Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

How do you know that? Why do you think that?  How does that make any sense?  

I was a highly opinionated child with a lot of crazy ideas. But my Dad was patient. He never told me “that’s crazy” or “that’s wrong”.  Instead he usually greeted my pronouncements with some variation of those three questions and often he strung them together into a dialogue.  I’d answer and he’d ask the next question or repeat the first.  At some age, I don’t really recall when,  I began to internalize those questions and the resulting dialogue.  When I got to college I had the chance to study rhetoric and semantics. I added my own questions to his three.

Why these words? What do they want me to think/feel/do? Why are they saying this?

I guess these questions are what the education folks call “critical thinking”. What I know is that we’d be better off asking these questions when we read. I’ve been reading lots of stories, tweets, and posts about “fake news” websites and the need for improved “fact-checking” and digital literacy.  But I’m not too sure we’re getting at the problem. The problem is a lack of critical thinking as my Dad would have approached.  Instead, people seem to be emphasizing the following questions:

What are the “facts”? Is this true? Is this a “legitimate” news site? Should I trust this source? How do we filter out the “fake news”?

These are the wrong questions. They won’t lead to critical insight. They’ll only lead to more deception and propaganda.  I see two problems with these questions people are posing.

First, everything cannot be reduced to some “fact” status as either true or not true. I don’t want to get into some deep philosophical exploration of the nature of truth, I just want to point out any statement of the future  or intentions is inherently speculative and cannot be “fact checked”. All statements of policy intents are statements about the future.   A person can lie about their intents (and even lie to themselves) but it cannot be “fact checked”. The lie can only be challenged by building an argument of reasoning why the person should not be believed. Further the class of things that can be called “facts” includes only objectively verifiable things. Yet subjective things matter too. Feelings, preferences, and perceptions cannot be “fact-checked”. Culture is made of more feelings and perceptions than it is facts.

I could elaborate on the inadequacy of “fact-checking” and likely will in some future post, but right now I want to focus on the second issue: the problems involved in focusing on “legitimate” vs. “fake” news sites.  This isn’t really critical thinking at all. It’s a reliance on authority as the sole arbiter of truth. It’s actually the approach that says we don’t have to engage the actual message itself and critically think about it. This approach advises to divide the world into approved “legitimate” news sources, presumably nice establishment entities such as the New York Times, or Washington Post, or ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN.  I suppose whether Fox News qualifies depends on whether you’re Republican or Democrat.  But other sources are deemed suspicious and likely to be “fake”.  Folks, the problem isn’t whether the news publisher is “legit” it’s whether the news story itself is “legit”.  Big difference.

Let me use a story that has made the rounds in the last day or so.  The Washington Post published a story with the headline:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

Almost instantly, the Twittersphere and blogosphere lit up with mostly unhappy Clinton supporters claiming this is the biggest news story and everybody is missing it.  And yet, the Washington Post site fails on all my Dad’s questions. There’s nothing really there. And when I ask myself about their semantics and ask myself “cui bono?” from this piece, I find it seriously lacking.  I don’t have to take it apart for you because Fortune magazine and journalist Caitlin Johnstone, quoting Glenn Greenwald, did it for me.  You can read for yourself:

Fortune:  Russian Fake News

Caitlyn Johnstone on Newslogue: Glenn Greenwald Just Beat The Snot Out Of Fake News Rag ‘The Washington Post’

(update 28Nov2016: An even better critical thinking take-down of the Washington Post article from William Black at New Economic Perspectives: The Washington Post’s Propaganda About Russian Propaganda )

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said on Twitter and FB.  We shouldn’t be calling out “fake news” sites. We shouldn’t even be calling out “fake news”.  We should call it what it is: propaganda.  Calling it “fake news” will mislead us and get all of us into trouble.  It leads to binary thinking: is this “true” or “fake”?  The problem is propaganda. The most effective propaganda is neither true nor fake. It contains at least some elements of truth or facts but uses rhetorical sleight of hand to get you to believe something you really don’t know. We used to call it spin, but I guess that’s gone out of style.

Let’s remember “legitimate” news sources can and often do deliver propaganda, “fake news” if you will, just as easily and even more effectively than any “fake news sites” spun up by some troll teenager in his basement.

