Phenomenal World

August 15th, 2020

Phenomenal World

Another Lost Decade?

The systemic character of the global periphery debt crisis

Contrary to common beliefs on fiscal fundamentals, the current debt crisis in the global periphery demonstrates that the solvency of sovereign states is critically determined by their monetary power. Crucially, liquidity has a cyclical character in the periphery of global capitalism and a countercyclical character in the core.

During economic booms, when many contracts look safe, private actors are more prone to purchase assets denominated in peripheral currencies, which typically reward higher interest rates. But during busts, perceptions of asset safety may quickly change. Peripheral currency states are more vulnerable to suffering quick withdrawals from contracts denominated in their currency. Private investors seek the safest assets in the global economy, which, despite lower interest rates, guarantee low credit and market risks, high market liquidity, and limited inflation, exchange rate and idiosyncratic risks.

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August 13th, 2020

Geoeconomics and the Balance of Payments: A Reading List

Suggested readings on the savings glut, critical macrofinance, and the balance of payments

Below is a rough reading list assembled by the panelists in the August 13, 2020 discussion on “Geoeconomics and the Balance of Payments.”

A recording of the discussion—with Mona Ali, Daniela Gabor, Izabella Kaminska, Matt Klein, JW Mason, Michael Pettis, Brad Setser, Jon Sindreu, Colby Smith, and Nathan Tankus, and moderated by Adam Tooze—can be found here.

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August 8th, 2020

Economics, Bosses, and Interest

An interview with Stephen Marglin

Stephen Marglin is Walter S. Barker Professor Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since he received tenure in 1968. Somewhat infamous for his post-tenure radicalism, Marglin has published extensively on a wide range of topics over his decades-long career. Among his most cited early works is the two-part "What Do Bosses Do?", which sought to explain hierarchical production as a function of accumulation, not technical efficiency. Divisions of labor between workers, managers, and bosses do not, Marglin argued, serve increases in productivity and material prosperity, but rather the consolidation of wealth and power.

Similarly influential work conducted with Amit Bhaduri contested neoclassical models that view economic growth as a product of technological advancement and increases in the factors of production. Drawing on a Kaleckian framework which sees output as a function of effective demand, their paper distinguishes between "wage-led" and "profit-led" growth regimes. In the former, income redistribution increases employment and productivity, and in the latter it does not.

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July 27th, 2020

Essential Infrastructures

The case for sovereign investment in telecommunications infrastructure

As social distancing became norm and law in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, people turned to video teleconferencing to meet with friends and family, attend religious services, and go on dates. Zoom work accounts became a conduit for maintaining nonwork social ties and, as people came to depend on this enterprise tool, Zoom's stock valuation soared. The pandemic has widened the sphere of life dependent on such market technologies, heightening existing questions around the political, legal, and economic governance of these companies. How should the fabric of social life, especially as it is rewoven by the pandemic, relate to the private ownership of telecommunications?

Two legal regimes regulate the ownership of and access to telecommunications technology: the market disciplining forces of antitrust law (along with allied concepts like public utilities regulation), and the national security protections of critical infrastructure regulation. Certain applications of the former, concerned primarily with market power, identify privately-owned infrastructures that are “essential,” and regulate firms to ensure that access to that infrastructure is made available to competitors and consumers on reasonable terms. The latter, on the other hand, identifies infrastructures that are “critical,” and regulates them to serve the US’s national and economic security interests.

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July 22nd, 2020

Laws of the Land

Property rights and extraction in the mineral frontier

“The Mining Law of 1872,” reported California Democrat Alan Lowenthal in May 2019, "is one of the most obsolete laws still on the books.” At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Lowenthal was rehearsing a longstanding critique of antiquation against hard rock mineral legislation—a law to privatize federal mineral lands that has remained in place since the nineteenth century.

For decades, this statute has come under scrutiny, with Congressional hearings on its merits held under every President since George H. W. Bush. Two objections are raised consistently. The first is that, in contrast to developers in other extractive industries, hard rock mining corporations may purchase Western mineral lands from the federal government for the minuscule price of \$5.00 per acre, and are charged no royalties on the resources they extract. This nearly 150-year-old arrangement remains a major gift to multinational corporations: in 1994, the US Interior Department sold about 1,949 acres in Nevada to the Barrick Resources Corporation. The land contained 30 million ounces of gold, which was valued at \$380 per ounce. Sold for just under \$10,000, the land was worth billions. A small royalty commensurate to those of other extractive enterprises would by now have generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the public.

