Regulation, legitimation, neutralization

A thing that bankers and spies have in common is protestations about how elaborately they are monitored. Every financial product or arrangement requires elaborate legal vetting, is touched by innumerable regulations, must run a gamut of refusals and reworkings in the name of “compliance”. In the current scandal over government surveillance, we hear repeated assurances that the programs are legal, that they are reviewed, that despite potentially vast loopholes in the documents thus far leaked, our security services have procedures in place to ensure that there is no abuse.

A cynic might dismiss these protestations as mere cant, but that’s a mistake. I think the insiders who offer us these assurances are perfectly, almost desperately, sincere. From their perspective, I suspect regulatory precaution seems absurdly overdone, even Kafka-esque, interfering with the good work they are trying to do. And they are trying to do good work! Most bankers are nice people working hard jobs. Most people who work for the ominous-sounding “surveillance state” genuinely strive to contribute to the security of the country without dishonoring its ideals. Large organizations are peopled by, well, people, most of whom are not so different than you and me. When organizations misbehave, it is important to understand that they do so in spite of being filled for the most part by people of good will. We should try to understand how they manage this.

One way that they manage this is by virtue of the regulation that exists ostensibly to control the misbehavior. Regulation sprouts in broad thickets, often in response to idiosyncratic events and concerns and constituencies. Pushback by the regulated trims those thickets, but not universally or uniformly. Organizations assent to and even embrace regulation that doesn’t challenge their core imperatives. They aggressively resist those that do. We end up with organizations that are, in fact, extensively and intrusively regulated, but have blind spots, weaknesses and loopholes that are not at all random.

“Core imperatives” are objectives that enable organizations to survive and thrive, and importantly to defend themselves from various sorts of challenge. Core objectives may be related to formal missions, but they are distinct, and may sometimes be in conflict. There are tensions between banks’ formal role as high-information allocators of credit to the real economy and the scale that renders failure politically intolerable. Where those tradeoffs exist, successful banks pursue the core imperative, not the formal mission. The organizational form that maximizes the quality of credit allocation would be one that keeps the organization and its stakeholders forever at risk. That form does not thrive in competition with others who gain funding advantages by insulating themselves from those risks. Like it or not, maximalist acquisition of information is a core imperative of organizations in the intelligence community. For reasons good and obvious but also for some ugly reasons, access to information is crucial to defending and expanding the intelligence ecosystem.

We should not be surprised, although we should certainly be angry, that “the toughest financial regulation in a half century” was a thousand pages long and failed to address the core problem of immunities and funding advantages that derive from scale and interconnectedness. We should not be surprised, though we should certainly be angry, that as technology has rendered surreptitious, ubiquitous surveillance easier, weak spots and loopholes have appeared that make it colorable, although still shameful, for the President of the United States to come on television and call this stufflawful“.

But it’s important to note, both among bankers and spies, we do not end up with an absence of regulation. Instead we end up with a festival of regulation undermined by a few strategic lacunae. And that festival of regulation is a critical part of the problem we’ve circuitously set out to address. How do organizations persuade the well-meaning humans that comprise them to work hard and feel proud of doing stuff that is ultimately not so good? Why is it that people in banking or intelligence so often effuse, with complete sincerity and no small measure of frustration, about how regulated they are, about how much care they take to comply with the regulations they face, in letter and in spirit. Because they do!

Regulation and compliance serves a straightforward human function. It substitutes for and absolves participants of the duty they would feel, as human beings, to exercise independent judgment about the nature of the work they are doing. There is nothing odd or conspiratorial about saying this. Organizations wouldn’t function if every organizational action were subject to idiosyncratic review and veto by each participant. When people claim that Edward Snowden had no right to do what he did, they do not mean to say everyone in any organization must always “just follow orders”. Their argument is based on the notion that Snowden’s organization was well-regulated, and an ethical participant in an organization ought to let the regulations of the organization stand-in for individual moral views. As we see each time one of our shameful politicians or one of our shameful bankers goes on television, lawfulness and regulation are used to legitimate organizational behavior externally. But they are used to legitimate behavior internally as well, and so may enable groups of people to do what perhaps they ought not do.

The moral choice faced in practice by members of a large organization isn’t whether some activity they participate in is ethical, but whether it is so unethical that they are compelled to substitute their own judgment for the organization’s controls and resist in some fashion. The perceived quality of the controls plays a role in those decisions. When effective participation is significantly voluntary — that is when talented people might choose to quit, or slack off, or in extremis enlist external allies to address their concerns — controls that appear to be high quality are an important organizational asset. Elaborate regulation and burdensome compliance can serve as “accountability theater” even when it is less than effective. In large organizations that do prima facie icky things, whether those things are ultimately justifiable or not, you’d expect to find a mix of very visible controls and strong economic incentives. Which, I think, you typically do. Obviously, in military and intelligence organizations, controls and incentives are supplemented by a sense of serving a larger interest that may sometimes override more ordinary qualms. But feelings of patriotism don’t eliminate participants’ need for legitimating regulation.

The most dangerous organizations are those whose participants are subject to internally credible controls that are nevertheless ineffective at constraining organizational behavior, whether because the controls are inadequate or because some groups within the organization are able to circumvent them. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the combination that serves organizations best in amoral, functional terms. We should be careful of starting with a kitchen-sink of potential regulations, then letting organizations choose their battles, as happened with banking reform. Obviously, we should be careful of letting regulated entities drive and manage the regulatory process from the start, as happened with the security state. When insiders tell us that prima facie bad things are justified by the regulations or controls under which they are produced, we should understand those accounts to be both sincere and usually mistaken. We should remember that mistargeted regulation may be worse than useless. It may provide, to use a term I learned from Bill Black, a means of neutralization that perversely enables the very misbehavior it ostensibly exists to prevent. I think that is very obviously what has happened in the US and elsewhere with state surveillance.


The stupidest framing of the controversy over ubiquitous surveillance is that it reflects a trade-off between “security” and “privacy”. We are putting in jeopardy values much, much more important than “privacy”.

The value we are trading away, under the surveillance programs as presently constituted, are quality of governance. This is not a debate about privacy. It is a debate about corruption.

Just after the PRISM scandal broke, Tyler Cowen offered a wonderful, wonderful tweet:

I’d heard about this for years, from “nuts,” and always assumed it was true.

There is a model of social knowledge embedded in this tweet. It implies a set of things that one believes to be true, a set of things one can admit to believing without being a “nut”, and an inconsistency between the two. Why the divergence? Oughtn’t it be true that people of integrity should simply own up to what they believe? Can a “marketplace of ideas” function without that?

It’s obvious, of course, why this divergence occurs. Will Wilkinson points to an economy of esteem, but there is also an economy of influence. There are ideas and modes of thought that are taboo in the economy of influence, assertions that discredit the asserter. Those of us who seek to matter as “thinkers” are implicitly aware of these taboos, and we navigate them mostly by avoiding or acceding to them. You can transgress a little, self-consciously and playfully, as Cowen did in his tweet. If you transgress too much, too earnestly, you are written off as a nut or worse. Conversely, there are ideas that are blessed in the economy of influence. These are markers of “seriousness”, as in Paul Krugman’s perceptive, derisive epithet “Very Serious People”. This describes “thinkers” whose positions inevitably align like iron filings to the pull of social influence, indifferent to evidence that might impinge upon their views. Most of us, with varying degrees of consciousness, are pulled this way and that, forging compromises between what we might assert in some impossible reality where we observed social facts “objectively” and the positions that our allegiances, ambitions, and taboos push us towards. Individually, there is plenty of eccentricity, plenty of noise. People go “off the reservation” all the time. But pubic intellectualizing is a collective enterprise. What matters is not what some asshole says, but the conventional wisdom we coalesce to. When the noise gets averaged out, the bias imposed by the economy of influence is hard to overcome. And the economy of influence pulls, always, in directions chosen by incumbent holders of wealth and power, by people with capacity to offer rewards and to mete out punishment.

I want to introduce a word into the discourse surrounding NSA surveillance that has been insufficiently discussed. That word is blackmail. I will out and say this. I think our President’s “evolutions” on questions of civil liberties and surveillance are largely the result of blackmail. I think it is not coincidental that support for the security state is highly correlated with seniority and influence, in both of our increasingly irrelevant political parties. The apparatus we are constructing, have constructed, creates incredible scope for digging up dirt on people and their spouses, their children, their parents. It doesn’t take much to manage the shape of the economy of influence. There are, how shall we say, network effects. You don’t have to blackmail the whole Congress. Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them. A consensus that emerges at the top is quickly magnified and disseminated. Other voices don’t disappear, there is plenty of shouting in the blogs. But a correlation emerges between a certain set of views and “seriousness”, “respectability”. The mainstream position is defined. Eventually it’s reflected by the polls, so it’s what the American people wanted all along, we are just responding to the demands of the public, whine the politicians.