I’m old enough to remember that the legitimate news sources delivered the news to us about Gulf of Tonkin incident and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and anthrax.   Those were propaganda, “fake news”, spun up to work the nation up to war. They worked unfortunately and hundreds of thousands died. Indeed, the march to war is always accompanied by the whole hearted support of the merchants of death and the “legitimate” news sources.

Crying “Russians! Russians!” is dangerous. Accepting such stories uncritically is even more dangerous.  It allows people, especially establishment Democrats, to ignore their own culpability in creating this disaster of an impending Trump presidency. But even more dangerous is it feeds the war machine. We have a populace that wants to look elsewhere to blame their problems: Republicans want to blame Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants.  Now Democrats are crying to blame Russians.  That way lies madness. Let’s remember, when it comes to world wars, it’s three strikes and we’re all out.

So I humbly ask that we all ask ourselves as we read these days: Who’s zoomin’ here?

hat tip to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin for the inspiration for the post.  Enjoy:

 

 

Religion, The Stock Market, and the Search for Meaning

People want to understand phenomena.  We want explanations for what happens. Journalists, especially TV and radio journalists, want explanations that can be summarized in 1-2 sentences in a sound bite.  Randomness is pretty scary.  And anything that’s too complex to understand easily looks a lot like randomness.

So what triggered this little nugget of metaphysical social observation in an economics blog?  Reporting on the stock market!  Everyday we (those of us who read, listen or watch the news) are treated to not only reports of what the major stock market averages have done that day, but we’re always given a simple and easy explanation.  Just look at today in the NYTimes.  I’m not trying to pick on The Times, it was just the first thing showing on Google Finance as I wrote this – any source, any time and you’ll get similar simplistic explanations.

The move announced by central bankers on Wednesday to contain the European debt crisis led to euphoria in global stock markets…

Krugman posted this evening that he didn’t understand it.  But he approached it from the standpoint of “does this action by ECB make economic sense that should improve stock prices?’.  I think he’s right that it doesn’t make sense, but I think he misses a bigger point.  It’s foolish to try to attribute the movements of stock market averages on any given day to the any particular sentiment of investors or any particular logic of rational investors.

The markets are huge.  We’re talking hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars in trades. Daily volume is in the billions of trades everyday. It’s complex, folks. The reasons these trades happen and why they happened at the prices they did are really, really complex.   It’s kind of like ancient peoples trying to understand the stars and without even a telescope or any calculus! Unfortunately, like them, we want simple explanations.  So we invent them.  And like ancient peoples we make sure our explanations support and reinforce whatever religious or superstitious beliefs we have.  [readers are advised not to try to decide what my spiritual beliefs are based on that sentence – it’s complicated].

There is a belief that supports much of this daily “this is what the market did and why” reporting. It’s actually based on the theory that markets are rational and “efficient”.  There’s an economic theory that holds that prices in financial markets accurately reflect the current state of all known information and news regarding the future flow of earnings and profits from firms.  It’s demonstrably false, but it has quite a following among neoclassical economists.  It cannot be proven and evidence exists to contradict the hypothesis (see Quiggin’s Zombie Economics), yet it’s taken as article of faith among many, many economists.  So much so that some non-believing economists have begun to refer to neoclassical economics as theo-classical.

The whole idea that there’s a single sentiment or key piece of news that drives the stock market each day is made even more absurd when we realize that most trading isn’t even being done by humans!  The significant majority of all trades are done by computers based on algorithms such as “buy this if the price has moved x in the last y seconds”.  Even more of the trading is done by casino-oriented short-term trading by large banks and hedge funds who are only trying to figure out what they think the other traders are going to do a few seconds before they do it. (also known as Keynes’ beauty contest).

Markets are the collective, sum judgement of lots of complex decisions.  Even if all the individual decisions were rational, there’s still no reason to believe the aggregate outcome can be represented as the decision of some hypothetical rational being.  So next time you hear or read some talking head pontificate that “the markets are saying…..”, just remember there’s little difference between that modern commentator and some ancient priest in long gown claiming that “the gods are saying….”

