Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Ron Paul is not Taken Seriously

Advocates of U.S. Presidential candidate Ron Paul, seem befuddled that his economic proposals do not receive more support and consideration. I am unsure if their criticisms of the U.S. Federal Reserve System (the Fed) are objections to the existence of paper money, central banks, or to the specific operation of the Fed. Monetary policy for an increasingly interconnected world is complex. It is reasonable that most people do not understand it. But it can be understood. Let me try to address a few issues.

Money is anything that is generally accepted to serve as a medium of exchange (i.e., you can buy things with it), a store of value (i.e., you use it to save purchasing power for use at a later time), and a unit of account (i.e., it is used to measure relative prices). Stated more simply, money facilitates commerce. Without money that is widely accepted, easy to carry and exchange, and difficult to counterfeit, economic transactions become much more difficult. Without money, people must rely on barter for exchanges of goods and services. For example, a yoga teacher would trade yoga instruction for everything she wants to buy. Paper money, such as Federal Reserve Notes, has been used since the 7th century because it conveniently serves the functions of money. Although it has no intrinsic value, paper money has historically been one of the most widely used forms of money. Bank deposits, such as those created under the fractional reserve banking systems that are common throughout the developed world, are another form of money of similar importance in modern times.

The reason why politicians other than Ron Paul are not advocating the elimination of the Federal Reserve System is because there is a broad consensus among politicians, economists, and the leaders of finance and business that central banks, such as the Fed, provide a necessary function for a developed society. Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, the U.S. monetary and banking systems were chaotic and their instabilities impeded commerce and economic growth. Because central banks oversee the money supply and banking system, every country with its own currency needs a central bank. They all function essentially in the same way as the Fed.

The primary benefit of a central bank, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve System, is that it promotes a healthy and stable banking system capable of supporting economic growth. It also ensures that society has an appropriate quantity of reliable money to facilitate commerce.

The simplest refutation of the desirability of returning the U.S. to a gold standard is that the money supply would not typically increase unless the U.S. acquired more gold. A benefit of this is that it would prevent excessive inflation. But it would almost certainly lead to devastating deflation and it would make it nearly impossible for the U.S. to use monetary policy to reduce the duration and severity of economic downturns, such as the recent global recession.

Here is a simple example. As a country’s population increases and its economy grows, it needs a larger money supply. If there are a million people earning $1 per day, the economy needs $1 million per day to pay these workers. If the population doubles to 2 million, but the money supply has not increased because the country has not acquired more gold, then the existing $1 million must be sufficient to pay 2 million people. So people earn fifty cents per day instead of a dollar. With these lower labor costs, prices of goods and services fall, too. An overall reduction in the price level, which economists call deflation, might seem desirable. But it is devastating to an economy. It causes a dramatic reduction in purchases of newly produced goods and services. (Why buy something today if you know it will be cheaper next week, next month, or next year?) Deflation increases unemployment as businesses lay off workers because there is reduced demand for their products as consumers postpone purchases until the future (when they will be cheaper).

Developed modern economies have a money supply that is primarily composed of currency and bank deposits and is overseen by a central bank. This allows the money supply to be adjusted to the changing needs of society. The money supply can be easily altered to accommodate changes in population and economic growth. And because central banks influence the amount of money created by private commercial banks in the form of loans, monetary policy is a primary instrument of macroeconomic policy. In prosperous times, central banks fight inflation by encouraging banks to lend less money to the public and thereby reducing overall spending on newly produced goods and services. When the economy is sluggish, central banks promote economic growth and reduce unemployment by encouraging banks to lend more money and thus increase the demand for newly produced goods and services. (As sales increase, businesses rehire workers they laid off or hire new ones.) Mainstream society wants governments to take action to promote economic prosperity and reduce the negative impacts of macroeconomic declines. (See "The Economic Role of Government" for elaboration.)

Ron Paul seems to have considerable fears about hyperinflation. A few economies (with currencies not backed by gold and a central bank similar to the Fed) have suffered hyperinflation. But this does not imply that such a fate in inevitable. An examination of the U.S. inflation rates since 1956 provides no evidence that Fed policies have caused excessive increases in the price level.
Indeed, hyperinflation tends to occur in places where government leaders have considerably more influence over the central bank (as Paul seems to want). The relative independence of the Fed from the whims of current politicians is a strength of the U.S. monetary system, not a shortcoming as Paul suggests.