Blackmail is and has always been a consequential component of our political system. This ought not to be controversial. Blackmail — like its sister B-word, “bribery” — has largely gone mainstream and been institutionalized. “Opposition research” is a profession that is openly practiced and is considered respectable. Opposition researchers, like lobbyists, will tell perfectly accurate stories about the useful role served by their profession. The public deserves to know the truth about the people in whom it will invest the public trust. Legislators require information and expertise that only industry participants can provide. True, true! But these are, obviously, incomplete accounts of the roles that these professionals play. Lobbyists don’t simply inject neutral, objective information into the legislative process. And opposition research is used in ways other than to immediately inform the public. For both bribery and blackmail, there is a spectrum of vulgarity. A guy gives you a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills that you hide in your freezer in exchange for a legislative favor. That’s vulgar, and illegal. But the same gentleman hints in conversation that, should you ever choose to “leave public service”, his firm would be excited to hire someone with your connections and expertise — expertise which, it needn’t be said, ought naturally be reflected in legislative choices! — and that is tasteful, normal, legal. Those jobs are worth a lot more than a suitcase full of C-notes. Similarly, it is vulgar and unnecessarily risky to show up in a Congressional office with a dossier of compromising pictures, or the dossier documenting ones participation in a fraud. You just have to make it known that you know.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from a great, underdiscussed piece by Beverly Gage:

[J. Edgar] Hoover exercised powerful forms of control over potential critics. If the FBI learned a particularly juicy tidbit about a congressman, for instance, agents might show up at his office to let him know that his secrets—scandalous as they might be—were safe with the bureau. This had the predictable effect: Throughout the postwar years, Washington swirled with rumors that the FBI had a detailed file on every federal politician. There was some truth to the accusation. The FBI compiled background information on members of Congress, with an eye to both past scandals and to political ideology. But the files were probably not as extensive or all-encompassing as people believed them to be. The point was that it didn’t matter: The belief alone was enough to keep most politicians in line, and to keep them voting yes on FBI appropriations.

Today, James Bamford quotes a former senior CIA official, describing current spymaster Keith Alexander:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander — with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets… We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

Bribery and blackmail go together, of course. The carrot and the stick. It’s not just that bad things will happen if you don’t toe the line. If you do the right thing, who knows? You might be the next Dianne Feinstein. Or John Boehner. Or Barack Obama. Note that, despite my excesses in this regard as a writer, I did not place do-the-right-thing in italics or scare quotes. There is a third element in this recipe for influence: persuasion. People don’t like to view themselves as venal, corrupt, weak. Even the sort of person who ends up “senior in politics” has limits to how crass a view of themselves they will tolerate. Bribery and blackmail are omnipresent in the background, but in the foreground are spirited conversations, arguments over policy, arguments in which I suspect decisionmakers frequently start with the hardest possible line against the position they will eventually accept so that they can reassure themselves: they have been persuaded, it was not just the pressure. I accuse Barack Obama of having been effectively bribed and blackmailed on these issues, but if he ever were to respond, I suspect he would deny that fervently and with perfect, absolute sincerity. He was persuaded. He knows more now than he did then.

We humans are such malleable things. This is not, ultimately, a story about evil individuals. The last thing I want to do with my time is get into an argument over the character of our President. I could care less. The problem we face here is social, institutional. Bribery, blackmail, influence peddling, flattery — these have always been and always will be part of any political landscape. Our challenge is to minimize the degree to which they corrupt the political process. “Make better humans” is not a strategy that is likely succeed. “Find better leaders” is just slightly less naive. Institutional problems require institutional solutions. We did manage to reduce the malign influence of the J. Edgar Hoover security state, by placing institutional checks on what law enforcement and intelligence agencies could do, and by placing those agencies under more public and intrusive supervision. I think that much of our task today is devising a sufficient surveillance architecture for our surveillance architecture.

But as we are talking about all this, let’s remember what we are talking about. We are not talking about a tradeoff between “security” and “privacy”. That framing is a distraction. Our current path is to pay for (alleged) security by acquiescence to increasingly corrupt and corruptible governance. We ought to ask ourselves whether a very secure, very corrupt state is better than the alternatives, whether security for corruption is a tradeoff we are willing to make.

P.S. It’s worth pausing in this context to note with sadness the death of Michael Hastings yesterday in a car crash. Hastings was a person clearly trying to address corrupt power by placing it under aggressive public surveillance. It’s worth considering the lessons of Cowen’s quip about “nuts” before we profess to be certain of very much.

Update History:

  • 20-Jun-2013, 6:15 a.m. PDT: “professionals plays
  • 21-Jun-2013, 4:55 a.m. PDT: converted parens to em dashes in bit beginning “experties which…”; added hyphen into “self-consciously”; “to which they will eventually be persuadedaccept“; “reassure themselves. T: they have…”

‘Tis of thee

I want to comment on this widely discussed bit by Josh Marshall:

Let me put my cards on the table. At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. I’m not a bystander to it. I’m implicated in what it does and I feel I have a responsibility and a right to a say, albeit just a minuscule one, in what it does. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason. And even then I’m not sure that means you get off scott free. It may just mean you did the right thing.

So do I see someone [Manning] who takes an oath and puts on the uniform and then betrays that oath for no really good reason as a hero? No.

The Snowden case is less clear to me. At least to date, the revelations seem more surgical. And the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage — choose your verb — the US intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

I, like Josh Marshall, identify very strongly with the political community called the United States of America. But for precisely that reason, my reaction is almost precisely the opposite of Marshall’s.

As a human being, it is very important to me to be good. But I am not meaningfully a human being as an individual. No one is, no matter how libertarian ones philosophy or how sterilely individualistic ones economic models. I do not identify with the political community called the United States like I might identify with a football team, hoping for victory against rivals simply because it is mine, my team. I identify with the United States of America as a vast and complex social and moral agent of which I have the privilege to be a part. I am elevated by my affiliation with, incorporation within, that community when it is a good community. I am diminished and pained and made nauseous when it is an evil community. Of course it is both, always, in various degrees, in my own shifting perceptions and those of others and in whatever unknowable objective reality might ever be ascribed to such a thing. But there are preponderances. A decade ago, my view was that the United States was, on the whole, in this imperfect realm of man, a good community. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, ” said Dr. King. I believed that about the United States, and I believed that about the United States’ role in the larger world. Now I hear various smug, self-righteous, powerful figures intone those words and I want to puke. In my tiny, flawed view — but I don’t think I am alone in this — the preponderances have shifted. As a community, our flaws are eclipsing our virtues. Men and women are imperfect, human communities are imperfect, but there are differences of degree and they matter. We are all born sinners, avaricious machines, selfish genes, but some work and strive and, to various degrees, perhaps even succeed at being better than they might be, and we should notice that, honor it. And when we are small and mean — perhaps without bad intentions but life is hard and the world is complex and we are buffeted by so many different forces, so many “incentives” — when we notice that we are small and mean, we should dishonor that, and work to change it.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and he was right to do so. That never meant that Russian people, individually, were bad people. That did not and would not justify anyone’s blowing up a Moscow apartment building, or attacking their soldiers, or any other prima facie awful thing. Violence in the service of good is not an impossible thing, perhaps, but it is a rare and very delicate thing at best. Violence ought never be justified in broad, sloppy brush strokes. Nothing would have justified a terrorist act against the Soviet Union, but it was a community whose moral character, with respect to both the lived experience inside it and its influence externally, was malign, and it was a matter of serious concern to people within and without that it should change. The community that was the Soviet Union is still evolving, and the jury is still out, as it will ever be, because human affairs are never permanent. For the sake of the people inside that community and for the sake of all the rest of us, we ought to wish them the best.

It pains me very much to say so, but the United States today is not a benign community. We have, over the last decade, undermined nearly all of the reasons that I, perhaps as a fool, thought distinguished us as virtuous, in our own particular way, despite our many flaws. A decade ago, I trusted our institutions, our government, our think tanks and university and third estate, our processes and our evaluations of our own competences, and supported what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq. Even though I observed what at the time were pretty obvious housing and credit bubbles, I believed our system was self-correcting, that those who fueled those errors would eventually be held accountable, economically and sometimes criminally, that we would suffer institutions to fall and titans to be shamed in order to preserve the integrity of our economy. I remember how ashamed I was when, in 2005, my then-girlfriend (now wife) came to visit the United States, and we were driving around with people on NPR debating whether torture was OK. Today my country holds people it has exonerated of wrongdoing in a tropical prison for indefinite terms because it cannot overcome the bureaucratic and political obstacles to letting them live, somewhere, the lives that they like each of us have been blessed with. Today my country sends remote control airplanes into a country we are not at war with and kills people it cannot identify in a program it assures us is “surgical”. When called to account for harm to noncombatants, it classifies “males of military age” as militants to keep the statistics flattering.

I am, and I will always be, a member of the political community called the United States of America. That is why these things pain me. The fact that I identify with this community does not mean I identify with the state, its government, its military institutions, even its civil society as presently constituted. I certainly want to identify with those things. I certainly used to identify with those things, ostentatiously and very proudly. In the community we all wish we belonged to, we would honor the state and the constellation of prominent institutions that surround it, banks and universities and newsmedia, as constituting a system of political and economic and necessarily moral governance that functions reasonably well, whose actors police and correct themselves when, inevitably, things go askew. I don’t think a reasonable observer can claim this describes the institutions of the United States right now. Laws are made of words. There is no rule of law in a society where Presidents argue over what “is” is, or claim “domestic” e-mails aren’t “targeted” to avoid discussing whether or not they are read. There is no rule of law when our leaders offer no language that meshes with commonsense reality, only phrases carefully parsed not to be caught out as outright lies while revealing as little truth as possible. There is no rule of law when members of incumbent power centers, in government or banking or the military, are almost never held to account for crimes that in ordinary life would be grave, while those they dislike are jailed naked and sleepless for the sin of betraying their secrets without any hint or allegation of malice.

