“We Will Stay a Laissez-Faire Economy”


“Andrus Ansip, leader of Estonia, an ex-Soviet Republic.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

An earlier entry suggested that Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s support for Steve Forbes’ flat tax, had helped Estonia achieve a high rate of growth.
Apparently there is some sentiment in Estonia to stay the course:

(p. B6) TALLINN, Estonia — For nearly two decades, Estonia embraced capitalism with such gusto that it seemed to be channeling the laissez-faire philosophy of Milton Friedman. From its policies meant to attract foreign investors to its flat tax and freewheeling business culture, it stood out as the former Soviet republic most adept at turning post-Communist chaos into a thriving market economy.
Now Estonians, and some of their Baltic neighbors, are slogging through their first serious economic downturn since liberation from the Soviet grip in the early 1990s.
. . .
Whatever happens, government officials say there will be no betrayal of Friedman’s philosophy. “We will stay a laissez-faire economy,” said Juhan Parts, Estonia’s minister of the economy.
. . .
“I’m an optimist,” said Marje Josing, director of the Estonian Institute for Economic Research. “Fifteen years ago things looked bad, but they managed. A little real-life pressure won’t hurt.”
Indeed, so far the downturn has done little to discourage Estonia’s ambitious entrepreneurs. If anything, it has made them look more avidly elsewhere for growth.
“Estonia may be a small country,” Tarmo Prikk, chief executive of Thulema, an office furniture maker, said with a laugh. “But my ego is bigger.”

For the full story, see:
CARTER DOUGHERTY. “Estonia’s Let-It-Be Economy Is Rattled by Worldwide Distress.” The New York Times (Fri., October 10, 2008): B6.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Obama’s Tax Policies Would Be “a Significant Step Towards” Another “Great Depression”

Lee Ohanian is the co-author of a much-cited article in the highly-ranked Journal of Political Economy on the economics of the Great Depression. Below is a paragraph from his recent analysis of our current situation:

(p. A17) I am particularly concerned about bad policies because significantly higher taxes have been proposed by Barack Obama. His plan would raise the marginal tax rate on the most productive workers more than 10 percentage points — an increase that would bring us near Western European levels. His plan would also raise capital income taxes, taxing capital gains and dividends at 20%, compared to a 15% rate under Sen. John McCain’s plan. A five percentage-point difference might strike you as small, but it is not. I have calculated that a five percentage-point difference in overall capital income taxation over the long haul is equal to a difference in the nation’s capital stock of about 18%. This means a 6% difference in GDP and a 6% difference in the average wage rate. This means that real GDP and the average wage would fall, gradually but persistently declining about 6% after 25 years. That’s not quite a Great Depression, but a significant step towards one.

For the full commentary, see:
LEE E. OHANIAN. “Good Policies Can Save the Economy; Why we need lower tax rates and more skilled immigrants.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., OCTOBER 8, 2008): A17.

The academic article co-authored by Ohanian is:
Cole, Harold L., and Lee E. Ohanian. “New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis.” Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (August 2004): 779-816.

Obama Plans Big Increases in Many Taxes


Source of table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) When it comes to taxes, the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain is arguably as wide as it’s been in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale battled in 1984. Sen. Obama is proposing to raise taxes more than any recent candidate, while Sen. McCain wants to cut them substantially.
. . .
In sum, Mr. Obama is proposing to use the tax code to substantially redistribute income — raising tax rates on a minority of taxpayers to finance tax credits and direct income supplements to millions of others. How much revenue his higher rates would raise depends on how much less those high-earners would work, or how much they would change their practices to shelter their income from those higher rates.
By contrast, Mr. McCain is proposing some kind of tax reduction for most Americans who pay taxes. He says he would finance those cuts by reducing the rate of growth in federal spending.

For the full commentary, see:
Brian M. Carney. “The Election Choice: Taxes.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 25, 2008): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Democratic Housing Secretary Cisneros Aided Irresponsible House Buying


“Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development, speaking to President Bill Clinton on Dec. 19, 1994, in Washington.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the 2006 NYT article cited below.

(p. 1) SAN ANTONIO — A grandson of Mexican immigrants and a former mayor of this town, Henry G. Cisneros has spent years trying to make the dream of homeownership come true for low-income families.

As the Clinton administration’s top housing official in the mid-1990s, Mr. Cisneros loosened mortgage restrictions so first-time buyers could qualify for loans they could never get before.
Then, capitalizing on a housing expansion he helped unleash, he joined the boards of a major builder, KB Home, and the largest mortgage lender in the nation, Countrywide Financial — two companies that rode the housing boom, drawing criticism along the way for abusive business practices.
And Mr. Cisneros became a developer himself. The Lago Vista development here in his hometown once stood as a testament to his life’s work.
Joining with KB, he built 428 homes for low-income buyers in what was a neglected, industrial neighborhood. He often made the trip from downtown to ask residents if they were happy.
“People bought here because of Cisneros,” says Celia Morales, a Lago Vista resident. “There was a feeling of, ‘He’s got our back.’ ”
But Mr. Cisneros rarely comes around anymore. Lago Vista, like many communities born in the housing boom, is now under stress. Scores of homes have been foreclosed, including one in five over the last six years on the community’s longest street, Sunbend Falls, according to property records.
While Mr. Cisneros says he remains proud of his work, he has misgivings over what his passion has wrought. He insists that the worst problems developed only after “bad actors” hijacked his good intentions but acknowledges that “people came to homeownership who should not have been homeowners.”