Ron Paul’s opinions of the Fed are viewed by mainstream society the same way it views people who claim the earth is flat, that the sun orbits the earth, that man never went to the moon, that the best way to cure all illness is to drain blood from the body, that there is no such thing as evolution, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that President Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. There is substantial evidence to refute all of those beliefs. But for whatever reason, some people prefer conspiracy theories. There is a lot to like about Ron Paul’s candidacy. But Paul is not taken seriously by mainstream society because many of the policies he advocates are simplistic and seem to be based on wishful thinking rather than reality.

Here are a few resources that may help your understanding of monetary policy:

(1) The Fed Today, a 14-minute video that provides a good introduction to the U.S. Federal Reserve System.

(2) Economic Perspectives, my blog about macroeconomic policy

(3) Wikipedia – decent summaries that may provide answers to many of your questions. The article on the gold standard has a section on its advantages and disadvantages.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Economic Role of Government

As I tell my students, it is a legitimate and defensible position to argue that the government should not try to manage the macroeconomy. For a variety of reasons (such as corruption, incompetence, and the influence of special interests), it is conceivable that policy makers and implementers will make things worse, not better. If one chooses this position, however, then one cannot complain about high unemployment, high inflation, or a lack of economic growth.

Prior to the Great Depression, the predominant school of economic thought, classical economics, suggested that macroeconomic problems would correct themselves. If unemployment increased, the response would be a decrease in wages until employers were willing to hire them again. Similarly, inflation (a general increase in the level of prices) would cause people to buy less (as prices rose). Reduced demand for products then would cause prices to fall. The biggest problem with classical economic thought, however, is that it is based on assumptions that are rarely true. (For example, it assumes people have full information, which is almost never the case.) Several decades of subsequent economic thought have been devoted to explanations of flaws in the simplistic classical rationale. (The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded 42 times to 67 Laureates between 1969 and 2010 to highlight and honor those achievements.)

John Maynard Keynes, a British economist, popularized the notion that the government can and should play an active role in managing the macroeconomy. Keynes acknowledged that classical thought might have applicability over an extremely long time period, but “in the long run we are all dead.” If people wait for the macroeconomy to correct itself, they may not live long enough to see the changes. The severity and prolonged duration of the Great Depression convinced most people of the validity of Keynes’ insights. During the Great Depression, prices were falling, but that did not motivate an increase in purchases and employment as classical economics predicts. Even if people had income, they were reluctant to spend it because of uncertainty about the future.

Mainstream economics since the Great Depression is Keynesian economics. The overwhelming majority of economists around the world believe it is appropriate for the government to take actions to promote economic growth and to maintain low unemployment and low inflation. The debate in the United States is not whether the government should try to achieve these goals. Instead, the discussion is about what the government should do. Essentially, Republicans argue that public policies should primarily benefit businesses and the wealthy because they are the job creators. Democrats respond that making the wealthy richer will not cause them to hire more workers unless there is a significant increase in the demand for goods and services. Democrats favor policies with broader benefits because they believe increasing the overall demand for products will increase employment. Very few people argue that the government should do nothing to reduce unemployment, maintain stable prices, and promote economic growth. Indeed, the mood of the country is “they have not fixed the economy, so throw the bums out.”

If President Obama loses the 2012 election, it will be because he did too little to improve the economy, not because he did too much. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a government agency whose professional economists provide non-partisan analysis to legislators, consistently confirm that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the much criticized stimulus spending program, created jobs, increased employment, and reduced the unemployment rate from what would have occurred in its absence. It is a fair criticism to say some politicians steered ARRA funds away from the most economically beneficial projects toward other favored objectives. But that is a failure of the political system and the implementation of the suggested policies, not of Keynesian economic theory.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 117,000 in July, and the unemployment rate was little changed at 9.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains occurred in health care, retail trade, manufacturing, and mining. Government employment continued to trend down.

Household Survey Data

The number of unemployed persons (13.9 million) and the unemployment rate (9.1 percent) changed little in July. Since April, the unemployment rate has shown little definitive movement. The labor force, at 153.2 million, was little changed in July. (See table A-1.)

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men(9.0 percent), adult women (7.9 percent), teenagers (25.0 percent), whites (8.1 percent), blacks (15.9 percent), and Hispanics (11.3 percent) showed little or no change in July. The jobless rate for Asians was 7.7 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)

The number of persons unemployed for less than 5 weeks declined by 387,000 in July, mostly offsetting an increase in the prior month. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over), at 6.2 million, changed little over the month and accounted for 44.4 percent of the unemployed. (See table A-12.)

The civilian labor force participation rate edged down in July to 63.9 percent, and the employment-population ratio was little changed at 58.1 percent. (See table A-1.)

The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was about unchanged in July at 8.4 million. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job. (See table A-8.)

