Friday, February 27, 2009

The Multiplier

The entire debate about the economic stimulus packages debated by Congress during this recession ought to come down to one key number: the Multiplier. This particular multiplier (there are others) represents an ad hoc estimate of the effectiveness of government spending. What we really want to know is whether the multiplier is significantly larger than 1, significantly less than 1, or approximately equal to 1.

A note of caution before proceeding: the Multiplier has no basis in economic theory. It can be backed out of a number of models, but it would almost never be constant. Theoretically based macroeconomic models - both Keynesian and Neoclassical - will deliver a multiplier less than 1 unless they are specifically built to generate large multipliers. The models used by government economists are ad hoc models, which treat macroeconomic movements like Newtonian physics, rather than more complex general equilibrium models which are currently used for most research.

The Multiplier represents the sum of billions of decisions and interactions that result from government fiscal policy. When the government spends money, it borrows or taxes from some people and gives the money to others, either freely or in exchange for goods and services. This may increase total economic activity (a multiplier greater than 1), decrease it (a multiplier less than 1), or leave it essentially unchanged. Each person and firm is going to react differently to the government's borrowing-and-spending. One firm might find loans for investment unavailable because the government has sucked up all the available funds; another firm might be able to keep its factories open because the government places a huge order for widgets.

We cannot count or measure those billions of decisions, but we can estimate, roughly, the size of the Multiplier. Team Obama is acting under the assumption the assumption that the Multiplier on spending is 1.57 and on taxes 0.99 (source).

This is not without support: Valerie Ramey estimates a multiplier of 1.4 in a recent paper (source).

But Hall and Woodward use wartime data to estimate a multiplier on spending near 1, and the Romers find a tax-cut multiplier of 3! In the most exhaustive study, Barro estimates that the multiplier on spending is 0.8, and near zero for non-wartime spending.

Thus, the Obama team is overshooting the most sanguine estimate of the multiplier on spending, and unaccountably ignoring its own CEA Chair's high estimate of the tax-cut multiplier.

If they are correct, then the spending is a good thing for most Americans. However, the plan still harms some groups: most significantly the young, who will pay the interest on this debt for the rest of our lives. There is no economic theory that suggests government stimulation is helpful for long-run growth - usually, the opposite is true - so we, the young, will be earning less during our lifetimes, and paying higher taxes.

If Team Obama is incorrect, and the multiplier is about 1, then it is spinning its wheels and redistributing income away from the young and toward the old and favored. Perhaps that is good politics, since the young don't vote, and won't see these tax increases until Obama is in the history books.

However, if the administration is drastically wrong, and the multiplier is 0.8, or 0.5, or even lower, as Barro's research suggests, then the government is heavily complicit in worsening the recession. A multiplier as high as 0.8 would still mean that of $1 trillion spent, $200 billion disappears. That would represent a loss of 1.5% of GDP, equal to the entire aggregate loss of GDP from the fourth quarter of 2008. The cure is worse than the disease!

We can - and should - argue about the size of the multiplier. We can cite Nobel prize-winning economists on both sides. But until we have real intelligence about the size of the multiplier and the severity of the punishment on future taxpayers, isn't it irresponsible to be pushing a huge spending package? Remember the last time a president pushed a major spending and policy action on cherry-picked intelligence? How well did that work out?

Atheists for Jesus

Matthew Parris, a "confirmed atheist" (but perhaps something of a heretic) writes in the Times of how much Africa needs Christianity. That is, a sincere faith in a God in whom Parris does not believe. His prose is glowing:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Parris parries the cant criticism of Western postmodernism ably as well:
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: "theirs" and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the "big man" and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition...

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
I will criticize Parris from the opposite angle. Of course he is critical of tribalism; he grew up in a society founded on the liberation of "Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther". Parris' freedom to be an atheist is a direct outgrowth of the worldview he ascribes (correctly) to modern Christianity. Prior to the Reformation, a heretic could not live safely in any society - Socrates was poisoned, Buddha was outcast, Jesus was crucified. Parris finds the older, collective society anathema; the newer, individualistic society is his home.

This does not explain the difference between Christian and secular NGO workers - that difference should give Parris pause. Nor will I here take a position on how accurately the post-Reformation worldview reflects Biblical Christianity.

Hat tip to Inos for the link.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


A few photos from a recent visit to the capital (though not my most recent!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Bank Czar?

According to Drudge's big headline today, "OBAMA MOVES TOWARD 'SWEDISH MODEL' FOR BANKS". Swedish model? Really? Well, I'm sure she'll be better looking than Greenspan.

