Kevin Drum

Nationalization Revisited

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 7:53 PM EDT

In Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile of Larry Summers, he suggests that Summers and Tim Geithner turned out to be right about bank nationalization.  It wasn't necessary after all, and things are going just fine without it:

The results of the stress tests showed that the banks were not in as dire shape as commonly believed. Most of the nineteen banks were able raise money privately. “It worked,” the Treasury official said. “People had money to put into banks. The nationalization crowd would have had the government putting all that money in.”

Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

The key thing here is that the arguments as being relayed to Lizza seem not to know that the proposal to apply the Swedish model to the banking sector was a proposal to nationalize insolvent banks and explicitly guarantee the debts of the solvent ones. This is precisely designed to deal with the “nationalization sets off larger panic” worry. The fact that the stress tests showed that many banks were not in such bad shape is also irrelevant. Nobody ever proposed that we nationalize banks that weren’t in trouble. The proposal was to guarantee the obligations of banks that weren’t in trouble, a low-cost move since these are the banks that aren’t in trouble. The Obama administration wound up implicitly doing that anyway, which is precisely why most of the banks were able to raise money privately. The exact same thing would have played out with the exact same banks if the troubled banks had been nationalized.

I'm on the fence about this.  I was initially a proponent of nationalizing weak banks (Citigroup being the most likely target), even though I always recognized that there were downsides, and I'm not sure I've changed my mind.  After all, the argument was never that the banking system would collapse unless we nationalized, the argument was that (a) nationalization was the best deal for taxpayers and (b) it would get weak banks back into good shape faster than just waiting for them to earn their way back to solvency.  Considering that we pumped $45 billion into Citigroup and provided them with $300 billion in asset guarantees as an alternative to nationalization, I'm still not sure that argument wasn't correct.

It's probably true that nationalization wasn't absolutely necessary, and that we'll muddle through without it.  But the fact that we're muddling through doesn't mean we live in the best of all possible worlds.  It just means we're muddling through.

That said, so far the Geithner/Summers gamble has paid off.  If we don't hit any more big bumps in the road, it will probably continue to.

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Quote of the Day

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 5:46 PM EDT

From Gail Wilensky, a conservative healthcare economist:

It's very frustrating to see somebody who makes outrageous statements that bear no relationship to reality receive so much attention.

She's talking about serial healthcare fantasist Betsy "Death Panel" McCaughey.  The quote is from Michelle Cottle's profile of McCaughey in the current New Republic.  Worth a read.

Genealogy Strikes Back

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 11:36 AM EDT

I'm still catching up with news from the weekend.  Turns out that Iranian president Mahmoud "The Holocaust is a myth" Ahmadinejad is, um, Jewish:

A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots.

A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian — a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver....The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad's birthplace, and the name derives from "weaver of the Sabour", the name for the Jewish Tallit shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran's Ministry of the Interior.

....The Iranian leader has not denied his name was changed when his family moved to Tehran in the 1950s. But he has never revealed what it was change from or directly addressed the reason for the switch.

I will shortly be announcing that I am descended from Republicans.  More on that story later.

UPDATE: Then again, maybe not.

E. coli Conservatism

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 10:27 AM EDT

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a long story about E. coli poisoning in the hamburger industry.  I could swear I've read nearly this exact same story three or four times before and it never seems to prompt any actual changes in the meatgrinding industry, but maybe this time we'll get lucky.  For Saturday's story, the Times tracked down the infected hamburger that paralyzed Stephanie Smith two years ago, and what they discovered was that meat grinders don't test the various ingredients that go into making hamburger.  They only test the final product:

When it came to E. coli O157:H7, Cargill did not screen the ingredients and only tested once the grinding was done. The potential pitfall of this practice surfaced just weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made. A company spot check in May 2007 found E. coli in finished hamburger, which Cargill disclosed to investigators in the wake of the October outbreak. But Cargill told them it could not determine which supplier had shipped the tainted meat since the ingredients had already been mixed together.

“Our finished ground products typically contain raw materials from numerous suppliers,” Dr. Angela Siemens, the technical services vice president for Cargill’s meat division, wrote to the U.S.D.A. “Consequently, it is not possible to implicate a specific supplier without first observing a pattern of potential contamination.”

Did Cargill do this to save money?  Only partly.  Primarily it's because if they test, they might actually find something:

The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding....Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.