For the full story, see:
DAVID STREITFELD and GRETCHEN MORGENSON. “The Reckoning; Man in the Middle; Building Flawed American Dreams; Helping Low-Income Families Buy Homes and Watching the Failures.” The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., October 19, 2008): 1 & 23.

See also:
DAVID JOHNSTON and NEIL A. LEWIS. “Inquiry on Clinton Official Ends With Accusations of Cover-Up.” The New York Times (Thurs., January 19, 2006).

CisnerosDeveloper.jpg “THE DEVELOPER Henry Cisneros in his office in San Antonio with Sylvia Arce-Garcia, an executive assistant. He is the head of CityView, a developer.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the 2008 NYT article cited above.

“Ill-Conceived Regulation Poisoned the System”


Source of formula title and of formula: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) Here’s how ill-conceived regulation poisoned the system. Until recently, bank CEOs and regulators slept well at night thanks to a financial model developed in the 1990s called “value at risk” or VaR. It assesses historical variances and covariances among different securities, informing financial institutions of the risks they’re taking. By assessing risk factors across all securities, VaR can compare historical levels of risk for given portfolios, usually up to a 99% probability that banks would not lose more than a certain amount of money. In normal times, banks compare the VaR worst case with their capital to make sure their reserves can cover losses.

But VaR can’t account for extreme unprecedented events — the collapse of Barings in 1995 due to a rogue trader in Singapore, or today’s government-mandated bad mortgages bundled into securities that are hard to value and unwind. The “1% likely” happened. And because the 1% literally didn’t compute, there was no estimate of the stunning losses that have occurred.
Yale mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot pointed out the shortcomings of the VaR model in his “The (Mis)behavior of Markets,” published in 2004. He noted that bell curves work for, say, disparities in the height of people. In markets, instead of flat tails of rare events at either end of the bell curve, there are “fat tails” of huge upsides and huge downsides. Markets are more complex than the neat shape of bell curves.
Last year’s bestselling nonfiction book had a similar theme. In “The Black Swan,” former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out that extreme outcomes are actually common, warning that financial engineers — “scientists,” as he calls them — ignore these unlikely outcomes at their peril. But today’s credit panic was not entirely unpredictable. Mr. Taleb was prescient in writing, “The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at their risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: Their large staffs of scientists deemed these events ‘unlikely.'”

For the full commentary, see:
L. GORDON CROVITZ. “The 1% Panic.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., OCTOBER 13, 2008): A17.
(Note: the online version of the article had the following added subtitle: “Our financial models were only meant to work 99% of the time.”)

For the Taleb book mentioned in the commentary, see:
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

For an insightful review of the Taleb book, see:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “Review of the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 22, no. 3 (2008): 419-22.

“Nebraskans Preparing for the Imminent Arrival of Several Million New York Refugees”

(p. 12) HOUSING prices are falling on both coasts, and bubble panic is around the corner.  The financial magazines are already grabbing their readers by the throat and taunting them with headlines like:  ”U.S. Housing Crash Continues!” ”Where Will Housing Prices Fall the Most?” ”Is It Time to Cash Out?”

What if it is time to cash out?  Where do you go?  If you sell on either coast, then you need to find real estate somewhere that the housing bubble missed.  Guam?  American Samoa?  Wait, how about eastern Nebraska?  Downright frothless when it comes to housing:  the median home price here usually chugs along at the annual rate of inflation and never goes down (up 4 percent last year, up 22 percent over the last five years).

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of living in Omaha, a city of 414,000 souls, consider that this year Money magazine ranked it seventh of the nation’s 10 best big cities to live in, ahead of New York City, which ranked 10th.  O.K., now you may recoil in horror.

These compelling statistics have Nebraskans preparing for the imminent arrival of several million New York refugees (victims of post-traumatic bubble anxiety disorder), who will need emergency real estate and housing triage services.


For the full commentary, see:

Richard Dooling.  "Sweet Home Omaha."  The New York Times, Section 4 (Sunday, October 29, 2006):  12.

Nazi Economy Was Not Efficient

A common view of National Socialism is that it was evil, but efficient. A recent book by Richard J. Evans challenges the “efficient” part of the common view. Here is a relevant paragraph from a useful review of Evans’ book:

(p. B5) The Nazi machine, as Mr. Evans describes it, moved forward with a good deal of creaking and squeaking. The economy was no exception. On many fronts, the Nazis managed nothing more than to bring the economy back to the status quo that existed before the Depression. As late as January 1935, one estimate put the number of unemployed at more than four million, and food shortages were still a problem in 1939. Workers put in longer hours simply to stay even.

For the full review, see:
WILLIAM GRIMES. “The Radical Restructuring of a Germany Headed to War.” The New York Times (Weds., October 26, 2005): B8.

The reference to the book is:
Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich in Power: 1933-1939. The Penguin Press, 2005.