Merton Finkler

Author: Merton Finkler

A Second Globalization Features The Great Convergence

In previous blog postings (here and here), I have addressed some of the key myths regarding international trade as well as the difficulties in determining whether U.S. exchange rates are over, under, or fairly valued.  This posting addresses how the forces that drive globalization have changed and so has the distribution of income (in both global and advanced country terms.)  Richard Baldwin’s new book The Great Convergence suggests that a major change in the forces of globalization took place around 1990.  He divides economic history into three broad periods: pre-globalization (until 1820), globalization I (1820 to 1990), and globalization II (from 1990 to the present.)

The graphic above (from a recent Baldwin’s presentation)  displays the three primary forces that affect the magnitude and character of globalization. For further analysis including Milanovic’s “elephant” chart on the global distribution of income, see the full posting here.



Are U.S. Exchange Rates Too High, Too Low, or Just Right?

Currency exchanges rates between any two countries are determined by a variety of factors including their balance of trade and payments, capital flows (both restricted and unrestricted), and monetary policies.  In a recent posting on Conversable Economics, Timothy Taylor argued that “all exchange rates are bad” (meaning that they generate some negative consequences.)  Although this posting does not take issue with Taylor’s arguments, I conclude that there is no one optimal set of exchange rates, since for any given set, there will be winners and losers, and trade-offs among policy objectives must be made. In short, there is no unique way to determine which exchange rate between countries is “just right.”

Exchange rate policy and monetary policy are intrinsically linked.  Countries face what has been called the “Impossible Trinity” or “Trilemma”; they can only choose two of the following: independent monetary policy (setting short term domestic interest rates), fixed exchange rates, and open capital markets.  Thus, a country’s desire to float, fix, manage, or abandon how the price of its currency relates to others depends critically on its views toward monetary policy and the flow of capital into and out of the country. Stated differently, to some extent, all countries (including the U.S.) manipulate their exchange rates by the judgments they make about the trade-offs among the three choices.

Tim Taylor argues that all exchange rates have some negative consequences:

  • If they are too low, they hurt net importers.
  • If they are too high, they discourage foreign direct investment and net exporters.
  • If the rates are too volatile, then the increased uncertainty will reduce economic activity.
  • If they are too stable, they can easily deviate sharply from what is needed to balance supply and demand for currencies.

As Taylor puts it, “the bottom line is clear as mud.  Exchange rates are bad if they move higher or lower, or moving, or stable.”

For more detail including attempts to empirically answer the question for the U.S. posed in the title go here.

Human vs. Digital Labor: Will The Results This Time Be Different?

Since the industrial revolution in England in the 19th century, many policy makers and the public at large have been concerned about the effects of automation on jobs.  For example in 1961, Time magazine published a provocative article entitled “The Automation Jobless,” which posited that efficient machines and productivity improvement would eliminate many low and semi-skilled jobs. As the figure below illustrates, private employment paralleled the growth in labor productivity (in the US) until the turn of the century/ millennium.


Is this time different?  Has the age of technological unemployment arrived?  In their first book on this topic, Race Against the Machine (RAM 2011), Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee (B & M) argue that until the 1980s, as shown above, technological improvement and workers’ incomes grew together .  In RAM, they opine we can again bring these two paths together; however, we must equip our labor force with skills to use these technological developments as we have done in the past.

In a second book (2MA, 2014), The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, B & M offer a more nuanced view. They argue that we should be grateful for the improvements brought forth by technology; however, we need serious policy changes, both short term and long term, to avoid further polarization of the labor force and an increased widening of the distribution of incomes.  They argue as follows:

Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead.  As we’ll demonstrate, there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value.  However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”

For a short version of 2MA, read “The Great Decoupling: An Interview with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee” in the Harvard Business Review (June 2015) or watch and listen to Andrew McAfee’s talk on 2MA. To read more about 2MA, go here.

Incentives Matter But So Does Context

Economist Steven Landsburg famously claimed that economics can be defined in two words: “incentives matter.”  For Landsburg, all else is commentary.  In a 2013 book entitled The Why Axis, Uri Gneezy and John List explore in detail how incentives matter.  Characterizing economics as a behavioral science, they seek to understand what affects individual behavior based on exploring various incentives and contexts.  In particular, they use field experiments to illuminate which incentives matter and how through examples drawn from a number of policy areas including child day care, school performance, charitable giving, gender-related compensation, and health care.  For more including a few examples, go here.