Casseling to protect the King

The Patriots are holding onto Matt Cassel for the pricetag of $14 million in order to hedge against Tom Brady's recovery. But they must have a "Plan A" that doesn't involve handing $14 million to a backup if Brady stays healthy, right? Here's my theory:

If Brady is delayed in returning, Cassel starts the season. Even if Brady looks fine, keeping Cassel around for a few games isn't a terrible idea. But then Brady looks strong and is chucking two or three TD's a game by late September when Matt Ryan/David Garrard/Eli Manning/Joe Flacco/Ben Roethlisberger/etc. goes down with a season-ending injury. (Alternate ending: rookie QB has 4 TD's and 12 INT's after four games). Then the Patriots trade the idle Cassel to a team whose season is in the balance for a few key pieces elsewhere on their team, perhaps also dictated by injury. With that amount of salary moving, and with Cassel's stats this year, his trade could land the Pats a top-notch linebacker or a few proven roleplayers, depending on their need.

Does that sound plausible? In Belichick we trust.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way

The proper method is to blow one nostril at a time... said Dr. Anil Kumar Lalwani, chairman of the department of otolaryngology at the New York University Langone Medical Center.
Well, now you know.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Elections 2009

Israel went to the polls today. Will it be the center-right Tzipi Libni, or old Likud horse Bibi Netanyahu? And how much power will the hardline Avigdor Lieberman wield in the new Knesset?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Walworth, the "Free Stuff" Poet

Somebody in rural Walworth frequently posts on Craigslist's "free stuff" board random knick-knacks and household items to give away. Somehow, this is poetry.
Let Us Pray Cross Stitch Book
i didnt realize until leafing through
this book that it is a cross stitch
book with patterns

Cross Stitch Book
a book and a magazine
they are a bit musty
must have been stored in
a damp spot

Rocking Horse Decoration
about 11" long
could use a bit of
polishing but cleaned up
it will look great

Baby Toy
in good working shape
does have a bit of yellowing
maybe due to being older but
otherwise in good shape

Fire Extinguisher
dont know if it works but
pretty sure it would need

not pictured i have a pkg
of 3 hoover vacum bags
type G short bag
says they fit handivac
pixie and quick broom cleaners

Silver Plated Vase
looks to be new comes from
the international silver company
it is 7 inches tall
it does have a tiny bit of tarnish
developing but i am sure that can
be removed with silver polish/cleaner

Doll with Pacifier
good shape

Wooden Box
very heavy and sturdy but
the paint is peeling
it measures 13" across
8" tall at higest point
6" tall at the lowest point
and 10" wide
maybe good for storing things
in a shop or garage?

Happy Truck Day, Boston!

Spring is inexorably coming to Boston. Quiet your mind, and softly blow the snowy cobwebs from your ears. Can't you hear it - the crack of the bat? The soft thump of ball into worn leather?

It's Truck Day in Boston.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Honor Among Thieves

Beware lest you ever be praised by these men:
"I don't know of a person more honorable," said Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

"It's an innocent mistake," added John Kerry (D-Mass.).

"My breast is clear, and my support is strong," intoned Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

"I will vote for Senator Daschle," the committee chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), read from a prepared statement.
These statements of unqualified support - echoing president Obama's own - are for a man who used his massive past-and-future political power to earn $5.2 million over two years in a series of sinecures. If Venezuelan or Russian politicians did this, we'd cite it as evidence that they are kleptocracies where the will of the people is ignored. In America, however, we're sophisticated: "retired" Senator Daschle wasn't being bribed - he was being paid for "important work".

Send me to Iraq (where I'll be safe)

The U.S. military suffered 16 deaths in Iraq in January. Of those, 12 were from accidents. By comparison, the Rochester murder rate for a recent year was 58 among 218,000 residents. Thus, if the 152,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq were living near me, we'd expect them to suffer 3.4 murders a month, barely lower than the 4 combat deaths last month.

How do you say, "the war is over" in Arabic?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Economists on the New Deal

Two well-known neoclassical macroeconomists, Cole and Ohanian, weigh in on the New Deal:
Why wasn't the Depression followed by a vigorous recovery, like every other cycle? It should have been. The economic fundamentals that drive all expansions were very favorable during the New Deal. Productivity grew very rapidly after 1933, the price level was stable, real interest rates were low, and liquidity was plentiful...

So what stopped a blockbuster recovery from ever starting? The New Deal. Some New Deal policies certainly benefited the economy by establishing a basic social safety net through Social Security and unemployment benefits, and by stabilizing the financial system through deposit insurance and the Securities Exchange Commission. But others violated the most basic economic principles by suppressing competition, and setting prices and wages in many sectors well above their normal levels. All told, these antimarket policies choked off powerful recovery forces that would have plausibly returned the economy back to trend by the mid-1930s.
They don't mention the worldwide shift from free trade to protectionism during the same period, but that was another large factor in the continuation of the Depression. Let's not start another trade war!