January 9th, 2021

The Deflationary Bloc

Living in Hyman Minsky's world

“An effective way to write the history of the last thirty years of the twentieth century,” economist Albert Hirschman wrote in 1985, “may well be to focus on the distinctive reactions of various countries to the identical issue of worldwide inflation.” Writing just as the global “great inflation” of the 1970s was abating, Hirschman could not have understood how right he was. As Claudia Sahm has recently written in the New York Times, the fear of the great inflation of the 1970s still dominates the thinking of the Federal Reserve, even as its recent messages indicate some acceptance of higher inflation.

Economists lack a good understanding of what causes inflation—and its inverse, deflation. In introductory macroeconomics curricula, Milton Friedman’s mantra “inflation is always a monetary phenomenon” remains central. By this, Friedman meant that excessive price growth happens when a state loosens the supply of money, thus over-expanding the monetary base. However, recent research

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December 3rd, 2020

Transition Theory

On Jairus Banaji’s A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism

Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it—the multivolume 2014 Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE—but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.

Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved.

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October 16th, 2020

Data as Property?

The legal structure of data egalitarianism

Since the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, critics of widely used internet communications services have warned of the misuse of personal data. Alongside familiar concerns regarding user privacy and state surveillance, a now-decades-long thread connects a group of theorists who view data—and in particular data about people—as central to what they have termed informational capitalism. Critics locate in datafication—the transformation of information into commodity—a particular economic process of value creation that demarcates informational capitalism from its predecessors. Whether these critics take “information” or “capitalism” as the modifier warranting primary concern, datafication, in their analysis, serves a dual role: both a process of production and a form of injustice.

In arguments levied against informational capitalism, the creation, collection, and use of data feature prominently as an unjust way to order productive activity. For instance, in her 2019 blockbuster The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshanna Zuboff likens our inner lives to a pre-Colonial continent, invaded and strip-mined of data by technology companies seeking profits. Elsewhere, Jathan Sadowski identifies data as a distinct form of capital, and accordingly links the imperative to collect data to the perpetual cycle of capital accumulation. Julie Cohen, in the Polanyian tradition, traces the “quasi-ownership through enclosure” of data and identifies the processing of personal information in “data refineries” as a fourth factor of production under informational capitalism.

Critiques breed proposals for reform. Thus, data governance emerges as key terrain on which to discipline firms engaged in datafication and to respond to the injustices of informational capitalism. Scholars, activists, technologists and even presidential candidates have all proposed data governance reforms to address the social ills generated by the technology industry.

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September 25th, 2020

Direct Effects

How should we measure racial discrimination?

A 2018 National Academy of Sciences report on American policing begins its section on racial bias by noting the abundance of scholarship that records disparities in the criminal justice system. But shortly thereafter, the authors make a strange clarification: “In many cases there is little informative quantitative data on whether… policing is influenced by the racial or ethnic identity of citizens in a causal sense.”

On the one hand, troves of studies demonstrating racial disparities across a range of policing situations. On the other, a lack of data showing policing to be causally influenced by race. What accounts for the gap between evidence of racial disparities and proof of race as a causal influence on those disparities? The report presents a vignette that offers some clues:

"[A] police officer may decide to stop and question or frisk a Black citizen but may decide not to question a White citizen, creating a racial disparity in stops… Based solely on measures of officer’s behavior, however, it is impossible to know whether this behavior was actually racially biased. If the Black and White pedestrians, for instance, acted differently as the officer approached (e.g., nervous versus calm), or if the officer encountered them in different surroundings (at night in an alley versus at noon in the park), or if the officer was searching for a suspect described as Black, an objective observer might conclude that the officer was simply responding to the situation at hand."

The takeaway is that robust correlations in observational data offer satisfactory descriptive statistics, but they cannot, at least not on their own, meet the gold standard of scientific explanation—causal explanation. Only social scientists pursuing causal inference methods are equipped to answer sought-after “why” questions: Why are there racial disparities in policing? Is the disparity because of race or because of something else?

