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Posts Tagged ‘economics

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”*…


inequality Scales

… It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy. Because this disparity has been more or less constant, the question doesn’t lend itself very well to historical analysis. Nor is it easily subject to the distortions of nostalgia. But it does lend itself very well to comparative analysis.

Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) More than half of the twenty-three countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player; most of these countries have unicameral parliaments. A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality. This is only a correlation, of course, and cross-country economic comparisons are fraught, but it’s interesting.

Then they observed something more. Their twenty-three democracies included eight federal governments with both upper and lower legislative bodies. Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment, they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress…

The estimable Jill Lepore on accounting for inequality: “Richer and Poorer.

[image above: source]

* Jane Addams


As we search for the balance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that the National Hunger March gathered in Washington DC to demand jobs and relief.  Massing in front of Congress, the 1,670 marchers were met by an estimated 1500 police, and 1000 Marines, all armed.  They left without a hearing from President Hoover or any other official, but did have an impact: they set the stage for the 1932 march of the Bonus Army where 43,000 marchers – many veterans – descended on Washington DC to demand payment for the “service certificates” which had given to them in 1924 in lieu of cash.

hunger-march-in-pictures source


Written by LW

December 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A turning point at which modern history failed to turn”*…


William Powhida: Griftopia, 2011; a ten-foot-wide ‘visual translation’ of the 2008 financial crisis based on Matt Taibbi’s 2010 book of the same title

William Powhida: Griftopia, 2011; a ten-foot-wide ‘visual translation’ of the 2008 financial crisis based on Matt Taibbi’s 2010 book of the same title


The historian G.M. Trevelyan said that the democratic revolutions of 1848, all of which were quickly crushed, represented “a turning point at which modern history failed to turn.” The same can be said of the financial collapse of 2008. The crash demonstrated the emptiness of the claim that markets could regulate themselves. It should have led to the disgrace of neoliberalism—the belief that unregulated markets produce and distribute goods and services more efficiently than regulated ones. Instead, the old order reasserted itself, and with calamitous consequences. Gross economic imbalances of power and wealth persisted. We are still experiencing the reverberations…

Read Robert Kuttner‘s review of Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze: “The Crash That Failed.”

* G.M. Trevelyan


As we struggle to avoid repeating past mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the Civil Works Administration.  Intended as a short-term agency charged quickly to create jobs for millions of unemployed Americans through the hard winter of 1933–34, it was closed in March of 1934– having provided work for 4 million workers who laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or improved 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, and nearly 1,000 airports.

CWA was effectively replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which operated on a much larger scale.  Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency.


Civil Works Administration workers cleaning and painting the gold dome of the Colorado State Capitol (1934)



“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…



As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle


As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes




Written by LW

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It’s All About The Benjamins”*…



A funny thing happened on the way to a world of cryptocurrencies and mobile payments. Cash became more popular than ever. The main reason? The one hundred dollar bill.

In 2017, for the first time ever, the one hundred dollar bill became the most popular US bill in circulation, beating out the one dollar bill. It is quite the turn of events for Benjamin Franklin-faced banknote. Just 10 years ago, it was less common than both the $20 and the $1.

The share of US dollars in circulation as a share of GDP rose from about 6% in 2010 to 9% in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve. Increased use of $100 bills has been the primary driver…

Why cash is king: “There are now more $100 bills than $1 bills in the world.”

* Puff Daddy


As we contemplate currency, we might spare a thought for Franco Modigliani; he died on this date in 2003.  An economist, he originated the life-cycle hypothesis, which attempts to explain the level of saving in the economy, suggesting that consumers aim for a stable level of consumption throughout their  lifetime (for example by saving during their working years and then spending during their retirement)– for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1985.

Among his other accomplishments, he initiated the Monetary/Fiscal Debate when he (and co-author Albert Ando) wrote a scathing critique of an early 1960s paper by Milton Friedman and David Meiselman.  Freidman and Meiselman had argued (in effect) that monetary policy was the only effective tool in managing an economy; Modigliani and Ando pointed out flaws in their analysis and made the case for fiscal measures (effectively, government spending) as equally-effective tools.  The debate– known by the antagonists’ initials as the AM/FM Debate– rages to this day.