Quarterly Chartbook for the U.S. Economy

Interest rates and stock pricesInvestment analyst and former Lawrence professor Jeff Miller provides a weekly column entitled Weighing the Week Ahead  that employs many charts and offers an array of insights related to both the state of the U.S. economy and investment opportunities.  This week’s version provides a link to a quarterly chartbook assembled by JP Morgan that will give even the most numerate among us plenty of food for thought. One chart of particular interest to investors suggests that when 10 year U.S. Treasuries offer relatively low interest rates (e.g., below 5%), increases in their yield are correlated with increased stock returns.


Infrastructure Spending Is Not The Holy Grail

Politicians of all stripes (including Clinton, Sanders and Trump) seem to believe that more Federal spending on infrastructure is essential to increasing economic growth and creating attractive employment opportunities. In a recent lengthy article in City Journal, economist Edward Glaeser begs to differ. Glaeser, author of The Triumph of The City, recognizes that much of our infrastructure needs attention due to deferred maintenance, but that Federal money devoted to large scale infrastructure projects tends to be both inefficient and inequitable. Below are a summary of a few of his observations. I encourage you to read the entire article.

1. Many projects serve very few people; some have been described as “bridges to nowhere.”
2. Funding tends to follow political influence rather than economic need.
3. Most projects do not come close to passing any type of benefit-cost test.
4. Although projects in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century did lead to both increased productivity and employment, later 20th century projects and 21st century projects tend to generate neither increased productivity nor employment opportunities, especially for areas with high unemployment rates.
5. Consistent with point 2, many projects involve subsidies from poorer to richer parts of the country.
6. Both efficiency and equity would be improved if infrastructure projects, especially those related to transportation, were funded locally by users.

Economics 421 – Investments

Unfortunately, the catalog description for this course has not been undated to reflect the changes made last year (and this year.) Below you will the appropriate description.

ECON 421
This course blends a web-based course on investment philosophies with classroom discussion of economic and valuation principles. It aims for students to develop an understanding of contemporary financial markets and instruments as well as how economic fundamentals apply to the evaluation of investment alternatives and strategies. Students will apply such knowledge to craft their own economic philosophies and implementation strategies. Units: 6.
Prerequisite: I-E110 and at least one of ECON 300, ECON 320, and ECON 380.

The class is scheduled to meet Tuesdays from 9:50 to 10:50 and Thursdays from 9:00 to 10:50. I will NOT necessarily attend the Tuesday sessions; however, during reading period week, the class will meet from 9:00 to 10:50 (Tuesday, October 18th) as a replacement for the Thursday session.

If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me or to come to the first session next Tuesday at 9:50.

Obamacare: Repeal and Replace vs. Reform

Republicans and Democrats are strongly divided over what should happen to the ACA. Most Republicans have identified the repeal of the Act as a high priority. Most Democrats seek to reform the Act by addressing gaps and errors in the legislation. Such a characterization of these battle lines is much too simplistic. In some cases, the proponents share the same goals but offer different strategies and policies to achieve them; in others, the proponents disagree about both goals and policies. This blog posting seeks to illuminate a few of these distinctions; more complete discussion can be found here.

Truth And Consequences 512

Goal #1 – Ensure access to health insurance for all Americans

Comment: Largely a shared goal
Republicans: Available tax credit to be used voluntarily with few restrictions.
Democrats: Expand participation in the ACA and provide more incentives to induce those not insured to become so.

Goal #2 – Reduce incentives to purchase expensive health insurance plans
Comment: Shared goal
Democrats: 40% excise tax on premiums above a prescribed level
Republicans: Premium above a prescribed level are subject to the income tax on an individual basis.

Goal #3 – Regulation of health insurance markets
Comment: Not a shared goal
Republicans: Deregulate to a large degree with few restrictions on insurers to induce more competition and range of health plan options.
Democrats: Strong pre-existing conditions clause prohibitions and state-based purchase and regulation.

Goal #4 – Choice of health plan
Comment: Largely a shared goal
Democrats: Encourage competition through the market place exchanges with provisions to counteract adverse selection; that is, risk corridors, re-insurance pools, and risk-adjustment used to assist private insurers who attract relatively high cost enrollees.
Republicans: Allow consumers to purchase in-state or out-of-state health plans they see as best meeting their preferences.

Goal #5 – Provide Medicaid for Low Income Residents
Comment: Largely a shared goal
Republicans: Federal block grants to the states with states having a great deal of flexibility in determining composition of plans as well as eligibility.
Democrats: Federal government largely determines both eligibility and a large portion of the benefits covered.

