Robert Gordon is one of Bloomberg’s 50 most influential people

Yesterday Bloomberg released its 50 Most Influential 2016 list.

Congratulations are in order for our own Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, who makes an appearance at #36. According to the piece, a Bloomberg reporter once counted up the references in the footnotes of Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s speeches and found Gordon cited more than any other economist outside the central bank. Gordon finds himself in great company this year—other recognized economists include Larry Summers at #49, Raj Chetty at #44, and Joe Stiglitz at #29.

Congratulations, Robert Gordon!

Gordon

Kenneth Rogoff: Negative interest rates are an emotional topic, too

Presenting the second post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. If you missed the first installment, read it here.

Rogoff

The book continues to create a vigorous debate about moving to a less-cash (not cashless) society with only smaller denomination bills; you can see various TV and radio discussion here. Below I’d like to respond to a provocative review in the Wall Street Journal.

But first a few other points that have come up: the gun lobby continues to seem particularly exercised about losing large bills. Perhaps the concern is that without convenient large notes, the government might have an easier time enforcing registration and background checks on people who buy firearms. A broader take is the American Thinker piece “Washington’s Endgame: First Your Guns Then Your Cash.” I can only say that I am not very sympathetic.

I try in the book to efficiently cover every possible misconception that people might have about where all the missing big bills are (even the spirit world), but I am afraid I missed one. Writing in the Numismatic News, Patrick A Heller suggests that we all should know “that a sizeable percentage of this (missing cash) is held by central banks as reserves.” Well, not really. Foreign central-bank dollar holdings are almost entirely in the form of electronic bills and bonds. Some foreign banks do hold physical U.S. dollars to meet customer demand, but most world holdings of dollars are in the underground economy (crime and tax evasion). As the book discusses extensively, foreign demand mostly likely accounts for less than 50% of total U.S. dollars outstanding.

In his thoughtful Finance and Development review, Peter Garber asks why not just make $100 bills larger and bulkier, then we don’t need to get rid of them. Well, if we make them ten times heavier and ten times bulkier, yes, that would be another approach (albeit not equivalent to mine, because tenfold oversized notes would be easier to tabulate, and you could probably pack them tighter unless the bills are larger still). But seriously, what is the difference, the symbolism? Anyway, I have no objections to leaving a giant $100 bill for collectors. Garber also argues that if the physical dollar becomes less prominent internationally, the electronic dollar will suffer. Maybe once upon a time that was true, but it is almost irrelevant today in the legal tax-paying world, domestic or foreign. Also, let’s not forget my plan leaves plenty leaves small bills, so the symbolism is still there.

This takes us to Jim Grant’s Wall Street Journal review. Several people I respect think Grant is a very smart guy who likes to be provocative, but I would to take up some of his simple errors and profound misconceptions.

Grant has little interest in the main part of the book, which argues that the large notes, which dominate the currency supply, do far more to facilitate tax evasion and crime than legal transactions. He posits that it would be so much simpler to legalize narcotics and simplify taxes, and that “Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option.” In point of fact, I address legalizing marijuana on page 69, and the book goes on to detail the many other ways cash is used in crime besides drugs: racketeering, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, corruption, you name it. Simplifying taxes is a great idea with lots of efficiency benefits I have written often about. But to think that any realistic simplification plan would end tax evasion is delusional.

Grant focuses his ire almost entirely on negative interest rates, saying “You rub your eyes. You can recall no precedent. There has never been one in 5,000 years of banking.” Well, Grant is known for his interesting historical analyses, but this statement is misleading at best. Before paper currency, governments routinely paid negative interest rates on metallic currencies by calling in coins and shaving them (as I discuss at some length in chapter 2). That might not immediately imply a negative rate on other debt instruments, but if your debt is repaid in physically debased pence that have much less silver than the ones you lent, it is a negative interest rate in any meaningful sense.