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September 17th, 2020

Unceasing Debt, Disparate Burdens: Student Debt and Young America

Since the Great Recession, outstanding student loan debt in the United States has increased by 122% in 2019 dollars, reaching the staggering sum of \$1.66 trillion in June of this year. Student loan debt has grown faster than other debt types, including auto, credit card and mortgage debt. For many, education is the only pathway towards good employment with benefits, leading to economic and social opportunities later in life. But as college becomes more unaffordable with each passing year, student loans are bridging the ever-expanding chasm between college savings and obtaining an education. The crisis has reached the national political arena, with policymakers recently calling for debt cancellation up to \$50,000 for federal borrowers.

Our research demonstrates that the student debt crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. We found that all young borrowers are saddled with dramatically rising debt since 2009, but low-income groups, BIPOC, and those in their 30s fare far worse than others. While richer students have higher absolute debt, low-income students experience massive and growing relative debt burdens. And students in majority-Black and Hispanic zip codes, who are more likely to attend for-profit private institutions, have seen larger debt increases than those in majority-white zip codes. Debt levels have jumped in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Gaining insight into broad trends in debt accumulation, as well as details about the particular demographic or labor market characteristics that shape changes in individuals’ debt burden over time, allows us to more effectively tailor our policy recommendations. For example, our research finds that forgiving $50,000 in student loans would make 80% of young adult borrowers student debt free.

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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 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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June 13th, 2020

Trade Wars Are Class Wars

A discussion between Adam Tooze, Michael Pettis, and Matthew Klein

Michael Pettis and Matthew Klein's new book Trade Wars Are Class Wars begins with an epigraph from John A. Hobson: "The struggle for markets, the greater eagerness of producers to sell than of consumers to buy, is the crowning proof of a false economy of distribution. Imperialism is the fruit of this false economy." Pettis and Klein's book updates the Hobsonian thesis for the twenty-first century, arguing that, while trade wars are often thought to be the result of atavistic leadership or the contrasting economic priorities of discrete nation states, they are best understood as the malign symptoms of domestic inequalities that harm workers the world over. In a panoramic account of the shifts in the global economy over the past several decades, Pettis and Klein detail the development of the economic ills that define modern international political economy. It is essential and provocative reading with broad implications for international politics, the study of inequality, and the future of the global monetary system.

On May 28, Pettis and Klein were joined by Adam Tooze, author of Crashed, for a discussion about their new book. A recording of the conversation can be watched here. The transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.

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May 22nd, 2020

Municipal Bonds, Race, and the American City

An interview with Destin Jenkins

The rapid and expansive action taken by the Fed over the past two months in response to the coronavirus crisis has muddied the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. In particular, its Municipal Liquidity Facility provides a path for financing emergency spending by local governments. In some optimistic accounts, MLF-backed investment has the capacity to dramatically reduce the geographical, income, and racial inequalities which have increased in recent decades. But in order to do this, the MLF must explicitly prioritize investment in these communities.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, UChicago Professor Destin Jenkins argued the historical case. In the aftermath of WWII, a municipal bond market that valued white, middle-class consumption diverted investment outside of cities and into the suburbs. Federal housing officials, mortgage bankers and real estate agents profited off of the construction of debt-financed highways, shopping malls, schools, and parks for this upwardly mobile demographic. Cities took on billions in debt, but their black, brown, and immigrant populations saw few of the benefits. Jenkins argues that the history of municipal debt is intimately tied to the history of racial disparity in American cities, and that interventions in the politics of bond markets could enable municipalities "to avoid the punitive credit ratings that devalue certain regions or populations over others."

We spoke to Jenkins last fall about his research, which focusses on the history of racial capitalism and its consequences for democracy and inequality in the United States. His forthcoming book, The Bonds of Inequality, examines the role of municipal finance in growing American cities and widening the racial wealth gap. Jenkins is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago. You can follow him here

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