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Mar 26, 2020: The Trump Administration’s Epic COVID-19 Failure https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-covid19-testing-failure-by-j-bradford-delong-2020-03: Whereas many other countries afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic have pursued mass testing, quarantines, and other measures to reduce community transmission, the Trump administration has simply dithered. Although America could still shut down for a month to overcome the crisis, the sad truth is that it won't.
BERKELEY – Even to US President Donald Trump’s most ardent critics, his administration’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic has come as a surprise. Who would have guessed that Trump and his cronies would be so incompetent that merely testing for the disease would become a major bottleneck?
The Project Syndicate people titled this "American Carnage": a good title. They also had to cut it massively. Here is the draft I am most satisfied with: J. Bradford DeLong: American Carnage https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-coronavirus-lethal-incompetence-by-j-bradford-delong-2020-04: ‘Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, it has been obvious that the American political system and public sphere are broken. But only with the federal government's embarrassingly incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic has that breakdown translated into a significant loss of life…
I. Where We Are & What I Am Doing
As of now, the guess is that one person in 80 in California has or had the coronavirus. We rank 30th among the United States with 40 confirmed (and probably 60 true) coronavirus deaths per million. I am trying not to catch the disease, so that I do not then become one of those who spread it. I am going for long (isolated) walks in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland. I am watching lots of old movies. I am trying to let the orange-haired baboon who is President Trump live rent-free in my brain only between 8:00-8:15 PM, and spend only 8:15-9:00 PM thinking about coronavirus. And otherwise I am trying to play my position.
II. I Am, Right Now, for Relaxation...
In 1994 Milton Friedman wrote about Judy Shelton: "In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece (July 15)... Judy Shelton started her concluding paragraph: “Until the U.S. begins standing up once more for stable exchange rates as the starting point for free trade...” It would be hard to pack more error into so few words.... A system of pegged exchange rates, such as the original IMF system or the European Monetary System, is an enemy to free trade. It is no accident that the 1992 collapse of the EMS coincided with the agreement to remove controls on the movement of capital..." https://miltonfriedman.hoover.org/friedman_images/Collections/2016c21/NR_09_12_1994.pdf. To turn monetary policy away from internal balance toward preventing exchange rate movements that market fundamentals wanted to see occur was, in Friedman's view, the road toward disaster. It was simply wrong. And it could be held together only if economies moved from free trade back toward managed trade—and so beggared not just their neighbors but themselves.
Larry Summers hates this, and, given that I lose three of four arguments I have with him, that is a sign that I may well be wrong here. Maybe it is that I spend too much time back in the eighteenth century, and do not understand modern public finance. Maybe it is just that we upper middle class urban Californians pay huge wealth taxes, and so don't see why others think it is a big deal. But it seemed and seems to me that whether one taxes wealth, income, or consumption in order to try to minimize the utility cost of taxation by placing burdens on those with a very low marginal utility of wealth is overwhelmingly a question of administrative practicality: how to identify those with a low marginal utility of wealth:
Isn't a Wealth Tax Common Sense? https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/wealth-tax-common-sense-by-j-bradford-delong-2020-01: I was not surprised when Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Saez-Zucman_conference-draft.pdf in offices down the hall and Thomas Piketty over in Paris began proposing, and Democratic presidential candidates began endorsing https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/24/18196275/elizabeth-warren-wealth-tax https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/9/24/20880941/bernie-sanders-wealth-tax-warren-2020, the idea of a “wealth tax“. What did surprise me was what seemed and still seems to be a surprising amount of unexpected pushback—pushback from people I had always thought to be on the side of a more-progressive rationalization of the tax system.