Even in a good community, there is a role for secrets. I have taken some heat for defending, in principle, a role for opacity in banking, and would certainly defend a sphere of secrecy in diplomacy and governance. And it is always true that some cockroaches will thrive in the shadows. But though we may sometimes choose to blind ourselves, we ought not do so blindly. I might entrust my funds to a banker in promise of a sure return, but only if I have reason to believe, in the context of the web of institutions to which she belongs, she can be trusted to do reasonable things rather than steal the advance. I needn’t mislead myself that she is infallible. But I should know that in the unlikely event of a failure, it will be a virtuous failure, which in practice implies an accountable failure. Secrecy may be necessary, but it is intolerable without accountability, accountability in fact not in form. Our core institutions and the humans within them no longer hold themselves accountable for their large crimes, though they occasionally offer scapegoats from their ranks for small ones. They have evolved ingenious contrivances with elaborate rituals of accountability whose lack of substance is most invisible to the people enmeshed in them. This will kill us, is killing us, slowly and by degrees and not before it kills many other people. It is because I identify with my political community, because I do not exist except as a part of that community, that I am desperate to change this. I cannot be a good person, and I cannot be happy, when this is my polity.

The comfortable, “legitimate”, forms of accountability are failing, have failed. Whistleblowing is accountability by other means, and we need that, and ought to celebrate it. Our problem is not that it is done too frequently or too lightly. I might prefer Edward Snowden hadn’t gone to China(ish), but the health and virtue of my community is not a contest, not a rivalry with that or any other country. Contra Marshall, Snowden has “upended” nothing. Nothing he did prevents us from doing as much or as little surveillance as we, collectively, choose to do, and we may yet choose to do quite a lot of it. What Snowden has done is force us to own up, to stop pretending we are not doing what we all know we are doing, to stop pretending we do not know what is being done to us. It is on us, as a political community, to decide what we want to do and most importantly, how, on what terms, we want to do it. The people to whom we should listen the least are Dianne Feinstein and Barack Obama, John Boehner and Lindsay Graham, James Clapper. The tragedy is they probably have as hard time telling when they are lying as we do, they are so lost in it all. This isn’t their decision. This is our country.

Update History:

  • 18-Jun-2013, 3:25 a.m. PDT: Reworked sentence about noticing ourselves being “small and mean” a bit (no change in meaning, but removed a duplicate “but” and made it slightly less awkward, i hope, although nearly every sentence of this piece is awkward.) italicized rituals in “rituals of accountability”.

Apology in advance

I am in general a terribly constipated blogger. Actually, I don’t know whether I qualify as a “blogger” at all, given the infrequency of my expulsions. As I’ve developed a readership, I’ve come to consider publishing on this site a big deal, something not to be taken lightly. I abandon as many posts as I publish, and it’s rare that I publish a post on the same day I begin it. Sometimes it’s not even the same week. Though I love that people disagree, I feel terrible if I publish stuff that, after the fact, I myself decide is shoddy or mistaken. I feel terrible when I think I’ve misrepresented or failed to properly attribute other people, and usually make a time-consuming effort (which never turns out to be enough) to track down and link antecedents. More generally, though it may be cliché to say so, I know myself to be a total fraud, and self-censor a great deal in hope that you won’t notice.

My thoughts over the last week have not really been on helicopter drops or monetary policy or anything narrowly economic, but on a whole range of repressed concerns brought to the fore by the NSA scandals. If I try to express these with the restraint and care I’ve come to impose on my posts, I will just never express them. So I’m going to give myself license to be a lot more stream of consciousness, a lot more careless, over the next few days and just vomit into your RSS feed. I want to apologize in advance for the green chunks.

A quick note on “helicopter drops”

So, David Beckworth has a fantastic piece arguing that, in service of an NGDP target, the Fed might sometimes coordinate with the treasury to arrange “helicopter drops”, which Beckworth defines as” a government program that gives money directly to households”.

Scott Sumner quibbles, noting that

No country has been doing more “helicopter dropping” over the past 20 years than Japan. They’ve massively boosted both their national debt and their monetary base (which is what “helicopter drops” mean to economists.) And their NGDP is lower than 20 years ago. Not good.

Sumner is right that economists often use the phrase “helicopter drop” to refer to any sort of money-financed stimulus, that is, any government spending funded by bonds that are sold (directly or indirectly) to the central bank. That convention is unfortunate, as it obscures the clear intention of Milton Friedman’s original thought experiment, which involved helicopters and dollar bills and no government spending at all. Friedman’s musings concerned the notion of simply distributing money to humans, with no selection of worthies from unworthies or cronies from schlubs, and no government-directed flow of real resources.

Japan has been the king of “helicopter drops” under the money-financed government spending definition, but has never undertaken the sort of direct-to-household, unconditional transfers that Beckworth proposes. Beckworth is very clear that he supports heli drops precisely because “[f]iscal policy geared toward large government spending programs is likely to be rife with corruption, inefficient government planning, future distortionary taxes, and a ratcheting up of government intervention in the economy.” Direct, unconditional, uniform transfers to households are nearly immune to corruption and involve no increase in the degree to which government directs the use of real economic resources. (See this excellent piece by Matt Bruenig.) Japan’s fiscal policy, on the other hand, has been notorious for cronyism, and has directed oceans of sweat and concrete into infrastructure.

Sumner and Beckworth are simply using different definitions of “helicopter drop”. Sumner’s objections are less persuasive if we do Beckworth the courtesy of accepting his definition for the purpose of evaluating his proposal. Perhaps we should insist Beckworth use a less ambiguous phrase, or perhaps we should reject the conventional but unfortunate generalization of Friedman’s evocative thought experiment. But that semantic quarrel shouldn’t be allowed to seep into a substantative controversy.

Readers should note that I am not neutral in this argument: my position is very close to Beckworth’s. Although it’s not perfect, I’ve been persuaded (largely by Sumner!) that the best macro- policy we can hope for in the medium term is targeting an NGDP level path. Like both Sumner and Beckworth, I believe there are circumstances under which conventional monetary policy (defined as central-bank sales and purchases of obligations issued or guaranteed by the US Treasury) might not be sufficient to maintain that target. Sumner argues that we augment conventional monetary policy with negative 2% IOR (effectively a tax on bank reserves), and then no fiscal supplement would ever be necessary. He suggests that negative IOR would be preferable to direct-to-household transfers. Beckworth may or may not agree with that, but he is clearly open to the possibility of using transfers rather than negative IOR to supplement conventional policy, perhaps because he thinks transfers would be better policy, or perhaps as a concession to the political and institutional barriers that would have to be overcome before the Federal Reserve would impose negative rates. My view is that all tools have their place, but direct-to-household transfers are often preferable even to conventional monetary policy (while traditional fiscal policy — outright government spending — in general is not). Beckworth and I might quarrel a bit, but our disagreements would be over the magnitudes of various costs and benefits associated with direct-to-household transfers vs interest-rate policy and other interventions usually described as “monetary”.

It is something of a cliché, I hate to belabor the point, since everybody understands that Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman are practically twins in the blogosphere. But it does become tiresome to constantly read views that are nearly indistinguishable. When Sumner writes

Helicopter drops must be reversed in the long run, at the cost of distortionary taxation. Better to cut distortionary taxes today.

he assumes, as Krugman has, that eventually the monetary base will not be interest-bearing, or at least that there will someday be a significant opportunity cost associated with holding reserves. I think that assumption is mistaken. For the indefinite future, I believe the Federal Reserve will pay interest-on-reserves very close to or above the short-term Treasury rate, so that there will be no opportunity cost to holding bank reserves. (This is the so-called “floor system“.) If I am right, then there will never be a need to reverse transfers via “distortionary” taxation. Instead, in a better economy, the transfers will be sterilized by raising interest on reserves. That doesn’t mean the transfers are costless. In “ordinary” times, we assume (without much evidence) that the macroeconomic cost of government spending is high interest rates, which hinder growth-enhancing private investment. In an economy which has recovered after Beckworth-esque helicopter drops (and which has not reversed the transfers via taxation), an inflation- or NGDP-targeting central bank might need to impose interest rates higher than they would have imposed absent the expansion of the monetary base. Higher interest rates would exact a toll. But that toll would be no more “distortionary” than conventional interest rate policy by central banks.

