Archive for the ‘Krugman’ Category

Note to William Anderson: Limited liability is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme

January 5th, 2009 No comments

William Anderson (an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and economics prof. at Frostburg State University) has a thoughtful New Year’s Day post, pointing out how Paul Krugman fails to understand the causes of ouir economic stagnation and financial meltdown.

I posted the following comment, in which I argue that the state grant of limited laibility (which I have discussed in several recent posts) is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme:

Bill, I agree with the thrust of your criticisms of Krugman, but have a few small quibbles.

First, while you rightly condemn “most economic regulation … of the command-and-control variety”, you blame all of this on “the whims of bureaucrats and environmentalists” and completely fail to note that state and federal environmental regulation (i) initially responded to real environmental problems and (ii) also represents the successful efforts by established firms to raise barriers to entry and to cartelize their industries.  See Roger Meiners & Bruce Yandle, Common Law and the Conceit of Modern Environmental Policy, 7 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 923, 926-46 (1999), and Walter Block, Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights..

Second, while you are correct that Krugman fails to understand the role of the state in creating the distortions that underlie our current problems, it seems to me that you have neglected one of the key state interventions that has fuelled the rent-seeking and risk socialization that we see today – the grants of legal personhood (with unlimited purposes and life and Constitutional rights) to corporations and blanket limited liability to shareholders.

Limited liability has enabled corporate managers to act without close shareholder oversight and management; this I believe has played a key role in the vast misalignment of incentives that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn describe at the NYT, and in the risk mismanagement that Joe Nocera of the NYT describes at length in the NYT Magazine.  Those taking large bonuses (whether in the financial industry or large corporations) were essentially playing with OPM – Other People’s Money – and capturing the upside of short-term gains while leaving shareholders and taxpayers holding the bag for loses.

I hope that you and others here will look more deeply at the role of the state in the problem of misaligned incentives that continue to corrupt American capitalism.

Paul Krugman: "The only way we’re going to get action … is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral."

August 1st, 2008 2 comments

Paul Krugman reaches the above conclusion in his August 1 New York Time op-ed, which asks “Can This Planet Be Saved?”, while discussing the latest work by economists on the cost-benefit analsys of taking action to mitigate potential climate risks – this time by Harvard`s Marty Weitzman, whose work I have discussed several times before).

The op-ed certainly shows the frustration of Krugman, who was one of more than 2500 Nobel Laureate and other economists who in 1997 signed  the “Economists’ Statement on Climate Change” that  acknowledged the conclusions of the preceding IPCC report (that man was having a discernable influence on climate), asserted the economic feasibility of greenhouse gas reductions without harming the American economy, and recommended market-based policies.  Key parts of the op-ed are the following:

What’s at stake in that fight [over environmental policy], above all, is the question of whether we’ll take action against climate change before it’s utterly too late.

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

Now for the bad news: sheer irresponsibility may be a winning political strategy.

Mr. McCain’s claim that opponents of offshore drilling are responsible for high gas prices is ridiculous — and to their credit, major news organizations have pointed this out. Yet Mr. McCain’s gambit seems nonetheless to be working: public support for ending restrictions on drilling has risen sharply, with roughly half of voters saying that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

(emphasis added)

I think that Krugman has a legitimate concern about pandering to voters on energy prices, even as Krugman`s a bit too close to the political struggle to acknowledge that environmental policies of course affect energy prices, and that “sheer irresponsibility” has been a winning political strategy for as long as – well, for as long as there have been politicians.

As I have noted elsewhere, there is an extremely wide array of opinion that carbon taxes would be the most effective and least damaging approach, and, if rebated or applied to reduce taxes on income or labor, would find long-term political support, yet politicians refuse to mention them, but instead present us with monstrous giveaways like those included in the Warner-Lieberman bill (which McCain`s bill resembles).  Heck, even Exxon, AEI, RAND and the American Council for Capital Formation have come out in favor of carbon taxes! 

Krugman explores Weitzman a little more closely in a July 29 blog post at the New York Times.  That post, and the further discussions it links to, is well worth exploring.  However, one can see Krugman`s train of thought at the very end, where he asks:

The question is, can we mobilize people to make modest sacrifices to protect against low-probability catastrophes in the distant future?

He`s obviously decided over the past few days that the way to mobilize people is to let his dander fly.  While I believe that a little more sophistication is needed, I would note that Gene Callahan, at least, has argued that swinging a moral club is an appropriate weapon, even for libertarians.  I applaud Krugman for letting not only McCain but also Obama feeling some of his lash.

I note that there are some commentators already wringing their hands over Krugman`s moralizing, but they very curiously fail to comment on the very real rent-seeking (and climate risk-shifting) and PR manipulation by fossil fuel interests that lies at the core of the policy deadlock.


PS:  Some of my thoughts on the current policy deadlock are as follows:

– many fossil fuel firms want to be compensated – in the form of new pork for gigantic and iffy “clean coal” projects – for budging from their current free ride on our common atmosphere;

– fossil fuel interests, including their customer chain, have great political pull in both parties (for example, nobody is yet willing to let American car manufacturers suffer their deserved fate, and Byrd and Rockefeller have alotof pull);

– financial firms – other than insurers – all looking for a cap and trade scheme, so they can profit from carbon trading;

– many firms who see opportunities in new technologies are busy fighting for advantage in the draft legislation; 

– not least, politicans are looking for legislation that promises the greatest flow of pork and campaign contributions, and have little interest in being open or hoinest with taxpayers;

– Democrats have little stomach for leadership – at least until the American people finish hanging the Republican party over its disastrous foreign policy and obvious corruption;

– there are considerable opportunities for policies that improve our tax system and regulation of energy resources and infrastructure.  I look for Republicans to start offering them after they have completely squandered their turn at the wheel of state, and are locked again into minority status in Congress.



Krugman/NYT heralds the beginning of the end for suburban sprawl

May 22nd, 2008 No comments

Maybe next we’ll see Krugman and others supporting an end to the gas-tax subsidized federal highway system?