Back up: When I learned public finance, I was taught that there were three principles of taxation, all spring from Jean-Baptiste Colbert‘s observation that the point was to extract the feathers from the goose with the least amount of hissing. That meant, first, always broadening the tax base so that you could hit your revenue target with the lowest possible and hence the least annoying tax rates. That meant, second, imposing taxes on items for which demand was inelastic, so that the tech system did as little as possible destructive distortion to the pattern of economic activity. That meant, third, taxing those for whom the utility cost of their tax payments was least—that is, taxing the rich. And what is the broadest possible tax base on which to tax the wealthy? It is their wealth, of course. And for what is the demand of the wealthy least elastic—what are they least willing to sacrifice to try to reduce their tax burden? Their wealth, of course.
Project Syndicate: No, We Don’t “Need” a Recession https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/myth-of-needed-recession-by-j-bradford-delong-2019-10: Business cycles can end with a "rolling readjustment" in which asset values are marked back down to reflect underlying fundamentals, or they can end in depression and mass unemployment. There is never any good reason why the second option should prevail: BERKELEY – I recently received an email from my friend Mark Thoma of the University of Oregon, asking if I had noticed an increase in commentaries suggesting that a recession would be a good and healthy purge for the economy (or something along those lines). In fact, I, too, have noticed more commentators expressing the view that “recessions, painful as they are, are a necessary growth input.” I am rather surprised by it.
Project Syndicate: America’s Superpower Panic: History suggests that a global superpower in relative decline should aim for a soft landing, so that it still has a comfortable place in the world once its dominance fades. By contrast, US President Donald Trump's incoherent, confrontational approach toward China could seriously damage America’s long-term interests.
Project Syndicate: Is Plutocracy Really the Biggest Problem?: After the 2008 financial crisis, economic policymakers in the United States did enough to avert another Great Depression, but fell far short of what was needed to ensure a strong recovery. Attributing that failure to the malign influence of the plutocracy is tempting, but it misses the root of the problem:
No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: In the New York Review of Books, Adam Tooze recently wrote that: "across the American political spectrum, if there is agreement on anything, it is on the need for a firmer line against China". He is correct: On this, the bombs-and-bullets people, the geopolitics people, and the blame-somebody-else people are all agreed. The U.S. needs to do something to strengthen its relative position, and that means it needs to start doing something to China.
But that would be going about it the wrong way. Thinking that the right way to do something is to do something to China is a very bad way to think.
No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: Robo-Apocalypse? Not in Your Lifetime: "Will the imminent “rise of the robots” threaten all future human employment? The most thoughtful discussion of that question can be found in MIT economist David H. Autor’s 2015 paper, “Why Are There Still so Many Jobs?”, which considers the problem in the context of Polanyi’s Paradox. Given that “we can know more than we can tell,” the twentieth-century philosopher Michael Polanyi observed, we shouldn’t assume that technology can replicate the function of human knowledge itself. Just because a computer can know everything there is to know about a car doesn’t mean it can drive it. This distinction between tacit knowledge and information bears directly on the question of what humans will be doing to produce economic value in the future... Read MOAR at Project Syndicate
Live at Project Syndicate: What to Do About China?: BERKELEY–In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the historian Adam Tooze notes that, “across the American political spectrum, if there is agreement on anything, it is on the need for a firmer line against China.” He’s right: On this singular issue, the war hawks, liberal internationalists, and blame-somebody-else crowd all tend to agree. They have concluded that because the United States needs to protect its relative position on the world stage, China’s standing must be diminished.... But that is the wrong way to approach the challenge.... It is entirely foreseeable that America’s attempt to “get tough” with China could accelerate its own relative decline, effectively handing China the semi-hegemony it is already approaching.... So, what should the US do to shore up its position vis-à-vis China?... The US could start to become what it would have been if Al Gore had won the 2000 presidential election, if Hillary Clinton had defeated Trump, and if the Republican party had not abandoned its patriotism... Read MOAR at Project Syndicate
