I finally have a published paper.

Jun 12 JDN 2459773

Here it is, my first peer-reviewed publication: “Imperfect Tactic Collusion and Asymmetric Price Transmission”, in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Due to the convention in economics that authors are displayed alphabetically, I am listed third of four, and will be typically collapsed into “Bulutay et. al.”. I don’t actually think it should be “Julius et. al.”; I think Dave Hales did the most important work, and I wanted it to be “Hales et. al.”; but anything non-alphabetical is unusual in economics, and it would have taken a strong justification to convince the others to go along with it. This is a very stupid norm (and I attribute approximately 20% of Daron Acemoglu’s superstar status to it), but like any norm, it is difficult to dislodge.

I thought I would feel different when this day finally came. I thought I would feel joy, or at least satisfaction. I had been hoping that satisfaction would finally spur me forward in resubmitting my single-author paper, “Experimental Public Goods Games with Progressive Taxation”, so I could finally get a publication that actually does have “Julius (2022)” (or, at this rate, 2023, 2024…?). But that motivating satisfaction never came.

I did feel some vague sense of relief: Thank goodness, this ordeal is finally over and I can move on. But that doesn’t have the same motivating force; it doesn’t make me want to go back to the other papers I can now hardly bear to look at.

This reaction (or lack thereof?) could be attributed to circumstances: I have been through a lot lately. I was already overwhelmed by finishing my dissertation and going on the job market, and then there was the pandemic, and I had to postpone my wedding, and then when I finally got a job we had to suddenly move abroad, and then it was awful finding a place to live, and then we actually got married (which was lovely, but still stressful), and it took months to get my medications sorted with the NHS, and then I had a sudden resurgence of migraines which kept me from doing most of my work for weeks, and then I actually caught COVID and had to deal with that for a few weeks too. So it really isn’t too surprising that I’d be exhausted and depressed after all that.

Then again, it could be something deeper. I didn’t feel this way about my wedding. That genuinely gave me the joy and satisfaction that I had been expecting; I think it really was the best day of my life so far. So it isn’t as if I’m incapable of these feelings under my current state.

Rather, I fear that I am becoming more permanently disillusioned with academia. Now that I see how the sausage is made, I am no longer so sure I want to be one of the people making it. Publishing that paper didn’t feel like I had accomplished something, or even made some significant contribution to human knowledge. In fact, the actual work of publication was mostly done by my co-authors, because I was too overwhelmed by the job market at the time. But what I did have to do—and what I’ve tried to do with my own paper—felt like a miserable, exhausting ordeal.

More and more, I’m becoming convinced that a single experiment tells us very little, and we are being asked to present each one as if it were a major achievement when it’s more like a single brick in a wall.

But whatever new knowledge our experiments may have gleaned, that part was done years ago. We could have simply posted the draft as a working paper on the web and moved on, and the world would know just as much and our lives would have been a lot easier.

Oh, but then it would not have the imprimatur of peer review! And for our careers, that means absolutely everything. (Literally, when they’re deciding tenure, nothing else seems to matter.) But for human knowledge, does it really mean much? The more referee reports I’ve read, the more arbitrary they feel to me. This isn’t an objective assessment of scientific merit; it’s the half-baked opinion of a single randomly chosen researcher who may know next to nothing about the topic—or worse, have a vested interest in defending a contrary paradigm.

Yes, of course, what gets through peer review is of considerably higher quality than any randomly-selected content on the Internet. (The latter can be horrifically bad.) But is this not also true of what gets submitted for peer review? In fact, aren’t many blogs written by esteemed economists (say, Krugman? Romer? Nate Silver?) of considerably higher quality as well, despite having virtually none of the gatekeepers? I think Krugman’s blog is nominally edited by the New York Times, and Silver has a whole staff at FiveThirtyEight (they’re hiring, in fact!), but I’m fairly certain Romer just posts whatever he wants like I do. Of course, they had to establish their reputations (Krugman and Romer each won a Nobel). But still, it seems like maybe peer-review isn’t doing the most important work here.

Even blogs by far less famous economists (e.g. Miles Kimball, Brad DeLong) are also very good, and probably contribute more to advancing the knowledge of the average person than any given peer-reviewed paper, simply because they are more readable and more widely read. What we call “research” means going from zero people knowing a thing to maybe a dozen people knowing it; “publishing” means going from a dozen to at most a thousand; to go from a thousand to a billion, we call that “education”.

They all matter, of course; but I think we tend to overvalue research relative to education. A world where a few people know something is really not much better than a world where nobody does, while a world where almost everyone knows something can be radically superior. And the more I see just how far behind the cutting edge of research most economists are—let alone most average people—the more apparent it becomes to me that we are investing far too much in expanding that cutting edge (and far, far too much in gatekeeping who gets to do that!) and not nearly enough in disseminating that knowledge to humanity.

I think maybe that’s why finally publishing a paper felt so anticlimactic for me. I know that hardly anyone will ever actually read the damn thing. Just getting to this point took far more effort than it should have; dozens if not hundreds of hours of work, months of stress and frustration, all to satisfy whatever arbitrary criteria the particular reviewers happened to use so that we could all clear this stupid hurdle and finally get that line on our CVs. (And we wonder why academics are so depressed?) Far from being inspired to do the whole process again, I feel as if I have finally emerged from the torture chamber and may at last get some chance for my wounds to heal.