So, in ordinary times, helicopter drops might not be a free lunch. But at present they almost certainly would be. Sumner may argue that our current problems result from a lack of determination or nerve at the monetary authority, and perhaps he is right. But whether due to economic law or human foible, moments where zero is an insufficiently low interest rate to achieve a desirable NGDP path without supplementary policy seem… irksome. People lose jobs, suicide rates spike, things get double-plus ungood. An intervention whose “cost” was to raise the “natural” rate of interest above zero would be welcome in practice, even though it would render uneconomic some real investments that would be profitable at very low hurdle rates. The “cost” of fiscal policy under a floor system — higher future interest rates — becomes a benefit, all things considered, if it pushes us into a more comfortable, prudence-rewarding, positive-interest-rate world. General fiscal may be undesirable for fear of corruption and misuse of real resources, but Beckworth’s heli drops avoid all that. [1]

This conversation was provoked by an excellent Cardiff Garcia article, with whose spirit I very strongly agree. It’s all very fun to draw lines and spit across them. But letting differences divide “monetarists” and “fiscalists” is letting divergent conceptions of perfect become the enemy of the good. In a market monetarist’s perfect world, the fiscal multiplier is zero, but we all agree that’s not necessarily the case here in purgatory. In a fiscalist’s perfect world, a sluggish economy is an opportunity to produce valuable public goods costlessly, but in practice our political system may be too broken or corrupt to deliver. I applaud Beckworth for offering a plan we could implement without assuming the can opener of institutions much better than those we actually have.


[1] If the distribution of market income is sufficiently concentrated, I worry that “helicopter drops” might fail to create conditions that allow a target-disciplined central bank to raise interest rates. In narrow fiscal terms a certain sense, that would render permanent heli drops a free lunch, so yay. However, permanent heli drops that are broadly distributed but accumulate to a narrow class might lead to expanding inequality, financial instability, and social mayhem, unless countered by the “T”-word that economists find so distortionary.

Update: Reading through the comments, I think it worth distinguishing between “a fiscal cost” and the “cost of fiscal policy”. Helicopter drops are most certainly fiscal policy (thanks JKH), and they have a fiscal cost in an accounting sense. If helicopter drops are arranged as Beckworth suggests, via an Fed/Treasury coordination, then public debt explicitly rises. If they are implemented as direct transfers from the central bank, then the obligations of the central bank increase, which is a cost to the Treasury as the beneficial owner of the central bank’s cash flows. (The US Fed’s “private shareholders” lay claim to only a small, fixed dividend.) Helicopter drops are fiscal policy.

However, this piece is mostly concerned not with fiscal costs in an accounting sense, but the real cost of fiscal policy. Suppose, as I fear in the footnote, that helicopter drops put no durable pressure on inflation or NGDP, so that an inflation- or NGDP-targeting central bank is not compelled to raise interest rates in response. The helicopter drops are still fiscal policy, they still have some kind of accounting cost to the Treasury or the central bank or both. (This cost may or may not be offset in the accounts by some intangible asset, but let’s leave that aside for now.) However, if this “fiscal cost” does not affect prices or interest rates, it has no real cost to the economy in the sense of displacing or “crowding out” private sector investment.

Let’s imagine heli drops implemented qua Beckworth, via Fed/Treasury coordination, because it simplifies the accounting. Suppose the helicopters fly, everybody receives some cash, but they deposit the funds, in banks or mattresses, with no effect on actual expenditures. NGDP is then unaffected. Public debt to GDP rises. But there is no real-resource cost to the program, no displacement of investment by consumption, nothing that prevents the helicopter drops from continuing uselessly but indefinitely without harming the economy (except for fear of arbitrary debt-to-GDP thresholds). Alternatively, suppose everybody takes the money and spends it on goods, and the recipients of those expenditures are also inclined to spend, etc so that there is a large multiplier: one dollars of helicopter drops leads to many dollars of actual exchange. Real resources remain constrained, so an inflation- or NGDP-targeting central bank would be forced to raise interest rates to persuade some people to hold rather than spend the new money rather than bid-up prices or expand NGDP past the target. High interest rates mean high hurdle rates for real investment projects. Investment expenditures are effectively curtailed to make room for the additional consumption enabled by the heli drops. That displacement is the real cost of the policy. When the central bank’s target binds, fiscal spending today (heli drop or otherwise) has a cost in future production and therefore growth.

In general, this is the nature of a currency-issuing government’s budget constraint. A government can spend what it likes, there is no limit to the quantity of obligations it can issue. The cost of the issuance is paid either in inflation or high interest rates, both of which are thought to exact a toll on the quality and growth of the real economy. Fiscal policy that does not put pressure on nominal expenditures and so force an inflation/interest-rate tradeoff is still fiscal policy, still “costly” in a government accounting sense, but has no real cost in terms of diminishing resources deployed for future growth. It might still have more subtle costs in terms of distribution and financial stability, which is why I describe this “costless” scenario as something to be feared more than hoped-for in the footnote.

Update History:

  • 16-Jun-2013, 3:35 a.m. PDT: Reworked sentence, originally “But while helicopter drops in ordinary times might not be a free lunch, at present they almost certainly would be.”; Added “the”: “under the money-financed government; added link to moral case for GDP targeting post.
  • 16-Jun-2013, 9:40 a.m. PDT: Added long, bold update. Explicitly struck “In narrow fiscal terms” in the note an replaced it with “In a certain sense”, because if “narrow fiscal terms” are interpreted naturally as fiscal accounting terms, the statement is inaccurate. The sense in which the helicopter drops are costless is clarified in the update. Explicitly marked the notes section “Notes”, because I want the update after the notes and it looked confusing.

The mother of invention

I thought I’d quickly highlight a point made recently by two great posts. First, here’s J.W. Mason:

There is increasing recognition in the mainstream of the importance of hysteresis — the negative effects on economic potential of prolonged unemployment. There’s little or no discussion of anti-hysteresis — the possibility that inflationary booms have long-term positive effects on aggregate supply. But I think it would be easy to defend the argument that a disproportionate share of innovation, new investment and laborforce broadening happens in periods when demand is persistently pushing against potential. In either case, the conventional relationship between demand and supply is reversed — in a world where (anti-)hysteresis is important, “excessive” demand may lead to only temporarily higher inflation but permanently higher employment and output, and conversely.

Now, from the blog direct economic democracy:

Of course we COULD choose to have just a few in the owning class and have everyone else rioting. BUT the owning class would get no benefit at all by keeping itself select. In fact that would make each member of the owning class less rich because the market would be smaller. Technological innovations have very high development costs relative to the unit cost of the product. A product such as a new medicine or an innovative electronic gadget becomes dramatically cheaper to produce per unit item if the development costs are spread across many more units sold. Imagine if we lived in a world with greater disparities of wealth than we do now. Imagine if the market for the latest medicine or electronic gadget was 1/10000th the current size. Those few who could still afford such items would have to pay massively more to cover the development costs. That dynamic works in the opposite direction too. Imagine if the potential market for the latest product was all seven billion people on earth. Then development costs would be spread so thinly they would hardly be noticed. Capital goods such as the robotic workers themselves also have the same economy of scale. It starts to make financial sense if many factories staffed with robots are to be built but not if just a few… [H]aving an economy directed towards technological development is critically dependent on having lots of potential customers.

It’s something of a cliché, starting with Marx and moving through Schumpeter, to gush over capitalist economies’ capacity to innovate, reinvent, and overthrow themselves. Profit-seeking entrepreneurs constantly strive to find new and/or cheaper ways to “serve customer needs”. In a capitalist economy, necessity surely is the mother of invention.

But with a very large asterisk. Capitalist entrepreneurs are motivated by the accumulation of money claims. In a capitalist economy, it is not mere necessity, but purchasing-power-weighted necessity that is the mother of invention. American entrepreneurs don’t compete to meet the needs of money-poor Africans or Chinese. Instead, Chinese entrepreneurs compete to meet the needs of citizens of the country money comes from. Within the US, entrepreneurs don’t much innovate to discover and address unmet needs of the poor. That’s a rough business. The poor have more needs than they can pay for already, and entrepreneurs hope to be paid. There is, of course, plenty of business activity on behalf of the poor, but the preponderance of it is in sectors that are in one form or another subsidized, e.g. health-care, education, and finance. The customer businesspeople work to please is the state, or quasi-state financial firms, who may or may not need to solicit the collaboration of or delegate some decision-making to actually poor “end-users”. Entrepreneurial energy always goes where the money is.

It is in this light that I think we should interpret, for example, problems of “general glut” or “abundance”, as Izabella Kaminska puts it. Actual scarcity has not, in fact, been overcome. We have not achieved overcapacity in aggregate. In a depression, businessmen perceive overcapacity all over the place. But that is a distributional phenomenon. There is an abundance of goods and services relative to the needs and desires of people with purchasing power to consume. There is no such abundance in an absolute sense.

Abundance, ultimately, is a choice variable for the political class. “We” are presented with a devious choice, a Faustian seduction. We can choose abundance, for ourselves, by maintaining a distribution under which a relatively small fraction of humanity claims a sufficiently large share of world purchasing power that the economy’s capacity to produce will remain safely in excess of that group’s needs. Or we can choose scarcity, by distributing purchasing power widely enough to put our productive capacity under pressure, leaving all of us, even the affluent, at risk of actual shortage.

If we choose the abundance, we can expect Tyler Cowen’s “Great Stagnation” to continue. Technology will stagnate, because purchasing-power weighted necessity is the mother of invention, but people with needs have little purchasing power while people with purchasing power have trivial needs. If we choose scarcity, we take a risk. We may fail, and end up impoverished relative to where we (some of us) might have been, had we chosen the more conservative path. But purchasing-power-weighted necessity is the mother of invention, and in the past, mass affluence has inspired extraordinary innovation in pursuit of the mass dollar. If you believe in the power of capitalism and technology, then you should favor choosing scarcity, both for your own benefit (robots, yay!) and to expand the “we” by whom some level of abundance might plausibly be claimed.