Since the ACA law covers well over 900 pages, many provisions are not addressed here. This posting seeks to illuminate where Democrats and Republicans might find common ground and where they are unlikely to do so. Furthermore, given the instability in the exchanges in many states, reform of the 3 Rs – reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment – will be a priority if the exchanges are to be stabilized and survive.

Monetary Policy in an Age of Radical Uncertainty

Central bankers in all major developed economies have adopted NIRP, ZIRP, or near ZIRP policies.  The Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank now “offer” negative interest rates (NIRP) on reserves and project to do so for the foreseeable future.  The Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States remain committed to targeting interest rates slighted above zero (near ZIRP).  10 year government bonds offered by these countries range from -0.225% in Japan to -0.027% in Germany to 1.57% in the U.S. Such policies are not consistent with sustainable economic growth. See Professor Gerard’s previous posting on the pervasiveness of such interest rates.

In a recent book entitled The End of Alchemy, former Bank of England Governor Lord Mervyn King argues that the policies we have employed in the past (and present) to stabilize our economies – such as keeping interest rates low until economic growth returns to its long term rate or unemployment falls below some designated benchmark (full employment? natural rate of unemployment?) – are inconsistent with sustainable economic growth.  Furthermore, he suggests that central bank and regulatory policies adopted post Great Recession (December 2007 – June 2009 in the U.S.) fail to address the potential for a repeat of the financial failures witnessed during that period. Among other points, King observes the following (for more in depth comments on King’s insights go here.)

  1. In the contemporary world economy, many shocks to the economy are unpredictable; thus, one cannot use probability-based forecasting models to design policy to stabilize economies.  (King calls this radical uncertainty)
  2. Policies designed to stabilize economies in the short run, such as aggressive monetary and fiscal policies, leave a residue inconsistent with long run economic growth unless stagnation is viewed as the desired norm. For King, policymakers face the stark trade-off of short term stability for long term sustainable economic growth.  In contrast to Keynes, in the long run, we are NOT all dead.
  3. In contrast with central banks as “lenders of last resort,” King offers the innovative idea of “pawnbroker for all seasons” as a constructive substitute.  Banks would know in advance what their liquid assets will bring them in terms of central bank conversion to cash.

Each of the above points demonstrates how King views central banking and bank regulation in a world characterized by radical uncertainty.  In short, policy makers need to find viable coping strategies to reduce the downside cost of economic recessions in general and financial meltdowns in particular. With radical uncertainty, the “forward guidance” offered by central banks lacks credibility and fails to address such uncertainty.   In the words of Michael Lewis ( of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball and the Blind Side fame), “if his book gets the attention it deserves, it might just save the world.” (

10 Ways to Tell If You Are Sitting Next to an Economist

keynes and friedmanYou may have heard that an economist was taken off an airplane for working on equations that employed Greek letters.  It turned out to be an Italian economist working out a differential equation.  The Buttonwood column of the Economist provides some advice for those who might not know if they are sitting next to an economist (or who the two people pictured above are.)

For starters, here’s one clue.

He keeps telling you that “there is no such thing” as a “complimentary refreshment service.”

For the rest, check out the Buttonwood column.


Five Big Truths About Trade

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Princeton economist and former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Blinder attempts to add constructive insight to the political discussion regarding international trade.  Below you will find the Five Big Truth he cited.  I encourage you to read the details.

  1. Most job losses are not due to international trade.
  2. Trade is more about efficiency – and hence wages – than about the number of jobs.
  3. Bilateral trade imbalances are inevitable and mostly uninteresting.
  4. Running an overall trade deficit does not make us “losers.”
  5. Trade agreements barely affect a nation’s trade balance.

If you can’t access the Wall Street Journal, use the entry on Greg Mankiw’s blog.

GDP: Useful Construct or Weapon of Mass Misdirection

Estimates of GDP growth vary widely (often well over 1 percentage point) from the initial one (typically at the end of the first month after the quarter) to a final one (up to a year later).  This post addresses such variation and the debate about whether it arises from measurement error or definitions based on contemporary politics.  No matter which view you might hold, it’s pretty clear that macroeconomic policy should not be based on early estimates of quarterly GDP growth.

Last month, the Bureau of Economics Analysis (BEA) reported that 2nd Quarter 2015 GDP had increased by 3.7% (in annualized terms.)  Its first estimate (in July) was 2.3%.  For the first quarter of 2015, we now have three estimates: earliest +0.2%, 2nd -0.7%,  and most recent (August) +0.6%. In short, we can’t easily tell whether the economy grew or not.