Even publishing fiction was not this miserable. Don’t get me wrong; it was miserable, especially for me, as I hate and fear rejection to the very core of my being in a way most people do not seem to understand. But there at least the subjectivity and arbitrariness of the process is almost universally acknowledged. Agents and editors don’t speak of your work being “flawed” or “wrong”; they don’t even say it’s “unimportant” or “uninteresting”. They say it’s “not a good fit” or “not what we’re looking for right now”. (Journal editors sometimes make noises like that too, but there’s always a subtext of “If this were better science, we’d have taken it.”) Unlike peer reviewers, they don’t come back with suggestions for “improvements” that are often pointless or utterly infeasible.

And unlike peer reviewers, fiction publishers acknowledge their own subjectivity and that of the market they serve. Nobody really thinks that Fifty Shades of Grey was good in any deep sense; but it was popular and successful, and that’s all the publisher really cares about. As a result, failing to be the next Fifty Shades of Grey ends up stinging a lot less than failing to be the next article in American Economic Review. Indeed, I’ve never had any illusions that my work would be popular among mainstream economists. But I once labored under the belief that it would be more important that it is true; and I guess I now consider that an illusion.

Moreover, fiction writers understand that rejection hurts; I’ve been shocked how few academics actually seem to. Nearly every writing conference I’ve ever been to has at least one seminar on dealing with rejection, often several; at academic conferences, I’ve literally never seen one. There seems to be a completely different mindset among academics—at least, the successful, tenured ones—about the process of peer review, what it means, even how it feels. When I try to talk with my mentors about the pain of getting rejected, they just… don’t get it. They offer me guidance on how to deal with anger at rejection, when that is not at all what I feel—what I feel is utter, hopeless, crushing despair.

There is a type of person who reacts to rejection with anger: Narcissists. (Look no further than the textbook example, Donald Trump.) I am coming to fear that I’m just not narcissistic enough to be a successful academic. I’m not even utterly lacking in narcissism: I am almost exactly average for a Millennial on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. I score fairly high on Authority and Superiority (I consider myself a good leader and a highly competent individual) but very low on Exploitativeness and Self-Sufficiency (I don’t like hurting people and I know no man is an island). Then again, maybe I’m just narcissistic in the wrong way: I score quite low on “grandiose narcissism”, but relatively high on “vulnerable narcissism”. I hate to promote myself, but I find rejection devastating. This combination seems to be exactly what doesn’t work in academia. But it seems to be par for the course among writers and poets. Perhaps I have the mind of a scientist, but I have the soul of a poet. (Send me through the wormhole! Please? Please!?)

Maybe we should forgive student debt after all.

May 8 JDN 2459708

President Biden has been promising some form of student debt relief since the start of his campaign, though so far all he has actually implemented is a series of no-interest deferments and some improvements to the existing forgiveness programs. (This is still significant—it has definitely helped a lot of people with cashflow during the pandemic.) Actual forgiveness for a large segment of the population remains elusive, and if it does happen, it’s unclear how extensive it will be in either intensity (amount forgiven) or scope (who is eligible).

I personally had been fine with this; while I have a substantial loan balance myself, I also have a PhD in economics, which—theoretically—should at some point entitle me to sufficient income to repay those loans.

Moreover, until recently I had been one of the few left-wing people I know to not be terribly enthusiastic about loan forgiveness. It struck me as a poor use of those government funds, because $1.75 trillion is an awful lot of money, and college graduates are a relatively privileged population. (And yes, it is valid to consider this a question of “spending”, because the US government is the least liquidity-constrained entity on Earth. In lieu of forgiving $1.75 trillion in debt, they could borrow $1.75 trillion in debt and use it to pay for whatever they want, and their ultimate budget balance would be basically the same in each case.)

But I say all this in the past tense because Krugman’s recent column has caused me to reconsider. He gives two strong reasons why debt forgiveness may actually be a good idea.

The first is that Congress is useless. Thanks to gerrymandering and the 40% or so of our population who keeps electing Republicans no matter how crazy they get, it’s all but impossible to pass useful legislation. The pandemic relief programs were the exception that proves the rule: Somehow those managed to get through, even though in any other context it’s clear that Congress would never have approved any kind of (non-military) program that spent that much money or helped that many poor people.

Student loans are the purview of the Department of Education, which is entirely under control of the Executive Branch, and therefore, ultimately, the President of the United States. So Biden could forgive student loans by executive order and there’s very little Congress could do to stop him. Even if that $1.75 trillion could be better spent, if it wasn’t going to be anyway, we may as well use it for this.

The second is that “college graduates” is too broad a category. Usually I’m on guard for this sort of thing, but in this case I faltered, and did not notice the fallacy of composition so many labor economists were making by lumping all college grads into the same economic category. Yes, some of us are doing well, but many are not. Within-group inequality matters.

A key insight here comes from carefully analyzing the college wage premium, which is the median income of college graduates, divided by the median income of high school graduates. This is an estimate of the overall value of a college education. It’s pretty large, as a matter of fact: It amounts to something like a doubling of your income, or about $1 million over one’s whole lifespan.

From about 1980-2000, wage inequality grew about as fast as today, and the college wage premium grew even faster. So it was plausible—if not necessarily correct—to believe that the wage inequality reflected the higher income and higher productivity of college grads. But since 2000, wage inequality has continued to grow, while the college wage premium has been utterly stagnant. Thus, higher inequality can no longer (if it ever could) be explained by the effects of college education.

Now some college graduates are definitely making a lot more money—such as those who went into finance. But it turns out that most are not. As Krugman points out, the 95th percentile of male college grads has seen a 25% increase in real (inflation-adjusted) income in the last 20 years, while the median male college grad has actually seen a slight decrease. (I’m not sure why Krugman restricted to males, so I’m curious how it looks if you include women. But probably not radically different?)