Political conversation often obsesses over a pathological and ahistorical fear of idleness among the non-affluent. Given the choice, if not absolutely compelled by necessity, wouldn’t “they” become lazy slackers, eating diabetes chips and watching monster trucks on teevee all day? Or would they lift themselves up, spend a few hours at the gym, and take advantage of their leisure to find creative and productive use of their capacities?

Human fears project outward, and so it is for the political class. For as a group, it is “we”, not “they” who are choosing comfortable idleness. They are desperate for jobs. But we are collectively slouched on easy chairs in the sky, enjoying decent stock returns, low inflation, and remunerative careers. The question is whether “we”, the relatively well-to-do who call the political shots, have the moxie to shed our pantsuit pajamas and take a chance on capitalism’s capacity to transform the world. So far we have chosen a comfortable depression, which makes for grand debates and entertainments. Would you pass the remote? Shall we watch Maddow or O’Reilly or Colbert, or read yet another self-righteous blog post?

Update History:

  • 30-Apr-2013, 4:30 p.m. PST: Fixed too-general google books link to Mating by Norman Rush; fixed spelling of “asterisk”, was “asterix” like the comic character, thank you William Pietri!
  • 1-May-2013, 8:35 a.m. PST: Avoiding duplication of “constantly”: “economies’ capacity to constantly innovate”
  • 24-Mar-2013, 9:25 p.m. PDT: “enjoying a decent stock returns”

The generalized resource curse

A useful way to understand the pickle we’re in, I think, is that we are suffering from the so-called “resource curse”. If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, “resource curse” refers to the regularity with which countries “blessed” with abundant natural resources end up as dystopian polities with dysfunctional economies. Nigeria has a lot of oil but no one wants to live there.

The resource curse is pretty easy to understand. It’s not associated with just any sort of natural resource. Switzerland has beautiful mountains and stuff that people would pay a lot of money for, but it is still well-governed. Accursed resources are of a very particular type. They are valuable tradable goods the extraction of which requires a small numbers of workers relative to the size of the economy as a whole. [*] Goods like this create a very strong tension between private property and social welfare. In the mythology of capitalist economics, “as if by an invisible hand”, the self-interested pursuit of private wealth promotes the general welfare precisely because we all require one another’s help. The butcher slaughters her beasts and the baker sugars his cakes, each with an eye to their own profit. But the butcher needs her carbs and the baker likes his meat, so the end result of their self-interested selling is mutual aid rather than mere accumulation.

This logic breaks down in an economy dominated by a valuable natural resource. Yes, the miners require meat and mead, but if they are small in number relative to the rest of the population, that won’t cost them very much. They are few mouths to feed, and the not-miners are many and lack bargaining power. What makes happy capitalism work, the silent tendon of the mythologized hand, is a kind of balance between individuals’ desire to accumulate and their need for the assistance of others. If there exists a very valuable natural resource, and if that resource can be privately controlled, there is no balance. Self-interested agents drop their butchering and bakering, and try to gain control of the resource. No magic force turns that into a positive sum game. Unless there are “very strong institutions” — whatever that might mean — the pursuit of wealth becomes a game with winners and losers. The invisible hand can manage no more than to lift a middle finger.

So far this is all very comfortable. Clucking about places like Nigeria is almost a reflex, a familiar tic among Western economists. But meanwhile, we’ve hardly noticed that technological and international supply-chain developments have snuck the resource curse in through our own back doors. In aggregate, the goods and services we require have grown ever more tradable, and production has grown ever more amenable to control by relatively small groups of people. There’s a sense in which we are all Nigerians now.

The result of a resource curse, even in Nigeria, is not a triumphant über-class gleefully enslaving those outside the circle of winners in the resource-control game. In human affairs, “legitimacy” matters, and the sources of legitimacy are time- and context-dependent. Nigeria has all the forms of modern government, a civil service many of whose members are no doubt idealistic and hard-working. What evolves is the situation we refer to as corruption, under which those who control the valuable resource create incentives within the institutions that confer legitimacy — government and finance, media and academia — in order to ensure continuation of their control. In doing so, lines are genuinely blurred and resources are genuinely shared. The work of mining and the work of governing cease to be distinct enterprises, they become a partnership in the common project of maintaining control over the special resources. And words with moral valence like “common” and “shared” are appropriate, because within the circle of insiders, that’s what it feels like. There is a “we” that includes all of those fortunate enough to be civilized, that includes “me” and “my family”, “my friends and my family and my coworkers”, “my school and my teachers”, everyone that most people in the civilized circle ever interact with. There are, at the edge of the circle, people who are genuinely brutal, the people who put down insurrections or directly manage low-bargaining-power chattel labor. But those are a small minority. Most people who work to perpetuate “corrupt, extractive” regimes are, in their own eyes, serving their communities. The more resource-curse logic binds, the more likely as a technological matter that control over economic value will be concentrated among a relatively small fraction of the society. This leads to a greater separation of circumstance, between winners who perceive themselves and their communities as “civilized”, and losers exhibiting social pathologies that may be more effect than cause of disadvantage, but are nevertheless real, and usefully assist in reinforcing the arrangement’s legitimacy. Corruption and idealism become impossibly fused. Did Timothy Geithner “save the world”, or did he perpetuate the stranglehold of a particular extractive elite? He did both. He saved his world.

There is a regularity here, an order. We find ourselves on the inside of social phenomena that we have seen before, that we can understand. The global economy is succumbing to a technologically-driven resource curse, coalescing into groups of insiders and outsiders and people fighting at the margins not to be left behind. Our governments are transforming themselves from mediators among widely dispersed and interdependent interests to organizations that maintain and police the boundaries between the civilized and the marginal, who put down the insurgencies and manage the pathologies of the latter so that they do not very much impinge upon the lives of the former. Our financial systems are mechanisms by which legitimacy is conferred upon facially absurd distributions of aggregate wealth, by virtue of processes that claim to be “voluntary”, “private-sector” and “market-disciplined”, but which are none of those things in any meaningful way.

There are lots of places to go with this analogy. “Resource curse” countries are traditionally small, open economies whose elites are less fettered in their neglect of domestic populations because they can trade resource wealth for most of what they want from foreigners. One might argue that the analogy is incoherent for large, mostly self-sufficient economies like the United States or the world as a whole, whose elites must rely on “domestic” production. But here the analogy between technology and trade, usually used to support the latter, comes in to condemn the former. The amenities for which Nigerian elites rely upon Europe, American elites may rely upon robots to produce, once the Chinese labor cycle runs its course. American, like Nigerian, elites will have their tailors and masseuses. But in a resource-curse economy, service providers at the boundary between inside and outside remain small in number relative to pathologized mass publics.

This analogy is not entirely hopeless. Alaska and Norway blunt the resource curse by proactively distributing the proceeds of resource extraction, limiting concentrated control and ensuing disorders. “Technology” is not a tangible thing that can be publicly owned and sold for proceeds. But like oil in the ground, it is a resource the scale of whose product far exceeds the reward required to incentivize its production. If we imagine technology as a source of value embedded in most goods and services, we can distribute claims upon it simply by distributing new purchasing power. A money-financed basic income would amount to a partial dispersion of technological bounty from those involved in concentrated production to “outsiders”. Like Norway’s Oil Fund, this might help preserve balance, economically and politically, in the face of our creeping resource curse.

[*] It’s probably more accurate, although depressing, to qualify this, and rewrite it as “a small numbers of workers capable of achieving bargaining power relative to the size of the economy as a whole.” Feudal economies, in which the majority of people work to produce agricultural goods, look a lot like resource-curse economies, even though numerical involvement in production is not concentrated. Bargaining power, defined as the ability to assert control over production, remains very unequal. If you define the resource curse this way, you end up with “cursedness” as the normal state of human affairs, and it becomes more sensible to talk about the “industrial age blessing”, a fleeting mix of social and technological conditions under which large numbers of workers contributed to production through processes that required scale and coordination. These circumstances allowed unusually broad segments of the population to organize and achieve bargaining power, increasing the scope of economic prosperity and the impetus to mass production that economists eventually label “growth”.

Update History:

  • 29-Apr-2013, 7:30 p.m. PST: “broadening increasing the scope of economic prosperity along with and the impetus to the mass production that economists eventually label as ‘growth'”

A bit more on savings and investment

Steve Roth (1, 2), Scott Sumner (1, 2, 3), Bill Woolsey, and Matt Yglesias have been debating questions of saving versus investment and paradoxen of thrift. See also JW Mason in the comments here, and Simon Wren-Lewis a while back. Cullen Roche reminds us that, even under conventional definitions, the accounting identity S≡I only holds for a closed economy without government spending, and of JKH’s useful tautology S=I+(S-I). [See Update below.] I think the recent recrudation of these issues owes something to Garett Jones’ and my conversation on capital taxation, which Jones has continued and on which Matt Bruenig has weighed in.

As is often the case, I think that the protagonists agree more than we think we do. Our various allegiances — to schools or tribes or policy ideas — exploit the ambiguity of language to manufacture conflicts, through which we reassure ourselves that we are right and they are wrong. (And no, math doesn’t help much, because we must map it arbitrarily to the same ambiguous language for it to be of any use.) Now I will reassure myself that I am right and they are wrong.

