincing. But when you take the events into consideration, it is less so. The two major economic events of the 2000’s, namely the equity bust, and the financial meltdown both resulted in sudden jumps in the unemployment rate. 9/11 and the troop surge did not. In fact, as spending was doing up, unemployment was going down. If we look back into the nineties, we can notice that even though defense spending was declining, unemployment was up, then down again. In short, given the context, there is no real reason to assume that two related.
I am NOT an advocate for war. I am though, an advocate for evidence backed claims. There is little evidence to suggest that increased defense expenditures during the Bush years affected our economy.
We can claim, if we like, that federal revenues might have been greater had the wars not happened. These revenues, it is argued, could have been allocated to education or infrastructure improvements, for example. However, it has to be noted that the wars weren’t funded out of federal revenues. They were funded out of low interest bonds. Thus, as those bonds had not been serviced at the time that this data was collected, there is, again, even less reason to assume that the wars negatively impacted the economy.
Now, we can certainly make arguments over how much defense spending is too much and what the potential long term effects of servicing the war debt will be. I argue, though, that our elected representatives are much more interested in financing the military than, say, welfare programs for the needy. It would take a great leap of faith to assume that, if the military were closed tomorrow, monies targeted for defense would automatically be transferred to providing health care to poor people. I also argue that, long term, the expenditures that came out of the financial crisis will be, in comparison, more difficult to service.
The war cost us politically, but was a bargain economically. To me, that’s a much more frightening state of affairs.
More on the National Debt and Deficits
There has been a lot of really interesting reporting on the national debt and deficits recently. Most notably, some thinking folks have come out to say that the public’s and, by proxy, Washington’s obsession with the deficit is unwarranted and even insane. They are right.
The chart on the left, from Mark Gongloff, shows that the deficit is linked to the national unemployment rate. Now, Mr. Gongloff claims causality here through the ability or inability of government to collect revenues when people have or don’t have work. Certainly, this is partially true. Increasing employment would help in making sure that the bills are paid.
Interestingly, conservative America is interested in no such thing, choosing to support ridiculous austerity measures (budget and program cutting) despite evidence from Japan and, more recently Europe, that it doesn’t work in developed economies. Even the IMF, hardly a bastion of Keynsian economics, has come out and fully admitted the absurdity of cutting programs (and thus jobs) in the midst of an economic downturn.
We can disparage public employment as much as we like, but it seems intuitive that increasing any type of employment in an economic downturn is preferable to letting workers lay fallow, unable to participate in the economy.
The other side of Mr. Gongloff’s chart is that governments, faced with a revenue shortfall, are forced to bolster services that the private sector cannot (will not) provide to unemployed individuals. Simply put, people don’t stop getting hungry and sick once they lose their jobs. Governments, facing a choice of letting potential workers die or get healthy and return to work, would much rather choose the latter. Research has shown that losing one’s job significantly worsens health outcomes.
Of course, worrying about deficits is a much easier bone to pick than admitting that Washington is powerless to create private sector jobs in the short term. It’s no wonder that Washington would rather encourage such short sighted thinking.
Today’s Readings 1/5/2013
1. Gerrymandering in Michigan: Can this state get more ridiculous? (Mark Maynard)
2. We’re way overdue for an increase in the minimum wage. I know a lot of small businesses that pay well above it, but the Wal-Marts of the world need a kick in the pants (NYT)
3. Krugman at an economics convention and the problem of consensus among economists (NYT)
4. Winning legislation for same sex marriage is largely a matter of how the issue is framed to voters. It’s a loser as a rights issue, but a winner as an issue of personal happiness and fulfillment. (NYT)
5. The IMF admits that austerity measures in the wake of a financial crash not only don’t work, but also make matters needlessly worse. Duh. (Bloomberg) and here’s the paper, which says, explicitly “We find that, in advanced economies, stronger planned fiscal
consolidation has been associated with lower growth than expected, with the relation being
particularly strong, both statistically and economically, early in the crisis.”