In modern times, the existence of paper currency prevents any significant negative rate on other government debt because of fear of a run on cash, though Europe and Japan have managed to get away with slight negative rates. So the statement that this has not happened until now is, well, hardly profound. Besides, there have been countless episodes of significant negative real interest rates on government bonds, that is when the nominal (face value) interest rate is not nearly enough to keep up with inflation, for example in the 1970s, when inflation went over 13% in the U.S. and over 20% in the U.K. and Japan.

In any event, my plan excludes small savers. And if effective negative-rate policy were possible, it would likely be quite short lived, and would probably cause a lot less problems that a decade of zero rates or high inflation. If the Fed could engage in effective monetary policy in a deep recession, most savers will gain far more than they will lose. It would bring back jobs more quickly, restore house and stock prices faster, and it would actually raise nominal rates on long-term bonds through restoring expected inflation to target. The suggestion that negative rates are just a policy to rob savers is empty polemic.

In chapter 12, I discuss populist perspectives on central banking, including Ron Paul and a return of the gold standard. Grant, evidently, was tapped to be Paul’s Fed Chairman had his 2012 presidential campaign been successful. On CNBC Squawkbox, Grant compares Fed chair Ben Bernanke to the head of Zimbabwe’s central bank, because he is just sure that all the “money printing” Bernanke was doing would lead to high inflation. Of course, what Bernanke was doing was not so much printing money as exchanging short-term central bank reserves for long-term government debt, as a reader of chapter 9 would understand. (And critically, the government fully owns the central bank.) I am not a big believer in the wonders of quantitative easing, but those who predicted that it would lead to very high inflation made an epic wrong call. Grant not only hates negative rates, he says he doesn’t like zero rates, and said back then the Fed should promptly raise them. Many other central banks, including the European Central Bank, tried just that—the results were disastrous.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that by and large the financial industry lobbies heavily against negative rates. Leading financial newspapers regularly publish articles by banking industry proponents that argue how negative rates will deter governments from pursuing structural reform. Some of their arguments—about the problems with implementing negative rates today, having to with institutional, tax, and legal issues that need to be fixed before negative rates can be effective—are legitimate. The Curse of Cash addresses all that, and explains that it will take a long time even if the problem of a run into cash is taken off the table. Ultimately, banks make money off the difference between the rates they pay to borrow and the rates they charge to lend, and once the preparations are made, they will not have cause to complain.

In the end, if global real interest rates stay low for the next decade, there will likely be occasional periods of negative rates during recessions in most advanced economies, whether we like it or not. Part II of the book explains how to make negative rate policy better and more effective. Anyone who wants to understand it should read The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics

Westacott

Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.

Five PUP authors included in the Politico 50 2016 list

We are thrilled that five PUP authors have been included in the Politico 50 2016 list!

 Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Gordon

George Borjas, author of Heaven’s Door

Borjas

David Card and Alan Krueger, authors of Myth and Measurement

Myth

Angus Deaton, author of The Great Escape

Deaton

Kenneth Rogoff: Cash is an emotional topic

Read on for the first post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:
Rogoff

In The Curse of Cash, I make a serious case for phasing out the bulk of paper currency, particularly large denomination notes. Since pre-publication copies started floating around just a few weeks ago, a number of engaging, thoughtful reviews have published (for example, here, here, here, here and here). But mere rumors of the book’s impending publication have also evoked an extraordinary number of visceral comments (online and by email): “This idea is almost as bad as banning semi-automatic weapons,” is one theme. Another is, “Why should people feel guilty about doing business in cash to avoid paying taxes when we all know the government will just waste the money?” Having first explained two decades ago why governments that print big bills are penny-wise and pound-foolish, I am well familiar with how emotional this topic can be.

There have also been some comments having to do with individual liberty and wondering if criminals will use other currencies and transactions media. I address these and many other serious concerns in the book, and I have tried to do so in a clear and engaging way that anyone can understand. But here is a quick version to straighten out some key points:

The most fundamental point is to emphasize that the book argues for a less-cash society, not a cash-less one. There is a world of difference. If the U.S. first phased out one hundred-dollar bills and fifty-dollar bills, and then after perhaps two decades phased out twenty-dollar bills, there would still be ten-dollar bills and below. I strongly argue these should be left around indefinitely, and explain why it would be a mistake to withdraw cash entirely, as opposed to just larger bills. Even if we get down to ten-dollar bills, making an anonymous cash purchase of $1,000 would still be pretty easy—and even a $100,000 purchase would require only a briefcase. The aim of my proposal is to get at wholesale tax evasion by businesses and higher-income individuals, and by large-scale criminal enterprises, e.g., drug lords and crime bosses. With ten-dollar bills and below—which will be left in place indefinitely—there will always be ways for ordinary people to make private (anonymous) payments and for low-income individuals to buy groceries.