....The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

The USDA has since issued guidelines "urging" grinders to test ingredients, but that's it.  They don't require it.  Surely a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress, not ideologically opposed to safety regulations, can do better than that?

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:15 PM EDT

You know how football games now have cameras suspended directly above the field of play so you can get an aerial view of the action?  That's what you're getting today in cat coverage.  On the left, Inkblot is staring upward at the camera suspended high in the sky above him.  On the right, the camera descends to field level for a rare shot of Inkblot and Domino together.  As you can guess, this display of brotherly love lasted about five seconds.

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Cheering Against America

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

I don't really care much about the Olympics, and the fact that Obama's brief trip to Copenhagen got saturation coverage in the press this week struck me mostly as yet another testament to the modern media's fundamental unseriousness.  The triumph of gossip over substance continues its inexorable march.

That said, I hopped back over to The Corner a few minutes ago, and the Olympics are by far the biggest topic of conversation there this morning.  But The Corner is a gossipy place, so that's not such a big deal.  What is stunning, though, is just how openly thrilled they are that America lost its bid.  All because a president they don't like decided to make a direct pitch for his adopted hometown.  Ditto for the Weekly Standard, apparently.  It sure doesn't take much to turn these guys against their country, does it?

UPDATE: Much, much more here and here.  I honestly had no idea things had gotten this deranged.  Jesus.

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Out of Work

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 12:32 PM EDT

There are lots of different measures of unemployment.  One of the best and most consistent is the civilian employment-population ratio, which shows the percentage of the workforce currently employed.  The series below, from the St. Louis Fed, shows this measure for the past 60 years and it highlights just how bad our current recession is.  Here's the drop in the ratio in past recessions, measured in percentage points from peak to trough:

• 1948 — 2.2%
• 1953 — 3.1%
• 1958 — 2.5%
• 1960 — 1.4%
• 1969 — 1.9%
• 1974 — 2.4%
• 1979 — 3.0%
• 1990 — 2.0%
• 2000 — 2.7%

The worst recession of the past half century, the 1980-82 double dip, produced a drop of only 3.0 percentage points.  I don't think anybody has ever used the modifier "only" to describe that recession before, but it fits now: the current recession has produced a drop of 4.6 percentage points so far.  That's double the postwar average.  The drop from the previous peak in 2000 is 5.9 percentage points.  So far.  The job scene is simply devastating right now.  More from Andrew Samwick here and Brad DeLong here.

R.I.P. Chicago Olympics

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 11:26 AM EDT

In a stunning upset, Chicago was the very first city eliminated this morning from voting to host the 2016 Olympics.  Reaction from The Corner:

Ponnuru: Chicago is out of contention....But I'm sure that Obama will be a lot more persuasive with the Iranians.

Miller: Wow, what an embarrassment for Obama. If he can't work his personal magic with the Olympians, why does he expect it to work with the Iranians?

Lowry: We Can Take Some Comfort....in this distressing hour that the Iranians, Russians, Chinese et al. are push-overs compared to the International Olympic Committee. Right?

You know times are tough when the NR gang all have to use the same gag writer to produce their lame jokes.  Of course, the real loser in all this is Oprah, but I notice that none of these guys has the guts to take her on.  Probably wise thinking.

Your Morning Healthcare

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 10:28 AM EDT

Here's your morning healthcare roundup.  First up is Bruce Bartlett, who, after a long technical explanation about how Medicare premiums work, summarizes a recent roll call on a bill that blew yet another hole in the deficit by preventing a scheduled premium increase even for very wealthy seniors:

The main people affected by this situation are those with high incomes for whom paying $6 to $16 a month extra can hardly be considered burdensome.... Interestingly, the only representative willing to speak against this unjustified give-away was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.....Even many of the Congress' strongest budget hawks were AWOL in this case. Among those voting for it were right-wing heroes Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Nor was I able to find anything about this legislation on the Web sites of various conservative think tanks.

No surprise here.  A few months ago conservatives decided that reining in spending was good for townhall speeches, but nothing to actually be taken seriously.  Much better to have a campaign issue against Democrats.

Reading on, here's a Bloomberg story about some real socialized medicine:

After serving in Vietnam and spending three decades in the U.S. Navy, [Rick] Tanner retired in 1991 with a bad knee and high blood pressure. He enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration and now benefits from comprehensive treatment with few co-payments and an electronic records system more advanced than almost anywhere at private hospitals.