I still don’t think student loan forgiveness would be the best use of that (enormous sum of) money. But if it’s what’s politically feasible, it definitely could help a lot of people. And it would be easy enough to make it more progressive, by phasing out forgiveness for graduates with higher incomes.

And hey, it would certainly help me, so maybe I shouldn’t argue too strongly against it?

Keynesian economics: It works, bitches

Jan 23 JDN 2459613

(I couldn’t resist; for the uninitiated, my slightly off-color title is referencing this XKCD comic.)

When faced with a bad recession, Keynesian economics prescribes the following response: Expand the money supply. Cut interest rates. Increase government spending, but decrease taxes. The bigger the recession, the more we should do all these things—especially increasing spending, because interest rates will often get pushed to zero, creating what’s called a liquidity trap.

Take a look at these two FRED graphs, both since the 1950s.
The first is interest rates (specifically the Fed funds effective rate):

The second is the US federal deficit as a proportion of GDP:

Interest rates were pushed to zero right after the 2008 recession, and didn’t start coming back up until 2016. Then as soon as we hit the COVID recession, they were dropped back to zero.

The deficit looks even more remarkable. At the 2009 trough of the recession, the deficit was large, nearly 10% of GDP; but then it was quickly reduced back to normal, to between 2% and 4% of GDP. And that initial surge is as much explained by GDP and tax receipts falling as by spending increasing.

Yet in 2020 we saw something quite different: The deficit became huge. Literally off the chart, nearly 15% of GDP. A staggering $2.8 trillion. We’ve not had a deficit that large as a proportion of GDP since WW2. We’ve never had a deficit that large in real billions of dollars.

Deficit hawks came out of the woodwork to complain about this, and for once I was worried they might actually be right. Their most credible complaint was that it would trigger inflation, and they weren’t wrong about that: Inflation became a serious concern for the first time in decades.

But these recessions were very large, and when you actually run the numbers, this deficit was the correct magnitude for what Keynesian models tell us to do. I wouldn’t have thought our government had the will and courage to actually do it, but I am very glad to have been wrong about that, for one very simple reason:

It worked.

In 2009, we didn’t actually fix the recession. We blunted it; we stopped it from getting worse. But we never really restored GDP, we just let it get back to its normal growth rate after it had plummeted, and eventually caught back up to where we had been.

2021 went completely differently. With a much larger deficit, we fixed this recession. We didn’t just stop the fall; we reversed it. We aren’t just back to normal growth rates—we are back to the same level of GDP, as if the recession had never happened.

This contrast is quite obvious from the GDP of US GDP:

In 2008 and 2009, GDP slumps downward, and then just… resumes its previous trend. It’s like we didn’t do anything to fix the recession, and just allowed the overall strong growth of our economy to carry us through.

The pattern in 2020 is completely different. GDP plummets downward—much further, much faster than in the Great Recession. But then it immediately surges back upward. By the end of 2021, it was above its pre-recession level, and looks to be back on its growth trend. With a recession this deep, if we’d just waited like we did last time, it would have taken four or five years to reach this point—we actually did it in less than one.

I wrote earlier about how this is a weird recession, one that actually seems to fit Real Business Cycle theory. Well, it was weird in another way as well: We fixed it. We actually had the courage to do what Keynes told us to do in 1936, and it worked exactly as it was supposed to.

Indeed, to go from unemployment almost 15% in April of 2020 to under 4% in December of 2021 is fast enough I feel like I’m getting whiplash. We have never seen unemployment drop that fast. Krugman is fond of comparing this to “morning in America”, but that’s really an understatement. Pitch black one moment, shining bright the next: this isn’t a sunrise, it’s pulling open a blackout curtain.

And all of this while the pandemic is still going on! The omicron variant has brought case numbers to their highest levels ever, though fortunately death rates so far are still below last year’s peak.

I’m not sure I have the words to express what a staggering achievement of economic policy it is to so rapidly and totally repair the economic damage caused by a pandemic while that pandemic is still happening. It’s the equivalent of repairing an airplane that is not only still in flight, but still taking anti-aircraft fire.

Why, it seems that Keynes fellow may have been onto something, eh?

Stupid problems, stupid solutions

Oct 17 JDN 2459505

Krugman thinks we should Mint The Coin: Mint a $1 trillion platinum coin and then deposit it at the Federal Reserve, thus creating, by fiat, the money to pay for the current budget without increasing the national debt.

This sounds pretty stupid. Quite frankly, it is stupid. But sometimes stupid problems require stupid solutions. And the debt ceiling is an incredibly stupid problem.

Let’s be clear about this: Congress already passed the budget. They had a right to vote it down—that is indeed their Constitutional responsibility. But they passed it. And now that the budget is passed, including all its various changes to taxes and spending, it necessarily requires a certain amount of debt increase to make it work.

There’s really no reason to have a debt ceiling at all. This is an arbitrary self-imposed credit constraint on the US government, which is probably the single institution in the world that least needs to worry about credit constraints. The US is currently borrowing at extremely low interest rates, and has never defaulted in 200 years. There is no reason it should be worrying about taking on additional debt, especially when it is being used to pay for important long-term investments such as infrastructure and education.

But if we’re going to have a debt ceiling, it should be a simple formality. Congress does the calculation to see how much debt will be needed, and if it accepts that amount, passes the budget and raises the debt ceiling as necessary. If for whatever reason they don’t want to incur the additional debt, they should make changes to the budget accordingly—not pass the budget and then act shocked when they need to raise the debt ceiling.