Live at Project Syndicate: Robo-Apocalypse? Not in Your Lifetime: "Will the imminent “rise of the robots” threaten all future human employment? The most thoughtful discussion of that question can be found in MIT economist David H. Autor’s 2015 paper, “Why Are There Still so Many Jobs?”, which considers the problem in the context of Polanyi’s Paradox. Given that “we can know more than we can tell,” the twentieth-century philosopher Michael Polanyi observed, we shouldn’t assume that technology can replicate the function of human knowledge itself. Just because a computer can know everything there is to know about a car doesn’t mean it can drive it. This distinction between tacit knowledge and information bears directly on the question of what humans will be doing to produce economic value in the future... Read MOAR at Project Syndicate
Live at Project Syndicate: The Fed Board Unmoored: "In December 2015, the right-wing commentator Stephen Moore, US President Donald Trump’s pick to fill a vacancy on the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors, savagely attacked then-Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, for maintaining loose monetary policies in the years following the 'Great Recession'.... On December 26, 2018, he savagely attacked Yellen’s successor, Jerome Powell, for raising interest rates to unwind the very approach that he had condemned three years earlier. 'If you cut engine power too far on a jetliner', he warned, 'it will stall and drop out of the sky'. Moore complained that after having 'risen by 382 points on hopes that the Fed would listen to Trump and stop cutting power', the Dow Jones Industrial Average had “plunged by 895 points” on the news of another interest-rate hike. This, he concluded, was evidence that 'the Fed’s monetary policy has come unhinged'...
Now Not Quite so Fresh at Project Syndicate: The Fed Should Buy Recession Insurance: If the United States falls into recession in the next year or two, the US Federal Reserve may have very little room to loosen policy, yet it is not taking any steps to cover that risk. Unless the Fed rectifies this soon, the US–and the world–may well face much bigger problems later.
Fresh at Project Syndicate: The Fed Should Buy Recession Insurance: If the United States falls into recession in the next year or two, the US Federal Reserve may have very little room to loosen policy, yet it is not taking any steps to cover that risk. Unless the Fed rectifies this soon, the US–and the world–may well face much bigger problems later. The next global downturn may still be a little way off. The chances that the North Atlantic as a whole will be in recession a year from now have fallen to about one in four. German growth may well be positive this quarter, while China could rebound, too. And although US growth is definitely slowing–to 1% or so this quarter–this may yet turn out to be a blip. Let’s hope so. Because if the next downturn is looming, North Atlantic central banks do not have the policy room to fight it effectively... Read MOAR at Project Syndicate
Project Syndicate: U.S. Recession No Longer Improbable: Over the past 40 years, the U.S. economy has spent six years in four recessions: in a downturn 15% of the time, with the odds that a current expansion will turn into a downturn within a year being one-in-eight. Of these four downturns, one—the extended downturn of 1979-82—had a conventional cause: the Federal Reserve thought inflation was too high, and so hit the economy on the head with the high interest-rate brick to stun it and induce workers to moderate their demands for wage increases and firms to cut back planned price increases. The other three have been caused by derangements in financial markets: the collapse of sunbelt Savings-and-Loans for 1991-92, the collapse of dot-com valuations in 2000-2, and the collapse of mortgage-backed securities in 2008-9.
Live at Project Syndicate: U.S. Recession No Longer Improbable: The next recession most likely will not be due to a sudden shift by the Fed from a growth-nurturing to an inflation-fighting policy. Given that visible inflationary pressures probably will not build up by much over the next half-decade, it is more likely that something else will trigger the next downturn.... The culprit will probably be a sudden, sharp “flight to safety” following the revelation of a fundamental weakness in financial markets. That... is the pattern that has been generating downturns since at least 1825, when England’s canal-stock boom collapsed.
Needless to say, the particular nature and form of the next financial shock will be unanticipated. Investors, speculators, and financial institutions are generally hedged against the foreseeable shocks.... The death blow to the global economy in 2008-2009 came not from global imbalances or from the collapse of the mid-2000s housing bubble, but from the concentration of ownership of mortgage-backed securities... Read MOAR at Project Syndicat