John Stossel Fails an Education Test and Demonstrates That He’s Economically Illiterate

John Stossel is a Fox Business News reporter.  Stossel is an unabashed “libertarian” with a strong Austrian orientation on economics who focuses on economic issues.  He’s made a living out of being indignant and disgusted by “liberals” and “big government” which he sees as the root of all economic problems.  He’s been quite successful over the years, first at ABC News and now at Fox.   He also writes a blog to go with his Fox News show.

In other research I was doing recently I stumbled upon a post of his from Sept 15 called “Stupid in America” in which he asserts that schools have gotten too expensive and don’t deliver the goods.  In Stossel’s own words and graph:

School spending has gone through the roof and test scores are flat.

While most every other service in life has gotten faster, better, and cheaper, one of the most important things we buy — education — has remained completely stagnant, unchanged since we started measuring it in 1970.

It looks appalling right?  Scores have increased by 1% but the cost of an education appears to have increased by approximately 246% ($43,000 up to $149,000).  Except it’s very deceptive and the obvious product of an economic illiterate.  There’s two clear, elementary economic errors here.

First, he’s comparing test scores, a measure that’s in absolute terms on fixed scale to dollars spent in nominal terms over a 40 year period.  Dollars are not fixed units of measure.  They change value over time because of inflation.  If you want to compare test scores to dollars spent “buying” those test scores, then you need to use real dollars with the inflation taken out.

So let’s do that.  Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, we find that what $43,000 purchased in 1970 would require $241,660. in 2010.  Yes, inflation has changed purchasing power that much.  Inflation compounds so even a 2% annual inflation rate would more than double nominal costs in 40 years.  In the late 1970’s we had some years of inflation in the double-digits.  So really, the graph is telling us the opposite of what Stossel wants us to believe.

The second big problem is that Stossel is assuming that the all money spent on education goes to buying improved test scores in math, science, and reading.  He also is assuming that the inputs, the students being educated are the same in 1970 as in 2010.  They aren’t.  He ignores that we might be paying for something else in addition to math, reading, and science test scores.

Stossel then goes on the attribute all of the problems to education being a government monopoly.  Again, he ignores facts. Facts are inconvenient for Stossel.  Competition has been brought to K-12 education in many areas. Maybe not as much as he would like, but it’s a significant change since 1970.  As his test scores indicate, it hasn’t helped much.

Finally, I want to note that it’s poor practice to not cite your sources and more precisely define your data series.  The graph is labeled “Source: NCES”.  NCES is a huge website and archive of a lot of data.  Stossel doesn’t give a source. Is it because he wants us to take him at his word and not verify or check it out for ourselves? He doesn’t even label what the spending series is to which he refers.  I am assuming it is a “spending per pupil over 12 years” type of series.  A search of NCES for a series labeled as he has it turned up nothing.

I find it enormously ironic that Stossel would make such elementary errors as to not deflate a data series or to not label his measures precisely.  That’s what we demand in principles of economics courses.  What makes it ironic is that on August 23 Stossel takes Congress to task for being “economic illiterates” and not having degrees in economics or business.  Pretty rich stuff from a guy with only a psychology degree who makes elementary economic errors.

The Federal Government HAS Been Cutting Spending – And That’s A Major Problem

One of the my major frustrations as a blogger and as a follower of economic news is the way in which misinformation and falsehoods get repeatedly passed around as they were facts.  For example, one common meme that we hear a lot is that the  government, especially under Obama, has engaged in a massive spending spree.  The idea is pushed that government is growing out of control.  This idea has been pushed heavily by Republicans and Tea Partiers. It is often combined with the conclusion that “stimulus doesn’t work”.  The unfortunate part is that this idea of a government spending spree is completely untrue!

Look at this graph from the FRED database at the stlouisfed.org.  This shows the annual change in real dollars in government consumption and investment expenditures.  In other words, it shows how additional spending was added each year by all layers of government in the U.S.  During the recession, 2008 and 2009, governments were spending more.  They were spending approximately $60 billion a year more.  But notice that once the “official recession” ended in 2009 (the end of the shaded bars) governments began cutting back.  By late 2010 government has cut back so much that it is now spending less each year than the last year.