In fact, there is a pretty good case to be made that the debt ceiling is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states in Section 4: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” This was originally intended to ensure the validity of Civil War debt, but it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that all US public debt legally incurred is valid and thus render the debt ceiling un-Constitutional.

Of course, actually sending it to the Supreme Court would take a long time—too long to avoid turmoil in financial markets if the debt ceiling is not raised. So perhaps Krugman is right: Perhaps it’s time to Mint The Coin and fight stupid with stupid.

What if we taxed market share?

Apr 18 JDN 2459321

In one of his recent columns, Paul Krugman lays out the case for why corporate tax cuts have been so ineffective at reducing unemployment or increasing economic growth. The central insight is that only a small portion of corporate tax incidence actually seems to fall on real capital investment. First, most corporate tax avoidance is via accounting fictions, not real changes in production; second, most forms of investment and loan interest are tax-deductible; and the third is what I want to focus on today: Corporations today have enormous monopoly power, and taxing monopoly profits is Pigouvian; it doesn’t reduce efficiency, it actually increases it.

Of course, in our current system, we don’t directly tax monopoly profits. We tax profits in general, many—by some estimates, most—of which are monopoly (or oligopoly) profits. But some profits aren’t monopoly profits, while some monopolies are staggeringly powerful—and we’re taxing them all the same. (In fact, the really big monopolies seem to be especially good at avoiding taxes: I guarantee you pay a higher tax rate than Apple or Boeing.)

It’s difficult to precisely measure how much of a corporation’s profits are due to their monopoly power. But there is something that’s quite easy to measure that would be a good proxy for this: market share.

We could tax each corporation’s profits in direct proportion—or even literally equal to—its market share in a suitably defined market. It shouldn’t be too broad (“electronics” would miss Apple’s dominance in smartphones and laptops specifically) or too narrow (“restaurants on Broadway Ave.” would greatly overestimate the market share of many small businesses); this could pose some practical difficulties, but I think it can be done.


And what if a corporation produces in many industries? I offer a bold proposal: Use the maximum. If a corporation controls 10% of one market, 20% of another, and 60% of another, tax all of their profits at the rate of 60%.

If they want to avoid that outcome, well, I guess they’ll have to spin off their different products into different corporations that can account their profits separately. Behold: Self-enforcing antitrust.

Of course, we need to make sure that when corporations split, they actually split—it can’t just be the same CEO and board for 40 “different corporations” that all coordinate all their actions and produce subtle variations on the same product. At that point the correct response is for the FTC to sue them all for illegal collusion.

This would also disincentivize mergers and acquisitions—the growth of which is a major reason why we got into this mess of concentrated oligopolies in the first place.

This policy could be extremely popular, because it directly and explicitly targets big business. Small businesses—even those few that actually are C corporations—would see their taxes dramatically reduced, while trillion-dollar multinationals would suddenly find that they can no longer weasel out of the taxes every other company is paying.

Indeed, if we somehow managed to achieve a perfectly-competitive market where no firm had any significant market share, this corporate tax would effectively disappear. So any time some libertarian tries to argue that corporate taxes are interfering with perfect free market competition, we could point out that this is literally impossible—if we had perfect competition, this corporate tax wouldn’t do anything.

In fact, the total tax revenue would be proportional to the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index, a commonly-used measure of market concentration in oligopoly markets. A monopoly would pay 100% tax, so no one would ever want to be a monopoly; they’d immediately split into two firms so that they could pay a tax rate of 50%. And depending on other characteristics of the market, they might want to split even further than that.

I’ll spare you the algebra, but total profits in a Cournot equilibrium [PDF] with n firms are proportional to n/(n+1)^2, but with a tax rate of 1/n, this makes the after-tax profits proportional to (n-1)/(n+1)^2; this is actually maximized at n = 3. So in this (admittedly oversimplified) case, they’d actually prefer to split into 3 firms. And the difference between a monopoly and a trinopoly is quite significant.

Like any tax, this would create some incentive to produce less; but this could be less than the incentive against expanding monopoly power. A Cournot economy with 3 firms, even with this tax, would produce 50% more and sell at a lower price than a monopoly in the same market.

And once a market is highly competitive, the tax would essentially feel like a constant to each firm; if you are only 1% of the market, even doubling your production to make yourself 2% of the market would only increase your tax rate by 1 percentage point.

Indeed, if we really want to crack down on corporate tax avoidance, we could even charge this tax on sales rather than profits. You can’t avoid that by offshoring production; as long as you’re selling products in the US, you’ll be paying taxes in the US. Firms in a highly-competitive industry would still only pay a percentage point or two of tax, which is totally within a reasonable profit margin. The only firms that would find themselves suddenly unable to pay would be the huge multinationals that control double-digit percentages of the market. They wouldn’t just have an incentive to break up; they’d have no choice but to do so in order to survive.

We are in a golden age of corporate profits

Sep 2 JDN 245836

Take a good look at this graph, from the Federal Reserve Economic Database:

corporate_profits
The red line is corporate profits before tax. It is, unsurprisingly, the largest. The purple line is corporate profits after tax, with the standard adjustments for inventory depletion and capital costs. The green line is revenue from the federal corporate tax. Finally, I added a dashed blue line which multiplies before-tax profits by 30% to compare more directly with tax revenues. All these figures are annual, inflation-adjusted using the GDP deflator. The units are hundreds of billions of 2012 dollars.

The first thing you should notice is that the red and purple lines are near the highest they have ever been. Before-tax profits are over $2 trillion. After-tax profits are over $1.6 trillion.

