Monthly Archives: December 2007

Quote of the Day

“On the economic front, the dollar continued to lose value against all major foreign currencies and most brands of bathroom tissue.”

Dave Barry

What I am Reading

The Gold Standard and the Great Depression

Pete Boettke discusses the gold standard and the depression. My thoughts are in the comments.

UPDATE: Steve Horwitz chimes in with a follow-up post.

Krugman v. Krugman, 2

Paul Krugman (1996) vs. Paul Krugman (2007)

HT: Don Boudreaux

Inefficient Credit Booms

In a forthcoming paper, Guido Lorenzoni writes about inefficient credit booms. Here is the abstract:

This paper studies the welfare properties of competitive equilibria in an economy with financial frictions hit by aggregate shocks. In particular, it shows that competitive financial contracts can result in excessive borrowing ex ante and excessive volatility ex post. Even though, from a first-best perspective the equilibrium always displays under-borrowing, from a second-best point of view excessive borrowing can arise. The inefficiency is due to the combination of limited commitment in financial contracts and the fact that asset prices are determined in a spot market. This generates a pecuniary externality that is not internalized in private contracts. The model provides a framework to evaluate preventive policies which can be used during a credit boom to reduce the expected costs of a financial crisis.

Sounds a bit Austrian. Here is a link to a non-gated version of the paper.

Housing and Monetary Policy

John Taylor looks at housing and monetary policy:

Since the mid-1980s, monetary policy has contributed to a great moderation of the housing cycle by responding more proactively to inflation and thereby reducing the boom bust cycle. However, during the period from 2002 to 2005, the short term interest rate path deviated significantly from what this two decade experience would suggest is appropriate. A counterfactual simulation with a simple model of the housing market shows that this deviation may have been a cause of the boom and bust in housing starts and inflation in the last two years. Moreover, a significant time series correlation between housing price inflation and delinquency rates suggests that the poor credit assessments on subprime mortgages may also have been caused by this deviation.

Here is a non-gated version of the paper.

Frum, Again

Avid readers may recall that I had to correct David Frum in regards to the gold standard and the Great Depression. Frum is once again attacking the gold standard, but this time with an ad hominem attack of its main proponent in the political arena, Rep. Ron Paul:

But [Rep. Paul's] core supporters also thrill to his self-taught monetary views, which amount to a rejection of everything taught by modern economists from Alfred Marshall to Milton Friedman.

While I am certainly no advocate of the gold standard, I am quite leery of with regards to discretionary monetary policy. It is my view that the purpose of the central bank should be to limit inflation and I would prefer that this be done through an explicit inflation target. In this respect, my view is quite similar to Milton Friedman’s and thus I am quite puzzled at David Frum’s assertions. Rep. Paul’s main reason for advocating the gold standard, at least to my knowledge, is a strong disregard for discretionary monetary policy and the inflation and distortions that it can create. In this way, Paul is very similar to the likes of Milton Friedman, despite the fact that Friedman did not advocate the gold standard (for more on this, see Peter Boettke’s stellar post on Frum).

The essential point is that the debate is not so much about the gold standard as it is about monetary policy carried out by individuals and thus the potential for error. Many influential economists including Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises expressed strong doubts about the desirability of a central bank with discretionary power over monetary policy. Hayek’s Prices and Production explains in detail the distortions that can take place due to discretionary monetary policy. In addition, Friedman advocated monetary policy rules as favorable to individuals at a central bank. So perhaps such views aren’t as out of the mainstream as Frum would have you believe.

Politics and Machines

Dr. Donald Norman tells John Tierney:

“Our frustrations with machines are not going to be solved with better machines,” Dr. Norman said. “Most of our technological difficulties come from the way we interact with our machines and with other people. The technology part of the problem is usually pretty simple. The people part is complicated.”

I found this quote remarkably analogous to Arnold Kling’s view (one which I share) on political leadership:

The conventional wisdom is that we would be better off if politically powerful leaders were less mediocre. Instead, my view is that we would be better off if mediocre political leaders were less powerful.

Why is it that we erroneously blame bad policies on poor leadership and bad machines on the machines themselves?

In order to better understand why we get bad policies, I recommend Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter as a great stocking stuffer.

What Free Market?

One of my biggest pet peeves is when individuals call the U.S. health care system a free market system. Thus it was refreshing to read this in the LA Times:

Though many Americans may not realize it, government is already the dominant player in healthcare, with federal and state expenditures accounting for 47% of the projected $2.3 trillion the nation will spend this year. Indeed, many private insurers follow the lead of the biggest government program, Medicare, in setting coverage policies.

Even if nothing changes, government will pick up more than half the nation’s healthcare tab by 2017. Universal coverage proposals from the leading Democratic presidential candidates would advance that tipping point to 2011, according to a recent analysis by the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

HT: Cato@Liberty

Less than zero

From the Healthcare Economist:

A recent Journal of Health Economics article by Gruber and Rodriguez concludes that these figures may be overstated. In fact, the study finds that physicians provide negative amounts of uncompensated care to the uninsured.

How is this possible? While it is true that doctors do give away free care to the uninsured and that many of those without insurance do not pay their bills, the uninsured patient often pay a large portion of the list price whereas those who have insurance receive a negotiated lower price. Thus, the authors find that “the majority of physicians actually make money, on net on their uninsured patients…12-14% of physicians found their uninsured patients patients more than twice as profitable as their insured patients; that is the net payments from the uninsured were more than twice the expected payments from the insured patients.”

Even when the authors ignore the higher list prices the uninsured pay, they still find that only about 1% of total revenues are given away as free care to the uninsured. Much of this amount, however, is due to non-payment by the patients rather than free care given away by the physicians.