It’s no coincidence that this is the same exact timing when two things happened: the Republicans asserted control over the House of Representatives and began pushing to cutting spending, and the economy began to slow again and the recovery stalled. These two phenomena are related.  Cutting government spending when there is high unemployment and a slow economy is a sure-fire recipe for an even slower economy and even higher unemployment.

A critical thinking reader might ask “how can this be true (that government spending is lower than a year ago) if the federal government deficit is so large?”.   Well there’s two explanations.  The first is that the federal government deficit in the economy is largely due to the slow down in tax collections and the tax cuts that delivered little economic stimulus since they were saved, not spent.  Second, government in the U.S. is more than Washington D.C. There’s as much state and local government as there is national government, particularly when it comes to spending (as opposed to transfer payments).  State and local governments are cutting back and cutting back big time.  The 2009 “stimulus” bill of the national government actually had a large component that involved the national government transferring money to states and locals so they wouldn’t have to cut as much.  State and local governments cannot run deficits the way the national government can (they don’t have central banks).  That’s over now.  Now state and local governments are cutting big time – over 345,000 jobs lost at the state and local government level in just the last 12 months.  Of those, the majority are teachers in education.

There Is An Efffective Way to Reduce Government Deficit: Employment. But They Won’t Take That Route.

In the whole crazy, unnecessary debate over raising the debt-ceiling law, politicians, reporters, and commentators all spoke as if there were only two ways to reduce the government deficits.  Nearly everyone took it as an article of “serious thinking” that to reduce a deficit requires either reducing spending or increasing taxes.  But rather than being evidence of “serious thinking”, such talk is evidence of sloppy, imprecise, and ignorant thinking.  Such talk totally ignores the role of economic growth in determining government budgets and it ignores the role of the government in the economy.  It’s evidence of the government-as-household fallacy, the idea that government is just like a big household and subject to the same constraints as you and I.

There is a way to balance the budget that doesn’t require cutting major spending programs.  And it doesn’t require big tax increases.  It’s called economic growth and putting people back to work.  The major cause of the deficit is because we have very high unemployment.  We have over 9% reported unemployment.  That number rises to approximately 16% if we count all the people working part-time jobs but that desperately want full-time work and more hours.  And finally, both numbers totally ignore the fact that since we fell into this depression in 2007 well over 5% of adult Americans have chosen to drop out of the labor force altogether for now.  If we put those people back to work, they pay taxes. Government revenues will increase even without a tax rate increase.  If we put those people back to work, then government spending on unemployment compensation, Medicaid, welfare, and a host of other safety net programs goes down.  Automatically. Without cutting any programs or harming anyone.

This idea that economic growth and full employment will reduce deficits isn’t some theoretical possibility that only exists in the models of some economists.  We’ve done it before.  Other countries have done it.  In fact, everytime the U.S. has reduced it’s deficit it’s been by increasing employment.  The route to a small deficit or even a balanced budget lies in achieving full employment first, not in contrived artificial balanced budget amendments.

It wasn’t until the debt-ceiling debate was practically finished (for now – it will be back like zombie or vampire) that any in the media took notice that growth and employment is the key.  Last Sunday, July 31, as the President and the Republican Speaker announced their deal to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling, the New York Times finally runs a decent article about how growth is the real answer (bold emphases are mine):

 We wouldn’t need any of that [reduce spending, raise taxes, inflation, or default] if we could restore economic growth. If that happened, Americans would become richer and pay more taxes. Et voilà! — we’d pay down the debt painlessly.

Crazy as that might sound, particularly given Friday’s figures, the possibility isn’t some economic equivalent of that nice big farm where your childhood dog Skip was sent to run free. There are precedents.

Before its economy crashed, Ireland was a star of this sort of debt reduction. In the 1980s, Ireland’s debt dwarfed its economy. Over the next two decades, though, that debt shrank to about a quarter of gross domestic product, largely because the economy went gangbusters.

“Ireland went from being, you know, the emerging market in a European context, to a very dynamic economy,” says Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and co-author of “This Time Is Different,” a history of debt crises.

The United States has done the same in the past, too. After World War II, gross federal debt reached 122 percent of G.D.P., the highest ratio on record. But over the next 40 years, it fell to about 33 percent. That wasn’t because some blue-ribbon panel prescribed austerity; it was because the American economy became much, much richer.