“The care is superb,” said Tanner, 66, a San Diego resident who visits the veterans medical center in La Jolla, California, and a clinic in nearby Mission Valley. The record- keeping, he said, is “state of the art.”

....The system is a larger enterprise than that envisioned for the so-called public option being considered by Congress, where the government would run a nonprofit insurer as an alternative to the private industry, not provide care. That hasn’t stopped opponents such as House Republican leader John Boehner from warning that President Barack Obama favors “government-run health care,” a criticism that bothers many veterans.

“I really get annoyed every time I hear these talking heads talking about ‘the government can’t run anything,’” said John Rowan, 64, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, who visits a New York clinic for complications from contact with the chemical Agent Orange. “Most veterans would give it a fairly good rating.”

Like they say, read the whole thing.  And finally, here's Kirk Nielsen on the cost of a single night at the hospital after feeling some chest pains:

The doc soon arrived, said my heart was fine and handed me an instruction sheet with two recommendations: ibuprofen or Tylenol, and antacids. Who knew? Gastroesophageal phenomena can cause dull, throbbing pains above your heart and make your left hand feel cold and tingly. Better safe than sorry.

And who knew that all of this costs only $4,712?

As it turned out, Nielsen was fine.  But considering the cost (his share was about $1,000), I wonder if he'll have second thoughts about heading to the emergency room the next time something like this happens?  Should he?

How Stimulating is the Stimulus?

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:07 AM EDT

A fiscal "multiplier" is a measure of how effective government spending is.  If it's greater than 1, it means that a dollar of federal spending produces more than a dollar of increased economic activity.  So to evaluate how effective a stimulus package is, we need to know what multiplier to use.

Today we get estimates from two sources.  First up is Robert Barro, who has done a detailed study of the effect of increased defense spending:

World War II tends to dominate....the defense-spending multiplier that applies at the average unemployment rate of 5.6% is in a range of 0.6-0.7....It increases by around 0.1 for each two percentage points by which the unemployment rate exceeds its long-run median of 5.6%. Thus the estimated multiplier reaches 1.0 when the unemployment rate gets to about 12%.

To evaluate typical fiscal-stimulus packages, however, nondefense government spending multipliers are more important. Estimating these multipliers convincingly from U.S. time series is problematical, however....The effects of tax rates on GDP growth can be analyzed from a time series we've constructed....a one-percentage-point cut in the average marginal tax rate raises the following year's GDP growth rate by around 0.6% per year.

So: at the current rate of unemployment the multiplier for defense spending is about 0.85.  For nondefense spending, Barro guessed a few months ago that it's approximately zero, but this time around he just says that he doesn't know.  And tax cuts tend to be fairly effective.

Next up is a team of CEPR economists who have done a cross-national comparison of fiscal multipliers in 45 different countries:

For the US....The impact multiplier is 0.64 and the long-run cumulative multiplier is 1.19....pre-1980 multipliers are considerably larger than the post-1980 multipliers. The post-1980 multipliers are just 0.32 on impact and 0.4 in the long-run.

....In practice, a sizable component of President Obama's package consists of government investment, as opposed to government consumption....The multipliers are 2.31 on impact and 1.83 in the long run.

So: for the post-1980 period, the multiplier is some average of 0.4 and 1.83, depending on how much of the stimulus bill is consumption and how much is investment.  Roughly speaking, then, it's probably around 1.1 or so if they're evenly balanced.

I'll be fascinated to read learned commentary on this.  Barro's work strikes me as pretty shaky, since it's dominated so heavily by an extreme event many years ago (World War II).  On the positive side, he does take into account the fact that the multiplier ought to be higher as the economy gets worse and unemployment goes up.

The CEPR results are interesting, and the cross country dataset seems like a novel and worthwhile approach.  On the other hand, they produce only a single number that doesn't depend on economic conditions.  But that doesn't seem right.  In good economic times, it makes sense that the multiplier is low, since increased government spending probably just crowds out private spending.  During a deep recession, when monetary policy is already at its lower bound and lots of people are out of work, government spending ought to be more effective.  A single number doesn't capture that.

All told, then, I'm not sure how much either of these studies tells us about the size of the multiplier right now.  Zero really doesn't seem very likely, though.  Since Obama's stimulus package was a combination of investment, consumption, and tax cuts, and the unemployment rate is currently 9.7%, I'd guess that these studies taken together suggest an overall long-run multiplier somewhere in the range of 1.0-1.3.  But that's just an amateur swag.  Let's hear from the economists.