Yet, corporate tax revenues are not the highest they have ever been. In 2006, they were over $400 billion; yet this year they don’t even reach $300 billion. The obvious reason for this is that we have been cutting corporate taxes. The more important reason is that corporations have gotten very good at avoiding whatever corporate taxes we charge.

On the books, we used to have a corporate tax rate of about 35%, which Trump just cut to 21%. But if you look at my dashed line, you can see that corporations haven’t actually paid more than 30% of their profits in taxes since 1970—and back then, the rate on the books was almost 50%.

Corporations have always avoided taxes. The effective tax rate—tax revenue divided by profits—is always much lower than the rate on the books. In 1951, the statutory tax rate was 50.75%; the effective rate was 47%. In 1970, the statutory rate was 49.2%; the effective rate was 31%. In 1993, the statutory rate was 35%; the effective rate was 26%. On average, corporations paid about 2/3 to 3/4 of what the statutory rate said.

corporate_tax_rate

You can even see how the effective rate trended steadily downward, much faster than the statutory rate. Corporations got better and better at finding and creating loopholes to let them avoid taxes. In 1950, the statutory rate was 38%—and sure enough, the effective rate was… 38%. Under Truman, corporations actually paid what they said they paid. Compare that to 1987, under Reagan, when the statutory rate was 40%—but the effective rate was only 26%.

Yet even with that downward trend, something happened under George W. Bush that widened the gap even further. While the statutory rate remained fixed at 35%, the effective rate plummeted from 26% in 2000 to 16% in 2002. The effective rate never again rose above 19%, and in 2009 it hit a minimum of just over 10%—less than one-third the statutory tax rate. It was trending upward, making it as “high” as 15%, until Trump’s tax cuts hit; in 2017 it was 13%, and it is projected to be even lower this year.

This is why it has always been disingenuous to compare our corporate tax rates with other countries and complain that they are too high. Our effective corporate tax rates have been in line with most other highly-developed countries for a long time now. The idea of “cutting rates and removing loopholes” sounds good in principle—but never actually seems to happen. George W. Bush’s “tax reforms” which were supposed to do this added so many loopholes that the effective tax rate plummeted.

I’m actually fairly ambivalent about corporate taxes in general. Their incidence really isn’t well-understood, though as Krugman has pointed out, so much of corporate profit is now monopoly rent that we can reasonably expect most of the incidence to fall on shareholders. What I’d really like to see happen is a repeal of the corporate tax combined with an increase in capital gains taxes. But we haven’t been increasing capital gains taxes; we’ve just been cutting corporate taxes.

The result has been a golden age for corporate profits. Make higher profits than ever before, and keep almost all of them without paying taxes! Nevermind that the deficit is exploding and our infrastructure is falling apart. America was founded in part on a hatred of taxes, so I guess we’re still carrying on that proud tradition.

Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

Wrong answers are better than no answer

Nov 6, JDN 2457699

I’ve been hearing some disturbing sentiments from some surprising places lately, things like “Economics is not a science, it’s just an extension of politics” and “There’s no such thing as a true model”. I’ve now met multiple economists who speak this way, who seem to be some sort of “subjectivists” or “anti-realists” (those links are to explanations of moral subjectivism and anti-realism, which are also mistaken, but in a much less obvious way, and are far more common views to express). It is possible to read most of the individual statements in a non-subjectivist way, but in the context of all of them together, it really gives me the general impression that many of these economists… don’t believe in economics. (Nor do they even believe in believing it, or they’d put up a better show.)

I think what has happened is that in the wake of the Second Depression, economists have had a sort of “crisis of faith”. The models we thought were right were wrong, so we may as well give up; there’s no such thing as a true model. The science of economics failed, so maybe economics was never a science at all.

Never really thought I’d be in this position, but in such circumstances actually feel strongly inclined to defend neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics is wrong; but subjectivism is not even wrong.

If a model is wrong, you can fix it. You can make it right, or at least less wrong. But if you give up on modeling altogether, your theory avoids being disproven only by making itself totally detached from reality. I can’t prove you wrong, but only because you’ve given up on the whole idea of being right or wrong.

As Isaac Asimov wrote, “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

What we might call “folk economics”, what most people seem to believe about economics, is like thinking the Earth is flat—it’s fundamentally wrong, but not so obviously inaccurate on an individual scale that it can’t be a useful approximation for your daily life. Neoclassical economics is like thinking the Earth is spherical—it’s almost right, but still wrong in some subtle but important ways. Thinking that economics isn’t a science is wronger than both of them put together.

The sense in which “there’s no such thing as a true model” is true is a trivial one: There’s no such thing as a perfect model, because by the time you included everything you’d just get back the world itself. But there are better and worse models, and some of our very best models (quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution) are really good enough that I think it’s quite perverse not to call them simply true. Economics doesn’t have such models yet for more than a handful of phenomena—but we’re working on it (at least, I thought that’s what we were doing!).

Indeed, a key point I like to make about realism—in science, morality, or whatever—is that if you think something can be wrong, you must be a realist. In order for an idea to be wrong, there must be some objective reality to compare it to that it can fail to match. If everything is just subjective beliefs and sociopolitical pressures, there is no such thing as “wrong”, only “unpopular”. I’ve heard many people say things like “Well, that’s just your opinion; you could be wrong.” No, if it’s just my opinion, then I cannot possibly be wrong. So choose a lane! Either you think I’m wrong, or you think it’s just my opinion—but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it’s clearly true in the real world that there is a lot of very bad and unscientific economics going on. The worst is surely the stuff that comes out of right-wing think-tanks that are paid almost explicitly to come up with particular results that are convenient for their right-wing funders. (As Krugman puts it, “there are liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists.”) But there’s also a lot of really unscientific economics done without such direct and obvious financial incentives. Economists get blinded by their own ideology, they choose what topics to work on based on what will garner the most prestige, they use fundamentally defective statistical techniques because journals won’t publish them if they don’t.