The same happened during the prosperous 1990s, which began with deficits and ended with surpluses. Former President Bill Clinton is often credited for that turnabout, as he engineered higher tax rates. But most economists attribute the surplus years primarily to extraordinarily rapid growth.

It would be lovely to repeat that experience today, and send our federal debt off to that farm with Skip…

Usually after a recession, growth snaps back quickly and the economy makes up for ground lost — and then some. That’s not the case this time, at least so far. In the 60 years before the Great Recession, the economy expanded at an average annual rate of 3.5 percent. In the second quarter of this year, it grew at less than half of that pace, putting us further and further behind where we would be if the economy were functioning normally.

Unfortunately the article still tries to give the reader the impression that growth/full employment is difficult or unlikely this time.  It tries to give the impression that the growth during the Clinton years was somehow extraordinarily fast.  It was only fast by comparison with either the Bush I, Bush II or the first Reagan terms.  In fact, the growth during the Clinton years was only average at best when compared to what was achieved routinely during 1950-1973 or even during the Carter years.  The article also falsely claims that our “aging population” will require unusually large demands on government resources.  In fact the demands of the aging baby boomers on either Social Security or Medicare aren’t any greater than the resources we devoted to educating those baby boomers in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Nonetheless, the point of the article is right on:  growth and growth in employment is the way to go if you’re worried about the deficit & debt (which I’m not, but that’s another issue).  The deficit we have is a jobs deficit, not a fiscal or budget deficit.  That’s what we need to worry about.

Washington and the chattering political classes have it wrong.  Their “serious” talk is anything but.

What Happens If Debt Ceiling Is or Isn’t Raised – How It Plays Out (updated)

Yesterday I took a stab at describing what the consequences of a government default might be and I added to it here.  There’s basically three lessons to take away from those questions. One, nobody knows now exactly what happens, especially in financial markets.  Two, it all depends on the specifics of a deal or no deal to raise the debt ceiling.  Truth is that many of the proposed “deals” to raise the debt ceiling will have negative consequences for the economy as bad as if we don’t raise the ceiling.  And three, regardless of the specifics in financial markets, it will have very negative consequences on GDP and the real economy where most of us live and work.  What I want to address now is less of what the disaster will be as the how the economic side of crisis will likely unfold.

Reporters and politicians are using the metaphor or image of the economy moving toward a cliff to describe how things will happen economically.  They, and the President is one of them, are conjuring up an image whereby the economy is moving along just fine and dandy and then, if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will just fall off a cliff into a giant abyss on Aug. 2.  They’re acting as if there’s this hard-and-fast, unalterable deadline when the machine just stops.  If Congress passes a debt ceiling increase before Aug. 2 then they act like everything will be OK.  The image that comes to my mind is one of Coyote from the old Loony Tunes cartoons racing along a plateau towards a giant cliff.  At his current rate he’ll reach the edge on Aug 2.  If Congress votes an increase before Aug 2, then a bridge will appear out of nowhere and he goes on safely.  If they don’t Coyote just falls into the abyss.  That’s wrong and it’s misleading.

The better metaphor is not of a someone racing toward a cliff. The better metaphor is to imagine thousands of people all standing around at the edge of a cliff looking over the edge. The key is the cliff isn’t made of rock.  It’s made of ordinary sand and dirt and it’s weak.  And the cliff has a bit of an overhand to it.  Nobody can see clearly over the edge.  What will happen is that gradually people will get nervous.  Some folks decide to move back from the  edge – banks, investors, and funds decide to move their money out of US T-bills. But the movement starts to weaken and shake the ground.  Some dirt can be seen sliding over the edge.  More people begin to pull back.  The earth shakes and slips more.  It turns into a mob rush to start getting away from the cliff’s edge. But it’s too late.  The ground starts sliding slowly but it gains momentum.  It turns into a landslide.  The whole cliff slides down in a massive landslide taking huge numbers of people with it.  That’s how I see it.