I think we have all agreed, one way or another, that the K in a Ramsey model does not map easily to the financial investment whose (non)taxation we debate in the real world. If new cash or government debt can be understood as a kind of capital good, it’s not obvious that it behaves similarly to the physical capital in an aggregate production function. It might, but you’d have to do some work to persuade us. If the conjunction savings supplied, investment demanded, and “at potential” total expenditure depends upon interest rates or other financial variables that may vary independently, there is no reason to believe that privileging saving will unconditionally promote investment, qua Chamley-Judd logic. Savings supplied may not be the bottleneck.

Update: Ramanan (1, 2) and Hellestal say I’m wrong to write that “even under conventional definitions, the accounting identity S≡I only holds for a closed economy without government spending”. They make a very good case! But in doing so, they remind us of the ambiguities and limitations of this “conventional” framework. In the current conversation, we are most immediately confronted by an ambiguity surrounding the letter S. When people say that S ≡ I, they mean total savings equals total investment. But in many of the conventional equations used to discuss this stuff, S is refers only to private savings. That leaves tiny fragile minds like mine liable to confusion. Stealing a lot from Ramanan and Hellestal, in conventional accounting, savings are defined simply as the residual between what is produced and what is consumed (both by private partes and by government). Let’s consider a closed economy:

Y ≡ C + G + I //by definition [eq 1]
Y - C - G = I ≡ TOTAL_SAVINGS ≡ TOTAL_INVESTMENT //by definition [eq 2]
Y ≡ C + S + T //also by definition, but S here means private savings [eq 3]
C + S + T = C + G + I //combining equations 1 and 3 [eq 4]
S = I + (G - T) //remember S here is private rather than total saving [eq 5]

Equation 1 says production is comprised of the resources that we consume (C by definition), that the government consumes (G by definition), and whatever is left over, which is evocatively but perhaps misleadingly designated I for investment. But, as commenter Eric L emphasizes, in these accounts I is just a residual. It refers to whatever resources are not consumed (either by private parties or by government).

Equation 3 is most easily understood as a decomposition of claims on the resources produced. We choose to decompose these into the claims made by government (T), the claims of private consumers to precisely the resources they consume (C), and the claims of private parties on production extinguished by neither taxation nor private use (S). We reconcile the disposition of claims with the disposition of resources in equation 4. This tells us that private savers’ claims to production (at the moment of production, before any real investment outcomes have a chance to muddy things up) include the resources no one used (I by definition) and the resources the government used in excess of the taxes the government claimed.

To keep things clean, let’s adopt, um, a convention. When we use the word “savings” we should refer to claims. When we use the word “investment” we should refer to real resources. Let’s then separate “savings” from “investment”, claims from resources, in Equation 5:

S - (G - T) = I //subtract (G - T) from both sides of Equation 5
S + (T - G) = I //simplify [eq 6]

Equation 6 is what we should really mean when we say S ≡ I (even though algebraically it doesn’t because we mean different things by S). That is to say that total claims on unconsumed resources must equal the quantity of unconsumed resources. I, by definition, for a closed economy, represents unconsumed resources. (T - G) represents the claims government has made on resources by taxation in excess of the resources the government has actually consumed. S represents the claims on resources left to private parties after consumption and taxation. If we call the claims of the state “government savings”, the claims of private parties “private savings” and unconsumed resources “investment”, then we can write:


So, yay! This is true by definition. It is just a way of saying that balance sheets must balance. It says that total claims on resources must always be equal to the total quantity of resources to be claimed.

But before we get all triumphalist, let’s emphasize how unhelpful this mostly is. First, it is simultaneously conventional to claim that S ≡ I and to write equations in which S refers to private savings, which is not equal to I. It is conventional to claim that the letter I represents “investment”, when in fact it represents any resources that are unconsumed. In a hypothetical, instantaneous sense, unconsumed resources mean resources available for consumption. In an actual sense, much unconsumed production (as vlade emphasizes) goes to waste. I is not “investment”, in the ordinary meaning of the word. It is simply resources that are not consumed in a certain period, regardless of what befalls them. Cars produced and not consumed become “inventory investment”. That’s fine. But electricity produced and not consumed? It dissipates as heat. Bread produced and not consumed grows moldy. The product of a university, when left unemployed, becomes less employable. Trees cut and “invested” in unsellable desert homes get accounted as investment, but fail to contribute to future production.

So we can argue. Maybe stuff that’s wasted should get embedded in C, which keeps “investment” more accurate by doing violence to the commonsense meaning of consumption. But we can’t really embed “bad investment” in consumption, because we can’t know which investment is bad. The letter Y usually gets mapped to “gross domestic product”, but if we want to sum across periods and keep our stocks and flows consistent, when we do our Period 2 accounts, we must define Y as a net product, and include any losses and misadventures that befell our old “investment” in the new period’s I. (We refer to this as a “valuation adjustment”.) Again, the use of conventional mappings between letters in the equations (“Y”) and real-world referents (“GDP”) will mislead us. Alternatively, we can keep the periods separate and let Y ≡ GDP, but then we will need to impose valuation adjustments when summing savings and investment across periods to account for actual investment outcomes.

The framework grows shabbier still when we consider an open economy. Equations 1 and 2 become

Y ≡ C + G + I + NX //by definition [eq 8]
Y - C - G = I + NX ≡ TOTAL_SAVINGS //by definition [eq 9]

But now we’ve really mixed up our treatment of resources and claims. Equation 2 defined resources unconsumed as total savings, but equation 9 redefines it as the resources we have failed to consume, but that may have been consumed by others. Hmm.

S = I + (G - T) + NX // [eq 10]

Equation 10, the open-economy analog of equation 5, is a very useful decomposition of private savings. It stands at the core of MMT-ish intuitions about how a putatively savings-hungry private sector might be accommodated, and inspires JKH’s very clean reminder that private savings represent claims on domestic investment plus some other claims that can’t be mapped to domestic investment. But it might suggest to the incautious that all exported goods are matched by domestic claims, and that those claims against foreigners are good and stable and should be valued at par. In real terms, that is almost never true. The NX component of “investment”, like the I component, is unstable, and if we carry these accounts forward in time, we’ll have to include valuation adjustments there as well.

None of this is to say that this is a “bad” accounting framework. The only thing that’s really terrible is the inconsistent conventions, under which S sometimes means total saving and sometimes private saving. The deeper difficulties would be shared by nearly any accounting framework. In the accounting of private firms, it is not easy to classify “expenses” vs “capital investment”, just like it’s hard to distinguish consumption and investment in national accounts. In corporate accounting, there are valuation adjustments and statements of “other consolidated income” to reconcile differences between values between period t and period (t+1) that cannot be accounted for by current period undistributed profits. The real world is unruly, yet accounts must be defined. The accounts must find ways to track the unruliness of reality rather than expect the world to conform to simple definitions.

However, whenever anybody tries to make a substantive point by quoting S ≡ I, they are offering no insight at all into any nontrivial question. They are saying nothing more or less than balance sheets must balance. They reveal nothing whatsoever about how. It certainly doesn’t mean that the production of new claims (“savings”) is necessarily matched by the production of new resources (“investment”). It just reminds us that, if the new claims are not matched by real resources, we shall have to devalue the claims of others if we wish to keep our accounts straight.

This whole conversation started with questions about whether the S ≡ I identity somehow implies that real-world savings vehicles are necessarily matched by investment in the Ramsey/Chamley/Judd sense. The answer to that question is unequivocally and irrefutably “no”. Real-world savings vehicles need not be matched by any investment whatsoever. Suppose I purchase shares in a mutual fund which then lends it on as consumer loans that finance vacations. In a macroeconomic sense, there is neither savings nor investment, my saving is matched by vacationers’ dissaving, resources are consumed and none are invested. S ≡ I = 0 Nevertheless, my shares in the fund would yield returns in forms like dividends, interest, and capital gains. No matter how hard you squint at accounting identities, nothing in the logic of Chamley and Judd suggests that these “investment returns” should remain untaxed. Lending to finance private and government consumption represents a significant fraction of gross financial savings, even though it contributes nothing to net savings or the aggregate investment Chamley and Judd presume.

Update History:

  • 14-Apr-2013, 10:50 p.m. PST: Very long bold update, responding to Ramanan and Hellestal re S ≡ I
  • 19-Apr-2013, 6:45 p.m. PST: “insight at all to into

Some followups on capital taxation

I’m going to move on to other things, but before I do, I thought I’d point to some very good commentary inspired by the previous post on capital taxation.

You already know that interfluidity is like a really drab version of Playboy, no one reads it for the articles, the really good stuff happens in the centerfold under the fold, in the comments.

The piece provoked smart responses on other blogs, Increasing Marginal Utility, Separating Hyperplanes, and Asymptosis. [1]

Robert Waldmann points out that glib euphemisms like “the long run” lead one to overstate the case against capital taxation even on the most sympathetic understandng of the models, that under human relevant distributions and time parameters the models can favor capital taxation. Here is his case (in a PDF he describes as “heroically constructed by Sigve Indregard”).