6. Shinzo Abe’s plan to get Japan on track again. He shoots for 2% inflation, but Japan’s inflation rate was -0.3% in 2011 and 0% in 2012. (Bloomberg)
7. Shinzo Abe gives up on watering down Japan’s official statements of apology to China and Korea for WWII, vowing to “consult historians,” whatever that means. I’m confident that the LDP will cherry pick “historians” friendly to their right wing cause. (Japan Times)
8. Fuel shortages in Malawi were the last President’s undoing. He has sice died, the new President has barely had time to get her feet wet, and the shortages begin again. (Baobob)
9. 12 things which will be more expensive in 2013. Amazingly, they are the 12 things that got more expensive in 2012. (Fiscal Times)
10. The National Debt: The End of the World is not Near. (Fiscal Times)
The National Debt: The United States Government is NOT a Household
I keep seeing this around the internet:
This puts the U.S. national debt in perspective:
• U.S. tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
• Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
• Current deficit: $1,650,000,000,000
• National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
• Budget cuts: $38,500,000,000
Now, let’s remove 8 zeros and pretend it’s a household budget:
• Annual family income: $21,700
• Money the family spent: $38,200
• Additional charges on the credit card: $16,500
• Current credit-card balance: $142,710
• Budget cuts: $385
The trouble is, this doesn’t put the US national debt in perspective at all. In fact, it’s completely uninformed.
Though it is tempting to do so, the economics of the United States Government (or any government) cannot be compared to a private household.
First, a household in this example would owe money to an external credit card company. US debt is actually principally held by domestic entities. As of 2011, 47 percent of the US debt was held by foreign sources, who also happen to be our major trading partners (Japan, China and the UK).
So, according to this analogy, more than $75,000 or this household’s debt would not be to credit card companies, but actually to household members themselves. The remaining $67,000 would be owed to family members (outside the home), local businesses, good friends and neighbors, who depend on the household’s continued support.
This would be akin to a situation where household family members pool money from their own savings to purchase a new family car, and expect that money to be paid back into the pool at some later date at interest. Not many households would do this, making the analogy even more useless.
Second, the interest rates on credit cards are typically between 7 and 36 percent in the United States. The United States Government can currently borrow money for a fraction of a percent, meaning that, with inflation, lenders are paying the US government to hang on to their money. Over time, the US government will pay back less than it originally borrowed. Some people freaking out over the debt don’t seem to notice that the world still seems ready to invest in the US. Despite low returns, lending money to the US is a safe bet. I’m not aware of many households which have credit cards that allow money losing interest rates for very long.
Third, the US government has the luxury of being able to print money. Government debt is held in dollars. If any of you know of a household that has its own legal currency press, let me know.
The US could theoretically, print a boat load of dollars, and pay back the entire debt in a day. Granted, worldwide economic calamity would ensue if done in a day, but it is practically possible in small increments.
Be aware, countries do this. One of the reasons that Spain is hurting so bad in the European economic zone is that, using the Euro, it can no longer devalue its currency (through an injection of newly printed money) to pay down its debt.
I don’t think I have to point out that a household can’t do this.
Fourth, the assets of the US Government are vast. Estimated at approximately $200 trillion dollars, the tangible and intangible assets of the US are nearly 15 times the GDP of the entire country. One of the reasons that people are happy to loan the US money despite low returns is the security of the investment. In a bind, the US can certainly print money (an asset in itself), but can also start selling land, arms, contracts or anything else it possesses.
There’s a reason that the US has an easier time raising money than a cash strapped country like Malawi. Its assets far outstrip its debt. In fact, the national debt, at $11 trillion only a fraction of its total assets.
Face it, if you had $2 million dollars in assets, faced an income shortfall and financial obligations, and somebody came to you and offered to lend you $110,000 at a rate which meant that you would pay back less than what you initially borrowed, you’d be a complete idiot not to take it. Unfortunately, most households don’t have this option.
Finally, the US Government has what most households don’t have: certainty. The US government, though indebted, has the strongest economy on the planet behind it and faces no retirement. We can hem and haw about China, but the truth is that China’s economy is much less certain than that of the US since, lacking a strong domestic economy, it relies too heavily on exports and is insufficiently diversified.
I can’t speak to the relative merits or demerits of the level of debt and debt trajectories, but the truth is that the national debt following the worst economic crisis since the depression should be expected to rise. It still has not reached the levels of debt which followed WWII and we have a much stronger economy now than then.
These ridiculous comparisons of the US economy to a poorly managed household have to go. They are fine for fun political comedy, but too reductive to foster any real discussion.