Any reader of the book will see that I am not proposing getting rid larger bills as segue to an outright abolition of cash—I explain why I’m against eliminating physical cash into the very distant future, perhaps another century. But for all the advantages of cash, we have to recognize that the current system is badly off kilter. A lot of central banks and finance ministries know it, as do justice departments and tax authorities.

What about the argument that in lieu of big bills, criminals and tax evaders are always going to find other ways to make anonymous payments? Obviously this is an important point, and one that comes up throughout in the book. But there is a reason why cash is king. No other anonymous transactions vehicle, however, is as remotely easy to use. Gold coins have to be weighed and assayed, and can hardly be spent at the tobacco shop. Uncut diamonds are even less liquid. Bitcoin is somewhat anonymous (albeit traceable in many instances), but governments have been putting up all sorts of tax rules and restrictions on financial institutions that make it a very poor substitute for cash. And by the way, governments will continue to do this with any new transaction media they view as facilitating tax evasion, money laundering, and crime. As I explain in the book, big bills facilitate big crime—taking them out of circulation will have a significant effect.

Finally, another very early comment on the book, of a vastly different type, is from someone I greatly respect but do not always agree with, Edward Chancellor. Unfortunately, he makes a couple of absolutely critical misrepresentations. Most importantly, he seems happy to blur the critical distinction between “less cash” and cashless. He slips easily into the “cashless” phraseology, for example, when wondering how to give money to beggars in my world. I am impressed if he can give out one hundred-dollar bills to beggars, but if so, I think he would find that a fistful of tens is also welcome.

I agree with Edward that to take advantage of today’s ultra-low real interest rates, it would be a good idea for governments right now to issue very long-term bonds (see my recent article); I have no objections to his preferred perpetuities. But there is an enormous difference between issuing registered perpetual bonds and issuing anonymous currency; that is my whole point. By the way, as the book notes, anonymous bearer bonds were effectively killed a long time ago.

Edward and I disagree on negative interest rates, but that it is whole different can of worms. I’ll just say that, in addition to explaining the issues, the section in the book on negative rates shows that effective negative-interest-rate policy is going to require laying many years of ground work—not a recommendation for something the ECB or the Bank of Japan can do tomorrow. But for reasons discussed, it is by a wide margin the best plan for the future. All the others are much worse.

In the meantime, anyone who has looked serious at the data will realize that even as currency use is declining in the legal economy, it is growing in the underground economy. Something is badly out of whack, and it is time to have a serious discussion about it.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Offer and Söderberg on the real-world consequences of economics–and the Nobel Prize

Offer and SoderbergThe Nobel Prize in Economics arose during a changing time for the world’s markets. Was this a coincidence? Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg say no. In  The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn, Offer and Söderberg detail  how the prize, which was first awarded to economists Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was created by the Swedish central bank to enhance the central bank authority and the prestige of market-friendly economics. Offer and Söderberg have taken some time to answer questions about the origins of this esteemed prize and how it emerged from a conflict between central bank orthodoxy and social democracy.

What is the core argument of this book?

AO & GS: Since the 1970s, academic economics and social democracy have disputed how society should be managed. The challenge is those parts of the life cycle when people have little market power, the contingencies of motherhood, education, illness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Economics claims that it is best to buy protection in financial markets, by means of saving, borrowing and insurance. This is backed up by the supposed authority of science, symbolized by the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is also the objective of business and finance in their quest to capture profit from everybody’s income streams. Social democracy deals with dependency by means of transfers from producers to dependents, providing education, healthcare, pensions, physical infrastructure and culture, and pooling the individual risks by means of taxation and transfers. We question the claims of economics to impartiality and superior reason.