Here are a very few substantive comments, in response to responses:

  • Beware fallacies of composition is justifying a constant-returns-to-scale production function at a macroeconomic level. It’s an assumption that is only remotely justifiable if you are sure that your production function includes all factors of production. At a macro level, it’s obvious that you can’t scale all factors of production — see e.g. the smart discussion in comments by Merijn Knibbe, JW Mason, and Douglas Edwards regarding land. Omitting factors of production in a model may be innocuous in microeconomic contexts where their quantities are unconstrained functions of the factors that you do model. We needn’t concern ourselves about oxygen as an input to our beauty salon. But in macro production functions, it is hard to know which factors are bottlenecks to increased production, and failing to include the inputs and their constraints can render the exercises useless. It is conventional in macroeconomics to model the most significant determinant of overall production as “technology”, measured as a residual between what the factors we model predict and the growth we actually observe. That’s an elegant way of ducking the fact that we are omitting important inputs. If we are omitting important inputs, scaling up the factors we do include may be no more effective than multiplying shovels without hiring more humans to wield them.

  • There are lots of ways to get confused about the idea that savings equals investment. It’s an accounting identity, and, as always with accounting identities, there are tensions between the definitions under which the identity is true (by definition) and “common-sense” notions of the phenomena described. There are two approaches to dealing with those tensions:

    1. You can accept the formal definitions that make the accounting identity true, but be very careful to avoid “slips of the tongue” in mapping those definitions to other contexts; or
    2. You can treat those definitions as very narrowly applicable formalisms, and urge caution in the opposite direction, when reconciling the common-sense idea with the formalism.

    Steve Roth takes the second approach. I’ll take the first.

    Let’s assume that S ≡ I, and define investment to mean whatever it must mean for that identity to hold true. The S will always be equal to I. However, that does not imply that investment can be modeled as a cumulation of savings! We add to savings over time, but investment returns are complicated and sometimes negative. So we might describe ΔS ≡ ΔI as a two-term sum of new saving plus return on total investment.

    ΔS ≡ ΔI = new_savings + valuation_adjustment

    Ramsey-inspired models take the second term always to be the marginal product of capital in a production function, less a constant depreciation rate. But that is not likely to be realistic, especially if we let S ≡ I include financial savings, rather than what the models imagine, the direct deployment of an unconsumed real resource. When consumers stuff dollar bills into a mattress, it may or may not be true that the resources they thereby fail to consume get usefully deployed into production. If it is true, it must depend on the complex ability of the monetary and financial system to allocate the slack made available by nonconsumption in ways that contribute to future production. By definition, putting dollar bills in a mattress rather than spending the income may count as investment (if not offset by consumption elsewhere). But there is no guarantee that it is good investment, directly or indirectly. So, in addition to cumulation of savings, we have to think much harder than the Ramsey model does about that second term, about the dynamics of valuation changes. (For a great example, consider how the United States’ chronic current account deficits have failed to cumulate into a large negative NIIP, as pointed out today by Paul Krugman.)

    Ramsey model intuitions do fine if “bad investments” are a relatively constant fraction of total savings. Failed projects just fall into the constant depreciation rate. The key is to assume that investment returns are independent of the qunatity new savings. Unfortunately, if we allow the second, valuation term of ΔS ≡ ΔI to vary as a function of the first term, if, for example, an increased rate of savings tends to be matched by poorer aggregate investment returns, then Ramsey model logic falls out the window.

    In practice, we observe that increased rates of gross saving do correlate with poor investment returns. When the financial system is asked to allocate giant pools of money, it fucks up (and steals a lot). We have to be careful in mapping these real-world observations to modeled constructs — net investment rather than gross savings is the closest Ramsey-model referent. Net domestic saving was actually low during the housing-boom-era of malinvestment, but net investment was not so low thanks to a very large capital account surplus (those scary trade deficits). Total US S ≡ I was robust when foreign saving was included. But returns on that S ≡ I were unusally poor. If you accept the accounting definitions under which S ≡ I, you must be especially attentive to the complex dynamics of financial investment returns. You cannot just map that kind of S ≡ I to the capital term in a Ramsey model.

  • That last point was already over-mathy, but for those of you who like this sort of thing, a concise way to make much of the anti-anti-capital tax case is to observe that conventionally we often write production functions like:

    Y = F(K, AL)

    where A is a stand-in for labor-augmenting technology and is presumed to be either independent of the production process or, in the most common “endogenous growth” models, a function of cumulative capital investment. To break the Chamley-Judd result, all we have to do is write

    Y = F(K, A(w)L)

    that is, let labor-augmenting technology be in part a function of (after-tax) wages, defined either as current wages or especially as a cumulation of past wages. The choice to model A as independent of wages is rarely justified, and is not remotely obvious. It is merely conventional. Funny, the direction conventions in economics seem so frequently to tilt.

[1] If I’ve left you out, it’s because I am an idiot, not because I have judged you to be. Let me know and I’ll add you.

K is not capital, L is not labor

Garett Jones wonders why a standard result in economics is not more widely entrenched, both in policy conversations and conventional wisdom:

Chamley and Judd separately came to the same discovery: In the long run, capital taxes are far more distorting that most economists had thought, so distorting that the optimal tax rate on capital is zero. If you’ve got a fixed tax bill it’s better to have the workers pay it…

Why isn’t Chamley-Judd more central to economic discussion? Why isn’t it part of the canon that all economists breathe in? Why isn’t it in our freshman textbooks?… The result can’t be waved away as driven by absurd assumptions: It’s not too fragile, it’s too solid…

Good economic policy doesn’t try to do things that are impossible. And if the world works roughly the way Chamley and Judd assume it does, a long run policy that redistributes total income from capitalists to workers is impossible.

So, the quick answer, obviously, is that those of us who support redistributive taxation don’t believe that the world works in the way that Chamley and Judd assume. It is very clear that Jones (who is an unusually insightful guy) doesn’t believe in a naïve mapping between real economies and Chamley-Judd-ville. See the “bonus implication” in his handout on the subject.

To annihilate in broad brush strokes, there is little reason to accept the Ramsey model, upon which the Chamley-Judd results are built, as a sufficient description of the macroeconomy. [1] Some economists might argue that it’s a decent workhorse “asymptotically”, as a means of thinking about some long-term to which economies converge. But that’s a conjecture without evidence. Actual experience, as people as diverse and diametric as Scott Sumner and J.W. Mason point out, suggests that “demand-side dynamics” may overwhelm the bounds of a hypothetical production function in determining the actual behavior of the economy, over periods of times as long as we can plausibly claim to foresee. Redistributive taxation, or tolerance of redistributive inflation in the face of poor real-economic performance, may be prerequisite to maintaining production along the sort of path the Ramsey model presumes is automatic. These possibilities, along with any form of uncertainty, are invisible to the work of Chamley and Judd. They are simply omitted from the model.

But let’s be generous. Let’s put very broad objections aside, and understand the world in Chamley-Judd terms. In practice, what does the Chamley-Judd result suggest about policy?

First, it’s worth pointing out that Jones has overstated things a bit when he claims that the Chamley-Judd result is “not too fragile, it’s too solid”. As far as I can tell [2], the optimality of a zero capital tax rate is in fact a “knife-edge” result with respect to returns-to-scale of the production function. If returns to scale are decreasing or increasing, the optimal capital tax rate from workers’ perspective may be positive or negative, and is sensitive to details. A stable, constant-returns-to-scale production function may be attractive for reasons of convention and convenience, but it is unlikely to be true. Once we admit this, we really don’t know what the optimal tax rate is in an otherwise Chamley-Judd world.

But I promised to be generous. So let’s assume that the economy is characterized by a permanent two-factor, constant-returns-to-scale production function. The Chamley-Judd claim is that it is optimal that one of these factors should be taxed and the other not be. For this to be true, there must be some asymmetry: Factor one, which we’ll call K, must be different from factor two, which we’ll call L. What distinguishes these factors and leaves one optimally taxed, the other optimally untaxed? Fundamentally, the difference is that capital accumulates, while labor does not. Judd assumes completely inelastic labor provision, Chamley allows for a labor/leisure trade-off bounded by a fixed number of hours. Each period labor is born anew, while capital stands on the shoulders of its ancestors. This difference is what drives the asymmetry and then the result. Labor is a factor in strictly limited supply, capital is a factor whose quantity can grow indefinitely and which augments labor in production. Under these circumstances, the way to get a big, rich economy — and to maximize the marginal product of labor! — is to encourage the accumulation of capital. Encouraging labor provision directly can’t take you very far, because there is a ceiling. But the sky’s the limit with capital. Further, in Chamley and Judd, nonconsumption automatically implies useful deployment of capital into production.

If these were adequate characterizations of capital and labor, the Chamley-Judd result would be much more plausible than it is. But these are very poor descriptions of the real world phenomena we ordinarily label “capital” and “labor” when we decide how much to tax them.