In July, 2.8 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force, little changed from a year earlier. (These data are not seasonally adjusted.) These individuals were not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey. (See table A-16.)

Among the marginally attached, there were 1.1 million discouraged workers in July, about the same as a year earlier. (These data are not seasonally adjusted.) Discouraged workers are persons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them. The remaining 1.7 million persons marginally attached to the labor force in July had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey for reasons such as school attendance or family responsibilities. (See table A-16.)

Establishment Survey Data

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 117,000 in July, following little growth over the prior 2 months. Total private employment rose by 154,000 over the month, reflecting job gains in several major industries, including health care, retail trade, manufacturing, and mining. Government employment continued to decline. (See table B-1.)

Health care employment grew by 31,000 in July. Ambulatory health care services and hospitals each added 14,000 jobs over the month. Over the past 12 months, health care employment has grown by 299,000.

Retail trade added 26,000 jobs in July. Employment in health and personal care stores rose by 9,000 over the month with small increases distributed among several other retail industries. Employment in retail trade has increased by 228,000 since a recent low in December 2009.

Manufacturing employment increased in July (+24,000); nearly all of the increase was in durable goods manufacturing. Within durable goods, the motor vehicles and parts industry had fewer seasonal layoffs than typical for July, contributing to a seasonally adjusted employment increase of 12,000. Manufacturing has added 289,000 jobs since its most recent trough in December 2009, and durable goods manufacturing added 327,000 jobs during this period.

In July, employment in mining rose by 9,000; virtually all of the gain (+8,000) occurred in support activities for mining. Employment in mining has increased by 140,000 since a recent low in October 2009.

Employment in professional and technical services continued to trend up in July (+18,000). This industry has added 246,000 jobs since a recent low in March 2010. Employment in temporary help services changed little over the month and has shown little movement on net so far this year.

Elsewhere in the private sector, employment in construction, transportation and warehousing, information, financial activities, and leisure and hospitality changed little over the month.

Government employment continued to trend down over the month
(-37,000). Employment in state government decreased by 23,000, almost entirely due to a partial shutdown of the Minnesota state government. Employment in local government continued to wane over the month.

The average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls was unchanged over the month at 34.3 hours. The manufacturing workweek and factory overtime for all employees also were unchanged at 40.3 hours and 3.1 hours, respectively. In July, the average workweek for production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was 33.6 hours for the sixth consecutive month. (See tables B-2 and B-7.)

In July, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls increased by 10 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $23.13. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 2.3 percent. In July, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 8 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $19.52. (See tables B-3 and B-8.)

The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for May was revised from +25,000 to +53,000, and the change for June was revised from +18,000 to +46,000.

The Employment Situation for August is scheduled to be released on Friday, September 2, 2011, at 8:30 a.m. (EDT).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

US Uncut: Corporate Tax Cheats Are Bankrupting America

According to its website,
"US Uncut is a grassroots movement taking direct action against corporate tax cheats and unnecessary and unfair public service cuts across the U.S. Washington's proposed budget for the coming year sends a clear message: The wrath of budget cuts will fall upon the shoulders of hard-working Americans. That's unacceptable."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Republican cuts would cost 700,000 jobs

In the March 1, 2009 article "Republican cuts would cost 700,000 jobs: Report," Zachary Roth reports that Mark Zandi, a prominent economic forecaster, suggests that the budget cuts proposed by Republicans will slow economic growth and reduce the number of jobs. The logic is that a primary determinant of the number of jobs is the overall demand for newly produced goods and services, which economists refer to as aggregate demand (AD). And a key source of demand, especially in economic downturns and their recoveries, is government purchases. Less government spending translates into less aggregate demand and fewer jobs.

According to Roth:
A new report by a leading economic forecaster finds that budget cuts passed by the House of Representatives would cost 700,000 jobs over the next two years if enacted.

"The House Republicans' proposal would reduce 2011 real GDP growth by 0.5% and 2012 growth by 0.2%," according to the study, by Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi. "This would mean some 400,000 fewer jobs created by the end of 2011 and 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2012."

Zandi is no left-wing ideologue. He was on the economic team for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, and has advised members of both political parties. His findings point in the same direction as those of an even more pessimistic Goldman Sachs report, leaked last week, which concluded that the proposed cuts would reduce second- and third-quarter growth in 2010 by 1.5 to 2 percentage points.

Although the economy has been growing of late, it's not adding jobs fast enough to start significantly bringing down the unemployment rate, which stands at 9 percent. Writes Zandi: "Imposing additional government spending cuts before this has happened, as House Republicans want, would be taking an unnecessary chance with the recovery."

America already faces a jobs crisis, having lost around 8 million jobs since the start of the recession in late 2007.