Why does the Prize in Economics matter?

AO & GS: Nobel prize-winners provide a high-quality sample of economics. The prize has a halo that makes economics credible to the wider public, for policies which are often inimical to the public interest. It arose out of the long conflict between the interests of the wealthy in stable prices, and of everyone else in social and material improvement. Between the wars, this conflict became focused in central banks, which became a brake on social democracy. After the Second World War, the Swedish Central Bank clashed repeatedly with the social democratic government over financing the welfare state, and extracted the prize as a concession. The prize was then captured by conservative Swedish economists, who used it to provide credibility for sustained resistance to social democracy. This story shows how ideas and arguments work through society and politics, and how the prestige of science has been mobilised for political ends.

Who is this book for?

AO & GS: It enlarges understanding of economic and social development with a wealth of new findings that will engage students and academics in economics, social science, and history. This includes the two-thirds of economists who hold onto social-democratic values, at odds with their professional indoctrination. Policy makers in government, business, finance, and voluntary organizations may find that the concepts on which they rely are not well founded. The argument is written to be attractive to read for anyone interested in current affairs, economic policy, and the future of society, all over the world.

After the financial crisis many new books have criticized mainstream economics. How is this book different?

AO & GS: One rebuttal by economists is that critics have no alternative to offer. But economics is not in fact hegemonic: public policy is dominated by a pervasive, pragmatic and effective system of social democracy which allocates about 30 percent of GDP in most advanced countries (lower in the USA due to a private health system). ‘It works in practice, but will it work in theory?’ is the challenge of economics. It imagines a world of self-interested, rational persons whose choices scale up to a benign equilibrium, as if by an invisible hand. But this vision is arbitrary, difficult to apply, and not even consistent. Economics has turned its back to social democracy, and has also missed the buildup to the recent financial crisis.

Many Americans regard social democracy as something exclusively European. Why should Americans be interested?

AO & GS: This is delusive, like the tea party member who asked the government to take its hands off his medicare. The United States deploys a broad range of social democratic arrangements: free public schools up to eighteen, a public higher education system; health services for the indigent, the old, and military veterans; unemployment benefits, some income and disability support, and a reasonable system of old-age pensions (social security). Much of its other spending (fiscal and other subsidies, especially the mortgage interest offset against tax) is regressive and misdirected. Americans are becoming aware of the cost of their dysfunctional and expensive medical system. Educational debt is a crisis in the making. Private retirement arrangements are failing. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has mounted a formidable challenge in the Democratic primaries. The other candidates have joined him in advocating more social security and free higher education; like the tea party member, the supporters of Trump are also responding to the weakness of American social democracy.

Many commentators in Europe are discussing the crisis of social democracy in terms of lack of vision and declining support. What do you think is the future of social democracy and how must it adapt to survive and flourish in the future?

AO & GS: The problems of social democracy arise partly from its success. It developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for male manual wage-earners, and was difficult to adapt to a more diverse, educated, and affluent society, and to service economies that employ men and women in almost equal proportions. Social democracy is still the bedrock of personal security. Its objectives and methods are not fully understood by its practitioners and advocates, and hardly at all by those who benefit. Centre-left politicians, beguiled by market rhetoric, have not served it well. The values of reciprocity and solidarity underpin social democracy: they are more attractive ethically than unbridled greed, but also more effective and efficient. The ‘market turn’ held out the prospect of moving beyond social democracy to private ‘nest egg’ provision for economic security. Home ownership promised wealth for everybody. Driven by easy credit and mounting debt, this seemed to work for a while but has now built up inequality, social exclusion and financial crisis. The advocates of self-regulating markets did not anticipate such a precarious outcome.

Avner Offer is Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the British Academy.  His books include The Challenge of AffluenceGabriel Söderberg is a researcher in the Department of Economic History at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. The two recently collaborated on the book The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn.