But of course, the same is true of many other fields, particularly in social science. Sociologists also get blinded by their pet theories; psychologists also abuse statistics because the journals make them do it; political scientists are influenced by their funding sources; anthropologists also choose what to work on based on what’s prestigious in the field.

Moreover, natural sciences do this too. String theorists are (almost by definition) blinded by their favorite theory. Biochemists are manipulated by the financial pressures of the pharmaceutical industry. Neuroscientists publish all sorts of statistically nonsensical research. I’d be very surprised if even geologists were immune to the social norms of academia telling them to work on the most prestigious problems. If this is enough reason to abandon a field as a science, it is a reason to abandon science, full stop. That is what you are arguing for here.

And really, this should be fairly obvious, actually. Are workers and factories and televisions actual things that are actually here? Obviously they are. Therefore you can be right or wrong about how they interact. There is an obvious objective reality here that one can have more or less accurate beliefs about.

For socially-constructed phenomena like money, markets, and prices, this isn’t as obvious; if everyone stopped believing in the US Dollar, like Tinkerbell the US Dollar would cease to exist. But there does remain some objective reality (or if you like, intersubjective reality) here: I can be right or wrong about the price of a dishwasher or the exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

So, in order to abandon the possibility of scientifically accurate economics, you have to say that even though there is this obvious physical reality of workers and factories and televisions, we can’t actually study that scientifically, even when it sure looks like we’re studying it scientifically by performing careful observations, rigorous statistics, and even randomized controlled experiments. Even when I perform my detailed Bayesian analysis of my randomized controlled experiment, nope, that’s not science. It doesn’t count, for some reason.

The only at all principled way I can see you could justify such a thing is to say that once you start studying other humans you lose all possibility of scientific objectivity—but notice that by making such a claim you haven’t just thrown out psychology and economics, you’ve also thrown out anthropology and neuroscience. The statements “DNA evidence shows that all modern human beings descend from a common migration out of Africa” and “Human nerve conduction speed is approximately 300 meters per second” aren’t scientific? Then what in the world are they?

Or is it specifically behavioral sciences that bother you? Now perhaps you can leave out biological anthropology and basic neuroscience; there’s some cultural anthropology and behavioral neuroscience you have to still include, but maybe that’s a bullet you’re willing to bite. There is perhaps something intuitively appealing here: Since science is a human behavior, you can’t use science to study human behavior without an unresolvable infinite regress.

But there are still two very big problems with this idea.

First, you’ve got to explain how there can be this obvious objective reality of human behavior that is nonetheless somehow forever beyond our understanding. Even though people actually do things, and we can study those things using the usual tools of science, somehow we’re not really doing science, and we can never actually learn anything about how human beings behave.

Second, you’ve got to explain why we’ve done as well as we have. For some reason, people seem to have this impression that psychology and especially economics have been dismal failures, they’ve brought us nothing but nonsense and misery.

But where exactly do you think we got the lowest poverty rate in the history of the world? That just happened by magic, or by accident while we were doing other things? No, economists did that, on purpose—the UN Millennium Goals were designed, implemented, and evaluated by economists. Against staunch opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, we have managed to bring free trade to the world, and with it, some measure of prosperity.

The only other science I can think of that has been more successful at its core mission is biology; as XCKD pointed out, the biologists killed a Horseman of the Apocalypse while the physicists were busy making a new one. Congratulations on beating Pestilence, biologists; we economists think we finally have Famine on the ropes now. Hey political scientists, how is War going? Oh, not bad, actually? War deaths per capita are near their lowest levels in history? But clearly it would be foolhardy to think that economics and political science are actually sciences!

I can at least see why people might think psychology is a failure, because rates of diagnosis of mental illness keep rising higher and higher; but the key word there is diagnosis. People were already suffering from anxiety and depression across the globe; it’s just that nobody was giving them therapy or medication for it. Some people argue that all we’ve done is pathologize normal human experience—but this wildly underestimates the severity of many mental disorders. Wanting to end your own life for reasons you yourself cannot understand is not normal human experience being pathologized. (And the fact that 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year may make it common, but it does not make it normal. Is trying to keep people from dying of influenza “pathologizing normal human experience”? Well, suicide kills almost as many.) It’s possible there is some overdiagnosis; but there is also an awful lot of real mental illness that previously went untreated—and yes, meta-analysis shows that treatment can and does work.

Of course, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Many of our existing models are seriously flawed in very important ways, and many economists continue to use those models incautiously, blind to their defects. The Second Depression was largely the fault of economists, because it was economists who told everyone that markets are efficient, banks will regulate themselves, leave it alone, don’t worry about it.

But we can do better. We will do better. And we can only do that because economics is a science, it does reflect reality, and therefore we make ourselves less wrong.

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things

July 20, JDN 2457590

My posts recently have been fairly theoretical and mathematically intensive, so I thought I’d take a break from that today and offer you a much simpler, more practical post that you could use right away to improve your own finances.

Cognitive economists are so accustomed to using the word “heuristic” in contrast with words like “optimal” and “rational” that we tend to treat them as something bad. If only we didn’t have these darn heuristics, we could be those perfect rational agents the neoclassicists keep telling us about!