Zandi argues that the government does need to cut spending--but that it should wait to do so until unemployment has come down further. "Significant government spending restraint is vital," he writes, "but given the economy's halting recovery, it would be counterproductive for that restraint to begin until the U.S. is creating enough jobs to lower the unemployment rate."

The House proposal cuts spending by around $60 billion from 2010 levels. The Senate and the Obama administration will weigh in before any cuts become law.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Charts reveal shocking income inequality

"Some new data crunches show how the gap between rich and poor has widened into a chasm."

In the February 23, 2011 Yahoo! article, "Separate but unequal: Charts show growing rich-poor gap," Zachary Roth summarizes the Mother Jones article," It's the Inequality, Stupid" that appears in its March/April 2011 issue:

The Great Recession and the slump that followed have triggered a jobs crisis that's been making headlines since before President Obama was in office, and that will likely be with us for years. But the American economy is also plagued by a less-noted, but just as serious, problem: Simply put, over the last 30 years, the gap between rich and poor has widened into a chasm.
Gradual developments like this don't typically lend themselves to news coverage. But Mother Jones magazine has crunched the data on inequality, and put together a group of stunning new charts. Taken together, they offer a dramatic visual illustration of who's doing well and who's doing badly in modern America.
Here are three samples:
• This chart shows that the poorest 90 percent of Americans make an average of $31,244 a year, while the top 1 percent make over $1.1 million:

• According to this chart, most income groups have barely grown richer since 1979. But the top 1 percent has seen its income nearly quadruple:

• And this chart suggests most Americans have little idea of just how unequal income distribution is. And that they'd like things to be divvied up a lot more equitably:

To see the rest of these fascinating charts, click on over to Mother Jones.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned it s Back on the Middle Class.

Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned it s Back on the Middle Class - by Jacob S. Hacker

From the publisher's website:

A groundbreaking work that identifies the real culprit behind one of the great economic crimes of our time— the growing inequality of incomes between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.

We all know that the very rich have gotten a lot richer these past few decades while most Americans haven't. In fact, the exorbitantly paid have continued to thrive during the current economic crisis, even as the rest of Americans have continued to fall behind. Why do the "haveit- alls" have so much more? And how have they managed to restructure the economy to reap the lion's share of the gains and shift the costs of their new economic playground downward, tearing new holes in the safety net and saddling all of us with increased debt and risk? Lots of so-called experts claim to have solved this great mystery, but no one has really gotten to the bottom of it—until now.

In their lively and provocative Winner-Take-All Politics, renowned political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson demonstrate convincingly that the usual suspects—foreign trade and financial globalization, technological changes in the workplace, increased education at the top—are largely innocent of the charges against them. Instead, they indict an unlikely suspect and take us on an entertaining tour of the mountain of evidence against the culprit. The guilty party is American politics. Runaway inequality and the present economic crisis reflect what government has done to aid the rich and what it has not done to safeguard the interests of the middle class. The winner-take-all economy is primarily a result of winner-take-all politics.

In an innovative historical departure, Hacker and Pierson trace the rise of the winner-take-all economy back to the late 1970s when, under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, a major transformation of American politics occurred. With big business and conservative ideologues organizing themselves to undo the regulations and progressive tax policies that had helped ensure a fair distribution of economic rewards, deregulation got under way, taxes were cut for the wealthiest, and business decisively defeated labor in Washington. And this transformation continued under Reagan and the Bushes as well as under Clinton, with both parties catering to the interests of those at the very top. Hacker and Pierson's gripping narration of the epic battles waged during President Obama's first two years in office reveals an unpleasant but catalyzing truth: winner-take-all politics, while under challenge, is still very much with us.

Winner-Take-All Politics—part revelatory history, part political analysis, part intellectual journey— shows how a political system that traditionally has been responsive to the interests of the middle class has been hijacked by the superrich. In doing so, it not only changes how we think about American politics, but also points the way to rebuilding a democracy that serves the interests of the many rather than just those of the wealthy few.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Give It Back for Jobs

The "Give It Back for Jobs" website ( encourages people to donate to charity the amount of money they will save by the extension of the Bush tax cuts for 2011 and 2012. According to the website:
Calculate, Pledge, and Donate Your Tax Cut

Americans who've benefited from the extension of the Bush tax cuts should give what they can afford - in large amounts or small - back to the public, by supporting organizations that promote fairness and economic growth.

The government has, by extending the cuts, deprived itself of the resources required to support the policies that will secure a vibrant middle class. But joint action by visitors to this site will begin to replicate good government policy, outside the government and free from the grip of obstructionists within it.