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July 16th, 2020

The Dollar and Empire

How the US dollar shapes geopolitical power

What does the US dollar’s continued dominance in the global monetary and financial systems mean for geo-economic and geo-political power? In a recent article, Yakov Feygin and Dominik Leusder question whether the United States actually enjoys an “exorbitant privilege” from the global use of the USD as the default currency for foreign exchange reserves, trade invoicing, and cross-border lending. Like Michael Pettis, they argue that the USD’s primacy actually imposes an exorbitant burden through its differential costs on the US population.

Global use of the dollar largely benefits the top 1 percent by wealth in the United States, while imposing job losses and weak wage growth on much of the rest of the country. This flows from the structural requirements involved in having a given currency work as international money. As Randall Germain and I have argued in various venues, a country issuing a globally dominant currency necessarily runs a current account deficit. Prolonged current account deficits erode the domestic manufacturing base. And as current account deficits are funded by issuing various kinds of liabilities to the outside world, they necessarily involve a build-up of debt and other claims on US firms and households.

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July 10th, 2020

The Crisis and the Free Market

On crisis, partisanship, and public policy

Will the current crisis transform America’s politics and economic institutions? With unemployment higher than at any point since the Great Depression, rising food insecurity, and an increasingly muscular role for government—are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the four-decade-long era of the free market ushered in by Ronald Reagan? It’s a question worth considering, whether you’re a Democrat who blames the rising inequality of the last four decades on the policies of smaller government, or a Republican who thinks those policies saved America.

It wouldn’t be the first time a crisis has altered the trajectory of the country. The Republican Party of today is defined by its commitment to tax cuts, deregulation, and cuts in social spending. But prior to the Reagan administration, the Republicans were actually the party seen as most likely to increase taxes, because their main commitment throughout the post-war period had been to avoid deficits. The party was, in Newt Gingrich’s famous dismissal, the tax collector for the welfare state.

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July 3rd, 2020

Pandemic and Poverty

What the pandemic teaches us about poverty measurements

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, more than 40 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. In April, unemployment spiked to nearly 20 percent, almost double the rate observed at the peak of the Great Recession. To blunt the financial blow, Congress passed the CARES Act, a package that included, among many other things, around $500 billion in income transfers for the U.S. population.

With my colleagues at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, I have worked to understand how the CARES Act might affect annual poverty rates in the U.S. Our findings took us by surprise: despite the rapid rise in unemployment, we find that the CARES Act’s two major income transfers—the Recovery Rebates (one-time stimulus payment) and expanded unemployment benefits—have potential to return projected poverty rates to pre-crisis levels if access to the benefits is adequate. Jason DeParle of The New York Times neatly brings life to the findings here, while our full report can be found at the Center’s website. The report also details the many important shortcomings of the CARES Act, such as its exclusion of undocumented immigrants, the difficulties that families are facing in accessing the benefits, and the upcoming expiration of the top-up to unemployment benefits.

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July 1st, 2020

Balanced Sheets

On the conceptual and methodological stakes of Trade Wars Are Class Wars by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis

Good writing on international macroeconomics reads like a detective novel. There’s a suspicious event—hundreds of millions of dollars in phantom FX swaps, a container port’s worth of missing exports—and an enormous cast of closely-linked characters. But instead of a preternatural ability to see the clear-cut means, motive, and opportunity of fictional characters in a pulp whodunit, the macroeconomic detective is armed with the knowledge that balance sheets always balance. This simple insight, that every transaction has two sides, means that there are certain aggregate relationships between transactions that must obtain for the world economy. Knowing this, it’s possible to chase actors across seemingly unrelated balance sheets to find where the system as a whole was forced to balance. From here, the skillful economist can identify the long-run tendencies that a given balance is likely to create. (Wynne Godley famously predicted the Global Financial Crisis in just this way, following US mortgage debt around the world and back.) This kind of detective work is difficult, and often unpopular. The balance sheet approach cuts through political and media platitudes to reveal who the winners and losers are in a given regime. By taking this approach to examining trade policy, Michael Pettis and Matthew Klein have, with Trade Wars Are Class Wars, written the ideal book for understanding the long-run trends that have shaped our dysfunctional present.

Pettis and Klein tell a broad story about the last fifty years of global economic development, which links the dynamics of global supply chains and tax evasion, and the historical shift from wage-led to profit-led growth.

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June 25th, 2020

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

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