Let’s talk first about “labor”. As Jones hints in his “bonus implication”, labor is not in fact measurable in terms of homogenous hours. What a brain surgeon can do with an hour is very different from what a child laborer can accomplish. Macroeconomically, our collective capacity to produce improves. You might, as Jones does, refer to this incorporeal je ne sais quoi that enhances labor over time as “human capital”, or as labor-augmenting technology. Like physical capital, it seems to accumulate. In empirical fact, “human capital” and its more sociable, incorporeal twin “institutional capital” seem to be much more important predictors of the growth path of an economy than physical capital. Europe and Japan bounce back quickly after war devastates their infrastructure. But imagine that a Rapture clears the Earth and pre-agrarian nomads take possession of perfect gleaming factories. I think you will agree that production does not recover so fast. Human and institutional capital dominate physical capital. [3]

Like physical capital, and unlike hours of the day, the collective stock of human capital grows over time, without obvious bound. Yet, at least under existing arrangements, we have no means of distinguishing between “returns to human capital” and “wages”. “Capital taxation”, in conventional use, refers to levies on capital gains, dividends, and interest. As a political matter, results like Chamley-Judd are often used to support setting these to zero. But eliminating conventional capital taxes shifts the cost of government to wages, which include returns to human capital. If human capital accumulation is as or more important than other forms of capital accumulation, and if the quality of effort that people devote to building human capital is wage-sensitive, then taxing wages in preference to financial capital may be quite perverse. Further, while physical capital grows by virtue of nonconsumption, it seems plausible that human capital development is proportionate to its use, which would render a tax penalty on “wages” particularly destructive. Fundamentally, Chamley-Judd logic suggests that we should tax least the factor most capable of expanding to engender economic growth. You don’t have to be a new-age nut to believe that human and institutional development, which yield return in the form of wages, may well be that factor. It is perfectly possible, under this logic, that the roles of capital and labor are reversed, that the optimal tax on labor should be zero or even negative, because returns to physical and financial capital are so enhanced by human talent that even capitalists are better off paying a tax to cajole it.

So labor is more capital-like than a naive application of Chamley-Judd would assume. But that’s not all. What we conventionally call “capital” looks very little like the commodity in the models. In the models, there are no financial assets. Capital is crystallized nonconsumption, a real resource which is automatically deployed into production if it is not consumed.

In reality, people forgo consumption by holding financial claims. There is no clear relationship between financial asset purchases and the organization of useful resources into production. Many financial assets are claims against the state which fund current government spending. Are those expenditures “investment” in the Ramsey sense? Maybe, partially, but not clearly. Financial claims can fund consumer loans. Does financing a vacation contribute to the permanent capital of the nation? Maybe — perhaps vacationers are in fact far-sighted investors, whose labor productivity and future wages will be enhanced by a recreative break. But, maybe not. It is not at all clear. Empirically, the relationship between the outstanding stock of financial claims and anything recognizable as productive capital is very weak. [4] Finance is not an inconsequential veil over real production. It is its own messy thing.

Let’s approach the mess more analytically. In the models, foregone consumption and productive investment are inseparable. In the real world, purchasing a financial asset (or holding money!) does imply that some agent forgoes consumption. But it does not imply that the foregone consumption will be invested. The consumption an agent forgoes may be consumed by others. It may be wasted. Identities like S = I don’t help us, they just insist that we call purchases of financial assets “investment”, and then account for eventually fruitless claims via revaluation. In real life, there are a lot of those revaluations, and no measure of observable capital corresponds with a cumulation of financial savings. So, if we want to take Chamley-Judd reasoning seriously, we oughtn’t set tax rates capital gains, dividends, or interest to zero. Instead, we should ensure that real investment activity by firms is tax advantaged. There is no Chamley-Judd case for not taxing the interest on consumer loans or government bonds that finance transfers. There may be a case for policies like accelerated depreciation of fixed capital or even tax credits for education expenses. [5] But given the weak relationship between financial assets and real investment, eliminating conventional “capital taxes” just subsidizes the products of the financial sector. It offers a windfall to financiers and their best customers, but creates no foreseeable “piece of a bigger-pie” benefit for the people to whom the tax burden is shifted.

One final point: The force that drives the Chamley-Judd conclusion is the long-term elasticity of capital provision to interest rates. The intuition is that capitalists make a decision about whether to forego consumption and contribute to growth or whether to consume today based on a comparison between available returns and their time preference. Lower capital taxes keep returns higher and make contributing capital “worth the wait” over a longer arc of the production function, leading to a higher steady state.

Unfortunately, this sort of calculation does not seem to describe economy-wide savings behavior very well. Aggregate purchases of financial assets seem to be insensitive to returns. In the US, yields on debt, risk-free, corporate, and individual, have been falling since the 1980s, while the stock of financial assets held by households (as a share of GDP) has grown inexorably. (Total equity returns were high only in the 1990s; financial holdings grew about as fast during the low-debt-yield, low-return pre-crisis 2000s as they did in the 1990s, see the graph below.) Unless you posit a peculiarly declining time preference, the core implication about aggregate savings behavior in any Ramsey model seems quite false. We need other stories. I have some! Perhaps consumption is approximately satiable, and the fraction of income saved is just a residual, the difference between income and the satiation level. Perhaps wealthier households save, not to endow future consumption, but because they are in a competitive race with other households for insurance or status that derive from financial holdings. Perhaps for the US, aggregate saving is largely a residual of other countries’ return-insensitive economic policy (Asian mercantilism, petrodollar recycling, etc.). In any of these cases, we’d expect gross financial saving not to be especially sensitive to investment returns. Now human capital formation may be less wage-sensitive than we’d guess too. Maybe we become brilliant more because of expectations and support provided by the people and institutions that surround us than because of the extra money we anticipate. But all these uncertainties undermine the Ramsey/Chamley/Judd edifice, rather than suggesting a zero capital tax.

There are lots of more narrow rebuttals of Chamley-Judd. Jones links Matt Yglesias and Piketty and Saez on the ways the tax result changes if you replace infinite-lived consumers with overlapping generations of people who die. The Chamley-Judd result goes away when labor markets are imperfectly competitive, when economic outcomes are uncertain, when savings are sufficiently return inelastic. Also, see Andrew Abel. To dismiss these critiques as “exotic” is to dismiss reality as exotic, and to rely without evidence on an extreme simplification of the world.

But more fundamentally, what we mean in life and politics by “capital” and “labor” are simply not the phenomena that Chamley or Judd (or Ramsey) model. It is wonderful for Jones to remind his students that, especially in a context of full employment, “capital helps workers”. Stories of what a worker can accomplish with a bulldozer versus a shovel are important and on-point. Students should inquire into the process by which in some times and places construction workers get bulldozers and live well, while in other times and places they work much harder with shovels yet barely subsist.

But Chamley-Judd tells us very little about the tax rate appropriate to income from dividends, interest, or “capital gains” in the real world. How and whether an incremental purchase of financial claims contributes to growth or helps workers is a complicated question, one that a Ramsey model can’t resolve. Models that are more realistic about finance, whether Keynesian or monetarist, predict states of the world where financial capital formation is harmful to real economic performance. To the degree that human and institutional capital grow with use rather than disuse, shifting the burden of taxation from financial claims to labor may be harmful over a very long-term. In the asymptotic steady state, who knows? We have as much reason to believe that you will like strawberries as we have to believe that the capital gains tax should be zero.

[1] You’ve got to love Robert Solow on this:

[I]t could also be true that the bow to the Ramsey model is like wearing the school colors or singing the Notre Dame fight song: a harmless way of providing some apparent intellectual unity, and maybe even a minimal commonality of approach [to macroeconomics]. That seems hardly worthy of grown-ups, especially because there is always a danger that some of the in-group come to believe the slogans, and it distorts their work.

[2] Please correct me if this is mistaken; it’s what I observe in simple simulations [pdf, mathematica] similar in spirit to those published by Jones. It’d take a lot more work than I’m prepared (or able) to do to demonstrate this result under the abstract frameworks of the original papers.

[3] It was Garret Jones himself who offered the single most insightful economics tweet of all time, on precisely this topic:

Workers mostly build organizational capital, not final output. This explains high productivity per ‘worker’ during recessions.

[4] Within the sphere of financial claims, the relationship is sometimes stronger: there may be a relationship between, say, the aggregate balance sheet size of the telecoms industry and fixed investment in telecoms. But the aggregate quantity of financial claims as a whole (restricted to those held by households to avoid double-counting of “pass-through” holdings) has no stable relationship to the quantity of measurable investment in the economy:

TFAABSHNO → “Total Financial Assets – Assets – Balance Sheet of Households and Nonprofit Organizations”, “FPI” → Fixed Private Investment; I should probably have included gross foreign holdings in the financial assets measure, but the series I’d need, though available in the flow of funds, seems not to be published on FRED. (It’d be Table L.106, “Rest of the World”, “Total financial assets”, Line 1 if anyone is more motivated than I am to find the full series and add it to household financial assets.)

[5] Interestingly, Andrew Abel points out that, under conventional Chamley-Judd assumptions, not worrying at all about human capital or the imperfections of finance, optimal tax policy may be to tax only capital, but to permit the ultimate in accelerated depreciation, immediate expensing of capital goods.

Update History:

  • 8-Apr-2012, 4:50 a.m. PST: minor grammar fixes, missing the word “a”, missing a comma: “characterized by a permanent two-factor, constant-returns-to-scale production function”; “Factor one, which we’ll call K, must be different”
  • 10-Apr-2012, 11:50 p.m. PST: Fixed misspelling of “Garret Garett Jones”. (Many thanks to Douglas Edwards for pointing out the error.)