“The prevailing ideology of the modern west – which is political economy – is in the doghouse”*…




This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers (the largest bankruptcy in U.S.history) and the start of the Great Recession.  We took a look at the crisis, it’s dimensions, and its aftermath last month (“Not every business cycle has a financial crisis. Frequently they do“); but there’s so much to remember– and so many may smart folks from whom to learn…

In “From Trump to Trade, the Financial Crisis Still Resonates 10 Years Later,” Andrew Ross Sorkin thinks about the consequences of the crash still unfolding.  In “Can We Survive the Next Financial Crisis?,” Bloomberg’s Yalman Onaran, considers both the ways in which the system that led to the last crisis has become safer and also the pockets of risk that have grown since 2008.  (Keep your eyes on CLOs– collateralized loan obligations– this decade’s version of the CDOs that tanked the economy in 2008…)

The always-illuminating Matt Levine, considering John Cassidy’s review of Adam Tooze’s new history of the financial crisis/crises, Crashed, highlights Tooze’s central argument: that much of our current geopolitical situation — the nativism and fragmentation and general rejection of decades of stability and elite consensus — is a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis and the flawed response to it.  Levine concludes with a striking observation…

Finally here is a passage I found interesting from Tooze’s “Crashed,” on quantitative easing, political volatility, and the U.S.’s flirtation with defaulting on its debt in 2013:

That the astonishing events in Congress in 2013 did not lead to an immediate crisis in the bond market pointed to the resilience of the US Treasurys as the global safe asset of choice. Though the Chinese and Germans might complain and the market blipped, demand for US Treasurys quickly recovered. Ultimately, the market for IOUs drawn on the American taxpayer was underwritten by the Fed. Unlike the ECB, America’s central bank left no doubt that it backed its governments’s debt. QE3 bond purchases provided immediate support, keeping prices up and rates down. This provided at least one point of stability for global investors. But after the events of 2013 questions could no longer be avoided. Was one of the unintended side effects of the stability generated by the Fed to free politics from market constraints and thus enable Republican extremism? Did America’s ability to ride out short-term budget crises like those of 2011 and 2013 lead contemporaries to underestimate the future dangers that the degeneration of American democracy might bring with it? And how long would the Fed’s technocratic interventions compensate for America’s lackluster economic recovery and the shambles in the legislative branch?

Obviously one can disagree with some of the characterizations there. But one thing that we used to talk about a lot around here was that people were worried that people weren’t worried enough: Financial-market volatility seemed eerily low given the apparent instability of, you know, the world. That worry turned out to be overstated — volatility picked back up without causing any particular crisis — but it really was a bit eerie: Apparent actual volatility in the world kept not causing volatility in asset prices. But an implication of Tooze’s argument is that some of the causality went the other way: Because financial markets were calm in the face of geopolitical instability, they enabled more geopolitical instability. If you don’t have bond vigilantes checking up on you, then you can get up to a lot of weird stuff.

[image above: source]

* James Buchan


As we try to keep cause and effect straight, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the biggest incidence of domestic terrorism in U.S. history to that date occurred: the Wall Street bombing.  At noon, a horse-drawn wagon passed by lunchtime crowds on Wall Street and stopped across the street from the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, on the Financial District’s busiest corner.  Inside the wagon, 100 pounds of dynamite with 500 pounds of heavy, cast-iron sash weights exploded in a timer-set detonation, sending the weights tearing through the air.  30 people were killed immediately, and another eight died later of wounds sustained in the blast.  There were 143 seriously injured; the total number of injured was in the hundreds.

Though investigators and historians believe the bombing was carried out by Galleanists (an anarchist group responsible for a series of bombings the previous year), the attack– which was a part of postwar social unrest, labor struggles and anti-capitalist agitation in the U. S.– was never officially solved.