Join Ken Rogoff for the launch of The Curse of Cash at The Infoshop Bookstore

New York Times bestselling author of This Time Is Different Ken Rogoff will be at The InfoShop Bookstore for the launch of The Curse of Cash, “a fascinating and important book” (Ben Bernanke), on Tuesday, September 13 at 12:oopm in the IFC Auditorium at 2121 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington D.C..

RSVP by emailing infoshop@worldbank.org.

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The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff (Part II)

Rogoff

This is the second installment of a two-part interview with economist Kenneth Rogoff on his new book, The Curse of Cash. Read the first part here.

Your new book advocates a “less cash” society, phasing out all paper currency notes over (roughly) $10, and in due time even replacing those notes with large coins.(You observe that notes of $10 or less account for only 3% of the US currency supply). How will getting rid of the vast majority of all paper currency help central banks fight financial crises?

KR: It will allow central banks to engage in much more aggressive stimulus with unfettered and open-ended negative interest rate policies, without running up against the “zero lower bound” on interest rates, a bound that exists because cash pays a zero return that any bond has to match. There are other ways to stimulate the economy at the zero bound, some quite elegant, but phasing out cash is simplest and more robust solution. If only large bills are phased out, people could in principle hoard smaller ones, but the cost is far greater (allowing rates to be much more negative), and in extreme circumstances, the government can place other restrictions on redepositing cash into the banking system.

How do negative interest rates work?

KR: The idea behind negative interest rates is simple: they give money that has been hibernating in the banking system a kick in the pants to get it out into the economy to stimulate demand thereby pushing up inflation and output. If successful, negative interest policy could end up being very short-lived because as demand and inflation rise, so too will market interest rates. In other words, if there were no obstacles, central banks could use negative interest rate policy to push down very short term interest rates, but at the same time longer term interest rates would actually rise because people would start to again expect normal levels of inflation and inflation risk. If you are worried about your pension then, on balance, this would be a very good trade.

Are negative rates the main reason to phase out cash?

KR: There are other very clever ways to introduce negative rates without phasing out cash, and the book explains these at length, with one especially clever idea in having its roots in the practices of the Mongol empire of Marco Polo’s time. In any event, the case for drastically scaling back paper currency is very strong even if the central bank is proscribed from setting negative rates. That would be mistake, as negative rates are a valuable tool. In any event, because phasing out cash opens the door wide to negative rates, it makes sense to treat the two topics in any integrative fashion as we do in this book.

Haven’t the early returns on negative interest rates been mixed?

KR: Some central banks have tiptoed into negative interest policy already, but they can only move so far before investors start to hoard cash, hampering the effectiveness of negative interest rates. If negative interest rates were open-ended, central banks could decisively shift expectations without necessarily having to go to extreme lengths.

Aren’t negative rates bad for financial stability?

KR: Not necessarily, because open-ended negative rate policy would allow central banks to turbocharge out of deflation, so that the low interest rate period would be relatively short-lived. The existing regime, where rates have been stuck at zero for many years at a time, likely presents far more risk to financial stability.

Is expanding the scope for negative interest rates really worth the trouble if the next big financial crisis isn’t expected to occur for many decades?

KR: Well, first of all, the next major financial crisis might come a lot sooner than that. Besides, the option of negative interest rates might matter even for the next “normal” recession if the general level of world interest rates remains as low as it has been in recent years. Clearing the way for open ended negative interest rate policy would not only help make monetary policy more effective, it would clear that air of a lot of dubious policy suggestions that would be extremely damaging in the long run. Too often, the zero bound is used as an excuse to advance politically motivated policies that might or not be a good idea, but should be evaluated on their own merits.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff

Rogoff

What if cash is making us poor?

Called a “fascinating and important book” by Ben Bernanke, The Curse of Cash by leading economist Kenneth Rogoff argues that cash is making us poorer while fueling a corrupt underground economy on a global scale. Even as advanced economies are using less paper money, the amount of cash in circulation is on the rise, a reality Rogoff says feeds terrorism, tax evasion, and human trafficking, among other nefarious activities. Rogoff’s case for eliminating most paper currency is sure to stir serious debate. Recently we asked him to comment on his book and the reasons for his position.