But in fact this is almost completely backwards: Heuristics are the reason human beings are capable of rational thought, unlike, well, anything else in the known universe. To be fair, many animals are capable of some limited rationality, often more than most people realize, but still far less than our own—and what rationality they have is born of the same evolutionary heuristics we use. Computers and robots are now approaching something that could be called rationality, but they still have a long way to go before they’ll really be acting rationally rather than perfectly following precise instructions—and of course we made them, modeled after our own thought processes. Current robots are logical, but not rational. The difference between logic and rationality is rather like that between intelligence and wisdom. Logic dictates that coffee is a berry; rationality says you may not enjoy it in your fruit salad. Robots are still at the point where they’d put coffee in our fruit salads if we told them to include a random mix of berries.

Heuristics are what allows us to make rational decisions 90% of the time. We might wish for something that would make us rational 100% of the time, but no known method exists; the best we can do is learn better heuristics to raise our percentage to perhaps 92% or 95%. With no heuristics at all, we would be 0% rational, not 100%.

So today I’m going to offer you a new heuristic, which I think might help you give your choices that little 2% boost. Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things.

This is a little mantra to repeat to yourself whenever you have a purchasing decision to make—which, in a consumerist economy like ours, is surely several times a day. The precise definition of “cheap” and “expensive” will vary according to your income (to a billionaire, my lifetime income is a pittance; to someone at the UN poverty level, my annual income is an unimaginable bounty of riches). But for a typical middle-class American, “cheap” can be approximately defined by a Jackson heuristic—anything less than $20 is cheap—and “expensive” by a Benjamin heuristic—anything over $100 is expensive. It doesn’t need to be hard-edged either; you should apply this heuristic more thoroughly for purchases of $10,000 (i.e. cars) than you do for purchase of $1,000, and still more so for purchase of $100,000 (houses).

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things; what do I mean by that?

If you are going to buy something cheap, you can choose the expensive variety if you like. If you have the choice of a $1 toothbrush, a $5 toothbrush, and a $10 toothbrush, and you really do like the $10 toothbrush, don’t agonize over it—just buy the damn $10 toothbrush. Obviously there’s no reason to do that if the $1 toothbrush is really just as good for your needs; but if there’s any difference in quality you care about, it is almost certainly worth it to buy the better one.

If you are going to buy something expensive, you should choose the cheap variety if you can. If you have the choice of a $14,000 car, a $15,000 car, and a $16,000 car, you should buy the $14,000 car, unless the other cars are massively superior. You should basically be aiming for the cheapest bare-minimum choice that allows you to meet your needs. (I should be careful using cars as my example, because many old used cars that seem “cheap” are actually more expensive to fuel and maintain than it would cost to simply buy a newer model—but assume you’ve factored in a good estimate of the maintenance cost. You should almost never buy cars that aren’t at least a year old, however—first-year depreciation is huge. Let someone else lease it for a year before it you buy it.)

Why do I say this? Many people find the result counter-intuitive: I just told you to spend 900% more on toothbrushes, but insisted that you scrounge to save 12.5% on a car. Even if we adjust for the asymmetry using log points, I told you to indulge 230 log points of toothbrush for a tiny gain, while insisted you bear no-frills bare-minimum to save 13 log points of car.

I have also saved you $1,991. That’s why.

Intuitively we tend to think in terms of proportional prices—this car is 12.5% cheaper than that car, this toothbrush is 900% more expensive than that toothbrush. But you don’t spend money in proportions. You spend it in absolute amounts. So when you decide to make a purchase, you need to train yourself to think in terms of the absolute difference in price—paying $9 more versus paying $2000 more.

Businesses are counting on you not to think this way; that car dealer is surely going to point out that the $16,000 model has a sunroof and upgraded tire rims and whatever, and it’s only 14% more! But unless you would seriously be willing to pay $2,000 to get a sunroof and upgraded tire rims installed later, you should not upgrade to the $16,000 model. Don’t let them bamboozle you with “it’s a $5,000 value!”; it might well be a $5,000 price to do elsewhere, but that’s not the same thing. Only you can decide whether it’s of sufficient value to you.

There’s another reason this heuristic can be useful, which is that it will tend to pressure you into buying experiences instead of objects—and it is a well-established pattern in cognitive economics that experiences are a more cost-effective source of happiness than objects. “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” doesn’t necessarily pressure toward buying experiences, as one could certainly load up on useless $20 gadgets or spend $5,000 on a luxurious vacation to Paris. But as a general pattern (and heuristics are all about general patterns!) you’re more likely to spend $20 on a dinner or $5,000 on a car. Some of the cheapest things people buy, like dining out with friends, are some of the greatest sources of happiness—you are, in a real sense, buying friendship. Some of the most expensive things people buy, like real estate, are precisely the sort of thing you should be willing to skimp on, because they really won’t bring you happiness. Larger houses are not statistically associated with higher happiness.

Indeed, part of the great crisis of real estate prices (which is a phenomenon across all First World cities, and surprisingly worse in Canada than the US, though worse still in California in particular) probably comes from people not applying this sort of heuristic. “This house is $240,000, but that one is only 10% more and look how much nicer it is!” That’s $24,000. You can buy that nicer house, or you can buy a second car. Or you can have an extra year of your child’s college fund. That is what that 10% actually means. I’m sure this isn’t the primary reason why housing in the US is so ludicrously expensive, but it may be a contributing factor. (Krugman argued similarly during the housing crash.)