The aftermath of the explosion



Written by LW

September 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There are people who have money and people who are rich”*…



Every January, to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam tells us how much richer the world’s richest people have got. In 2016, their report showed that the wealthiest 62 individuals owned the same amount as the bottom half of the world’s population. This year, that number had dropped to 42: three-and-half-dozen people with as much stuff as three-and-a-half billion.

This yearly ritual has become part of the news cycle, and the inequality it exposes has ceased to shock us. The very rich getting very much richer is now part of life, like the procession of the seasons. But we should be extremely concerned: their increased wealth gives them ever-greater control of our politics and of our media. Countries that were once democracies are becoming plutocracies; plutocracies are becoming oligarchies; oligarchies are becoming kleptocracies.

Things were not always this way. In the years after the second world war, the trend was in the opposite direction: the poor were getting richer; we were all getting more equal. To understand how and why that changed, we need to go back to the dying days of the conflict, to a resort in New Hampshire, where a group of economists set out to secure humanity’s future.

This is the story of how their dream failed and how a London banker’s bright idea broke the world…

The true story of how the City of London invented offshore banking – and set the rich free:  “The real Goldfinger: the London banker who broke the world.”

* Coco Chanel


As we agree that “fair’s fair,” we might spare a thought for David Ricardo; he died on this date in 1823.  A political economist, he developed a a labor theory of value in his seminal Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, published in 1817; he was instrumental in the development of theories of rent, wages, and profits; and at a time of mercantilist sentiment, he introduced the theory of competitive advance and advocated free trade.  Indeed, most economists rank Ricardo as the second most influential economic thinker working before the 20th century, after Adam Smith.

220px-Portrait_of_David_Ricardo_by_Thomas_Phillips source


Written by LW

September 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A buyer with disproportionate power”*…


Chickens are seen at a poultry farm at Hartbeesfontein, a settlement near Klerksdorp, in the North West province

Imagine the farm that raised the chicken that produced the meat that sits in your sandwich: a few workers, thousands of birds, tens of thousands of pounds of white and dark meat, work that starts before dawn and ends after dusk, uncertain revenue, slim profits. There are thousands of these small farms in the United States, and they benefit from millions of dollars of taxpayer support each year.

Chicken is America’s favorite protein, after all. Family farms are one of its most prized institutions. And farming is tough business. According to one estimate, a new, hangar-like chicken house costs something like $300,000 to build, and more to maintain and upgrade. “A farmer has to invest over $1 million just to get set up—a lot of debt to carry when you’re paid on average between 5 cents and 6 cents per pound of chicken produced,” Sally Lee of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA has found. Even when a chicken-growing operation is established, financial success is far from a sure thing. Given those realities—and given the American love for and support of the family farm—generous taxpayer subsidies seem not just sensible, but vital.

But a government report released this spring calls into question whether all those family chicken farms are really family chicken farms, and whether those taxpayer dollars might be better spent elsewhere. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general looked at poultry growers, and found that many of them are tied-and-bound contractors—so controlled by their agreements with giant food corporations that they no longer act like independent entities. Why offer them taxpayer support meant for the little guy?…

What your chicken dinner says about wage stagnation, income inequality, and economic sclerosis in the United States: “The Rise of the Zombie Small Businesses.”

For a consideration of the effects of corporate concentration on wages: “More and more companies have monopoly power over workers’ wages. That’s killing the economy.”

* Monopsony: 1) (economics) A market situation in which there is only one buyer for a product; also, such a buyer. [from 1930s] 2) (economics) A buyer with disproportionate power.  -Wiktionary


As we cogitate on (real) competition, we might recall that it was on this date in 1947 that fabled computer scientist Grace Hopper (see here and here), then a programmer at Harvard’s Harvard’s Mark II Aiken Relay computer, found and documented the first computer “bug”– an insect that had lodged in the works.  The incident is recorded in Hopper’s logbook alongside the offending moth, taped to the logbook page: “15:45 Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.”

This anecdote has led to Hopper being pretty widely credited with coining the term “bug” (and ultimately “de-bug”) in its technological usage… but the term actually dates back at least to Thomas Edison…


Grace Hoppers log entry


Written by LW

September 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

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