Why do you think paper currency can be a “curse?”

KR: The big problem with paper currency is that a large part of it is used to facilitate tax evasion and a huge spectrum of criminal activities, including drugs, corruption, human trafficking, etc. Most people don’t realize the sheer scale of currency outstanding, over $4200 for every man, woman and child in the United States, with 80% in 100 dollar bills. The vast bulk is unaccounted for; it is not in cash registers or bank vaults. The phenomenon is the same across virtually all advanced economies. The dollar is not special in this regard.

Won’t the government be losing out on huge profits from printing currency?

KR: Yes, governments delight in being able to pay for things by printing money, and the United States government earns tens of billions of dollars each year by doing so. But tax evasion, which is widely facilitated by the use of cash to hide transactions from authorities, costs government far more, in the hundreds of billions for the United States alone, and far more for Europe. If phasing out most paper currency reduces tax evasion and crime by say, 10%, the government should at least break even, and the overall gains to society will be far larger. This is not a quixotic attempt to end all crime and tax evasion, but simply the observation that earning profits by printing large denomination notes is penny wise and pound foolish, a point I first made in an academic paper almost two decades ago.

Are you arguing for phasing out all paper currency?

KR: No, for the foreseeable future, I am proposing a “less-cash” society, not a cashless society. My plan would leave smaller notes, say $10 and below, for an indefinite period. This will help mitigate concerns about privacy, power outages, and the continuing convenience of cash in some small scale transactions. Over the very long run (perhaps several decades), moderately heavy coins would be substituted for small bills to make it even more difficult to transport and conceal large quantities. This last piece is inspired by the experience of ancient China, where paper currency was introduced in part because lower-grade metals were used in coinage, and it proved burdensome to carry large amounts over long distances.

Are you advocating digital currencies such as Bitcoin instead of cash?

KR: Private digital currencies are, in fact, a complete non sequitur, though of course they need to be regulated. Drastically scaling back currency was already a good idea two decades ago when I first wrote on the topic. Credit cards, debit cards, checks and electronic transfers have long been far more important than cash in the legal economy for larger transactions. Today, the role of cash is dwindling even for smaller transactions.

If we get rid of most paper currency, won’t criminals and tax evaders find other ways around the system?

KR: Of course, but there are good reasons why cash is king in the global underground economy. There are other ways to launder money and hide income, but they do not offer the same safety or universal acceptance as cash.

Aren’t most dollars held abroad anyway?

KR: Overwhelmingly, the evidence is no, at least half of all dollars are held inside the United States, still more than $8000 per four-person family.

Do other countries have the same issue with huge amounts of currency outstanding or is the dollar unique?

KR: The US is no way unique, virtually every advanced country has a massive currency supply, some even larger than the United States. And in virtually all cases, the vast bulk is in very large denomination notes. Japan, for example, has issued over 50% more cash per capita than the US, with over 90% of it in 10,000 yen notes (roughly equivalent to the US $100 bill). T

What will happen to the poor in your “less-cash” society?

KR: The poor are not the ones accounting all the 100 dollar bills, but they are the ones suffering the most from crime and who stand to benefit the most if the government were more effective at collecting tax revenues. To facilitate financial inclusion, my plan calls for providing free basic debit card accounts; several other countries have already done this.

What about privacy from the government?

The continuing circulation of small bills will ameliorate privacy concerns to some extent.  The basically philosophy of this approach is that it should remain convenient for individuals to keep modest-size transactions completely private from the government, but for large transaction, the government’s right to tax, regulate and enforce laws trumps individual privacy considerations. I am making this argument on pragmatic, not moralistic grounds.  The current system just makes it too easy to do repeated large-scale illicit trades in cash with big bills.  Even after big bills are gone, there will still be many ways for ordinary citizens to conduct one-off high-value transactions with a significant degree of privacy.  These alternatives, however, are typically inferior to cash for repeated large-scale transactions, as risk of detection rises proportionately.

What about power outages, hurricanes, etc.?