We’re already seeing the beginning of the movements this week.  We have reports from the New York Times that Debt Ceiling Impasse Rattles Short-Term Credit Markets.  The stock markets aren’t in full panic mode. There’s been no 3-5% decline days of panic selling like we saw in 2008. Yet.  But we’ve seen the market turn decidedly down. It’s been losing about .8% per day all week for a 4% loss on the week.  Interest rates on short-term government T-bills are up a little, indicating that a growing desire to sell by many and get out.  (interestingly, the rate on long-term bonds are actually down a bit – funds appear to still be bullish on the U.S. long-term).  Right now there’s no panic. But as JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said today “We’re praying. And we’re planning”.

How bad could it get?  Again I’ll turn to Jamie Dimon:

Now, here’s what really would happen.

Every single company with treasuries, every insurance fund, every — every requirement that — it will start snowballing. Automatic, you don’t pay your debt, there will be default by ratings agencies. All short-term financing will disappear. I would have hundreds of work streams working around the world protecting our company for that kind of event.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/jamie-dimon-debt-ceiling-isnt-raised-and-the-us-defaults-praying-2011-4#ixzz1TX9b0ypB

Even the Aug 2 deadline itself isn’t as hard and fast as the President and Secretary of the Treasury have made it out to be.  The original projected date when new government borrowing would have to stop was in mid-May.  But when that date came, the Treasury began to implement some extraordinary measures.  Instead of making cash payments to some government employee pension funds he gave them IOU’s – promises to make it good soon.  Cash payments to many government vendors have been slowed down.  They implemented tricks that are the big government equivalent of searching the sofa for loose change, or borrowing from the kids’ piggy banks, or using the full 15-day grace period to make the mortgage payment.  At the same time, cash tax collections have a just a tick better than projected.  Eventually these tricks run out.  Right now the latest estimates I’ve seen say the real cash-drop dead date is closer to Aug 10. But it’s likely the Treasury will stop something on Aug 2.  We just don’t know what.

My point here is that it’s not like Tuesday August 2 is calamity day and everything happens then.  It might. But things might fall apart before then.  Or they might fall apart a few days later.  Or things might continue to gradually get worse but without us realizing how bad it’s getting because we’re waiting for the dramatic fall off a cliff.  By the time we realize in mid-August that it’s a real disaster, we’ll be buried in the landslide.

This is crazy.  It’s no way to run a government or an economy, but it’s clear that the Republicans and Tea Party types would rather crash the economy than compromise. Unfortunately Obama is willing to help them do it.

UPDATE:  Some indicators of possible trouble could show up next Monday when the Treasury holds a “routine” auction of T-bills for refunding purposes.  Refunding doesn’t add net debt, it only rolls-over existing maturing debt.  Treasury will also announce it’s plans for future auctions at that time.  According to the Wall Street Journal Marketwatch:

A refunding is a replacement of government debt, often debt that is about to mature, with new debt. Officials typically meet with about half of the primary dealers each quarter to discuss the refunding.

On Monday, Treasury plans to release estimates of future borrowing. Two days later, it will release its refunding decisions, including how much in Treasury securities will be sold.

How to Tell If the Politician or Reporter Is Ignorant, Foolish, or Has a Hidden Agenda – Part 2

Another in the series.  See part 1 here. 

 

If the politician or reporter says something about “our grand children having to payoff the national debt”, it’s totally bogus.  The speaker is either ignorant, foolish or has a hidden agenda they want you to accept.  Sometimes they use phases like “saddle our grandchildren with debt” or “mortgage our children’s future”.  It’s all hogwash.  Future generations do not have “pay off” the national debt.  All they need do is pay the interest on the debt.  And since the economy is no doubt larger by the time they get here, it’s probably not a problem.  The baby boomers, those born from 1946 through 1965, supposedly inherited the huge national debt that was borrowed to pay for World War II.  None of those boomers, yours truly included, ever had to pay off that debt.  Again, I’ve said it before, but governments are not like households.  They don’t have to “pay-off” their debt.  Government debt is more like money that pays interest.

The latest example I’ve seen of this error came in today’s New York Times who quoted Senator John McCain:

 Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the older generation, reflected the divide in an interview Thursday on Bloomberg TV.

“I think Eric Cantor is carrying out the mandate of last November, which was to stop mortgaging our children’s futures, while the president keeps talking about spending more money,” he said.