Like any heuristic, “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” will sometimes fail you, and if you think carefully you can probably outperform it. But I’ve found it’s a good habit to get into; it has helped me save money more than just about anything else I’ve tried.

The credit rating agencies to be worried about aren’t the ones you think

JDN 2457499

John Oliver is probably the best investigative journalist in America today, despite being neither American nor officially a journalist; last week he took on the subject of credit rating agencies, a classic example of his mantra “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” (note that it’s on HBO, so there is foul language):

As ever, his analysis of the subject is quite good—it’s absurd how much power these agencies have over our lives, and how little accountability they have for even assuring accuracy.

But I couldn’t help but feel that he was kind of missing the point. The credit rating agencies to really be worried about aren’t Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, the ones that assess credit ratings on individuals. They are Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch (which would have been even easier to skewer the way John Oliver did—perhaps we can get them confused with Standardly Poor, Moody, and Filch), the agencies which assess credit ratings on institutions.

These credit rating agencies have almost unimaginable power over our society. They are responsible for rating the risk of corporate bonds, certificates of deposit, stocks, derivatives such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, and even municipal and government bonds.

S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch don’t just rate the creditworthiness of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase; they rate the creditworthiness of Detroit and Greece. (Indeed, they played an important role in the debt crisis of Greece, which I’ll talk about more in a later post.)

Moreover, they are proven corrupt. It’s a matter of public record.

Standard and Poor’s is the worst; they have been successfully sued for fraud by small banks in Pennsylvania and by the State of New Jersey; they have also settled fraud cases with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.

Moody’s has also been sued for fraud by the Department of Justice, and all three have been prosecuted for fraud by the State of New York.

But in fact this underestimates the corruption, because the worst conflicts of interest aren’t even illegal, or weren’t until Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010. The basic structure of this credit rating system is fundamentally broken; the agencies are private, for-profit corporations, and they get their revenue entirely from the banks that pay them to assess their risk. If they rate a bank’s asset as too risky, the bank stops paying them, and instead goes to another agency that will offer a higher rating—and simply the threat of doing so keeps them in line. As a result their ratings are basically uncorrelated with real risk—they failed to predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the failure of mortgage-backed CDOs, and they didn’t “predict” the European debt crisis so much as cause it by their panic.

Then of course there’s the fact that they are obviously an oligopoly, and furthermore one that is explicitly protected under US law. But then it dawns upon you: Wait… US law? US law decides the structure of credit rating agencies that set the bond rates of entire nations? Yes, that’s right. You’d think that such ratings would be set by the World Bank or something, but they’re not; in fact here’s a paper published by the World Bank in 2004 about how rather than reform our credit rating system, we should instead tell poor countries to reform themselves so they can better impress the private credit rating agencies.

In fact the whole concept of “sovereign debt risk” is fundamentally defective; a country that borrows in its own currency should never have to default on debt under any circumstances. National debt is almost nothing like personal or corporate debt. Their fears should be inflation and unemployment—their monetary policy should be set to minimize the harm of these two basic macroeconomic problems, understanding that policies which mitigate one may enflame the other. There is such a thing as bad fiscal policy, but it has nothing to do with “running out of money to pay your debt” unless you are forced to borrow in a currency you can’t control (as Greece is, because they are on the Euro—their debt is less like the US national debt and more like the debt of Puerto Rico, which is suffering an ongoing debt crisis you may not have heard about). If you borrow in your own currency, you should be worried about excessive borrowing creating inflation and devaluing your currency—but not about suddenly being unable to repay your creditors. The whole concept of giving a sovereign nation a credit rating makes no sense. You will be repaid on time and in full, in nominal terms; if inflation or currency exchange has devalued the currency you are repaid in, that’s sort of like a partial default, but it’s a fundamentally different kind of “default” than simply not paying back the money—and credit ratings have no way of capturing that difference.

In particular, it makes no sense for interest rates on government bonds to go up when a country is suffering some kind of macroeconomic problem.

The basic argument for why interest rates go up when risk is higher is that lenders expect to be paid more by those who do pay to compensate for what they lose from those who don’t pay. This is already much more problematic than most economists appreciate; I’ve been meaning to write a paper on how this system creates self-fulfilling prophecies of default and moral hazard from people who pay their debts being forced to subsidize those who don’t. But it at least makes some sense.

But if a country is a “high risk” in the sense of macroeconomic instability undermining the real value of their debt, we want to ensure that they can restore macroeconomic stability. But we know that when there is a surge in interest rates on government bonds, instability gets worse, not better. Fiscal policy is suddenly shifted away from real production into higher debt payments, and this creates unemployment and makes the economic crisis worse. As Paul Krugman writes about frequently, these policies of “austerity” cause enormous damage to national economies and ultimately benefit no one because they destroy the source of wealth that would have been used to repay the debt.

By letting credit rating agencies decide the rates at which governments must borrow, we are effectively treating national governments as a special case of corporations. But corporations, by design, act for profit and can go bankrupt. National governments are supposed to act for the public good and persist indefinitely. We can’t simply let Greece fail as we might let a bank fail (and of course we’ve seen that there are serious downsides even to that). We have to restructure the sovereign debt system so that it benefits the development of nations rather than detracting from it. The first step is removing the power of private for-profit corporations in the US to decide the “creditworthiness” of entire countries. If we need to assess such risks at all, they should be done by international institutions like the UN or the World Bank.

But right now people are so stuck in the idea that national debt is basically the same as personal or corporate debt that they can’t even understand the problem. For after all, one must repay one’s debts.