KR: Again, the continuing circulation of small bills mitigates the issue. Other payment mechanisms, including via cell phones, are rapidly becoming more important in the aftermath of storms anyway, and there are a variety of backup technologies such as checks. In a sufficient profound power outage, ATM machines and cash registers will not work either, and the government will have to airlift cash and script regardless.

How will reducing the role of cash help deal with illegal immigration?

KR: Without paper currency, it would be vastly more difficult for employers to pay workers off the books, and sub-market wages. It would be more difficult for employers to avoid making social security tax contributions and to skirt labor laws. Phasing out paper currency is a far more humane way of channeling immigration through legal channels that some of the draconian methods being proposed, such as building giant walls and barbed wire fences. Remarkably, no one in the heated political debate on immigration seems to have quite realized this. Of course, any substantial phase-out of paper currency would take place of a very long period, perhaps 10-15 years, giving a long runway for policy to help existing immigrants.

If the US gets rid of large denomination, won’t other countries just fill in the void and supply their large notes to the world underground economy?

KR: The gains from reducing domestic tax evasion and crime still should make it a big win, even though the US would forgo profits earned from supply the global underground economy, including for example, Colombian rebels, Russian oligarchs and Mexican drug lords. Europe might profit if the euro becomes more popular, but frankly Eurozone countries have much larger underground economies than the United States, and thus even more incentive to phase out paper currency. By the way, foreign notes will hardly fill the void in the United States underground economy. There are already strict reporting requirements on banks and financial firms, and there already exits limits on taking cash in and out of the country. Any alternative currency that cannot easily be spent and recycled in the legal economy will be costly to use and sell at steep discount.

Is it realistic to think cash will ever get phased out?

KR: In fact, the Scandinavian countries are already far along the path, and have successfully negotiated many of the practical concerns that have been raised, for example now to give money to indigent individuals on the street. Sweden is particularly far along. Several countries, including Canada, Sweden, the European Central Bank and Singapore have already taken action to phase out their largest denomination notes, very much in response to concerns about their role in tax evasion and crime.

Part 2 of this interview with Kenneth Rogoff will appear tomorrow.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Time Magazine calls Robert Gordon the new Thomas Piketty

GordonHave you discovered “the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must-read of the year”?  Writing for Time Magazine, Rana Foroohar takes to heart economist Robert Gordon’s claim that the big payoff from the digital revolution has already come and gone. Foroohar suggests that if Gordon’s New York Times bestselling book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth and other cautionary titles like Revenge of the Analog are any indication, the hubris of Silicon Valley may be far less warranted than we’ve come to believe. Foroohar writes:

Beyond a mere surge of Silicon schaedenfreude, there is a significant debate going on about the effects of technology, about whether the digital revolution has made us better off (socially) and by how much (economically). Academic Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which is the Thomas Piketty-esque economic must read of the year, is gaining traction in policy circles with a persuasive argument that the inventions that drove growth and productivity over the last 100 years or so weren’t the personal computer or the Internet, but the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing and electricity.

Gordon’s research shows that the Industrial Revolution had a much bigger effect on economic growth than the PC, the iPhone, or any other gadget. Indeed, his book points out that productivity growth actually began shrinking after the 1970s, which is when digital technology really began to take off. His conclusion: unless the techno-optimists come up with some really seismic invention quickly, our children are likely to be worse off economically.

Read the full piece in Time Magazine here.

Robert J. Gordon is the Stanley G. Harris Professor in the Social Sciences at Northwestern University. His books include Productivity Growth, Inflation, and Unemployment and Macroeconomics. Gordon was included in the 2013 Bloomberg list of the nation’s most influential thinkers.

 

Three PUP books longlisted for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year award

The FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award is an annual award given to the best business book of the year as determined by the Financial Times and McKinsey & Company. This year, we are delighted and honored to have three of our titles included in the longlist! The shortlist of up to six finalists will be published on September 7, and the winner will be announced on November 22 in London.

Gordon The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Robert J. Gordon
Frank

Success and Luck
Robert H. Frank

Rogoff The Curse of Cash
Kenneth S. Rogoff

Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?

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By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.