Some of you may recall that GDP can be calculated in three ways:  1) the sum of what it would cost to purchase all goods produced in the US for final sale, 2) the income paid to all factors of production in the U.S. plus depreciation and indirect business taxes, and 3) the sum of all values added.

Typically no one calculates the third but recently, the BEA has begun to provide the income-based measure.  For the first quarter of 2015, the second estimate was 0.4% after an initial estimate of 0.1%.  For the second quarter of 2015, the only estimate of growth of gross domestic income was 0.6% (well short of the 3.7% GDP growth estimate cited above.)

GDP ResidualThe difference between income based and expenditure based methods, as reflected by the residual (in red) in the above chart, is far from trivial. The blue line reflects gaps in converting nominal GDP to real GDP.  These were substantial in the past, but appear not to be a problem today. See the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s discussion of this residual for details.

In a recent article entitled “Weapons of Economic Misdirection,” John Mauldin traces the history of GDP accounting and asks whether the changes reflect improved knowledge of the economy – such as updates to inventory, export, and import data – or political manipulation.  Keynes and Hayek disagreed about what to measure and how it should be used, and Simon Kuznets, who created the national income accounts and received one of the first Nobel prizes in economics for his work, disagreed with the Commerce Department regarding the same two concerns.

Mauldin refers to and quotes from Diane Coyle’s new book GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History to illuminate the controversy.  I encourage you to read Mauldin’s posting.

I’ll give Chinese Premier Li Keqiang the last word (especially with reference to the accuracy of Chinese GDP estimates – which seem to matter to many investors in the U.S.) “Chinese economic statistics are ‘man made’ and, apart from the numbers for electricity use, bank lending and rail freight, are for reference only.”  Gives you great confidence, doesn’t it?



Technological Anxiety and Economic Growth

Prominent economic historian Joel Mokyr and two co-authors, Chris Vickers and Nicholas Ziebarth, provide a compelling discussion of the historical relationships among technology, economic growth, and (cultural and other forms of) anxiety.  They address three major forces:

1. Widespread substitution of capital for labor in the short run with beneficial long run trends for employment and living standards

2. Anxiety over the moral implications of technological change on people’s welfare

3. The notion (as posited by economists including Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen) that economic growth influenced by technological change is behind us.

They argue that the current episode is similar to our experiences with industrial revolutions of the past 250 years.  This time is NOT different.  The complete paper is available from the Journal of Economic Perspectives. 

I encourage everyone to read it.

Money Ball and Medicine

In 2003, Michael Lewis published Moneyball, the story of how a team with a relative small payroll (the Oakland Athletics) was able to be competitive by understanding how a general manager (Billy Beane) should spend money to generate the most wins.  Many major league baseball teams now apply some of the strategies that Beane adopted andmoneyball Lewis articulated.

Moneyball and Medicine






In today’s “Upshot”, Jeremy Smith applies the same logic to how resources might be spent on improving health.   For a number of years, health economists have argued that death rates and life expectancy provide too limited a way to understand how much value the medical sector generates from its vast expenditures (approaching $3 trillion per year in the United States.)   Smith argues that not all years of life are equivalent and that most efforts by medical practitioners are unrelated to life and death situations.  He proposes DALYs – disability adjusted life years, an indicator that sums lost quality of life and lost life expectancy due to such disabilities, as a better indicator than life expectancy.

Lancet, the British equivalent to the New England Journal of Medicine, recently published an article analyzing 291 diseases and injuries across 21 regions of the world to assess the global burden of disease. Comparisons between rankings based on deaths versus DALYs  for the US in 2010 is quite interesting.

Using deaths, the top five causes are as follows:

1. Heart disease  2. Stroke 3. Cancer of the trachea, bronchus or lung, 4. Alzheimer’s or other dementias and   5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

The rankings using most DALYs foregone introduces two major differences:

1. Heart disease 2. COPD 3. Low back pain 4. Cancers of the trachea, bronchus or long, and 5. Major depressive disorder

Low back pain and major depressive disorder are not causes of death, but they generate huge amounts of pain and suffering and billions of dollars of lost productivity in addition to whatever medical services might be employed.

If a “Moneyball” approach to health spending was directed towards the DALY list, the gains in health and productivity would be substantial.  Unlikely baseball, however, there are no league standings based on health outcomes; therefore, the US continues to spend a great deal on clinical care without significant gains in health and reductions in the effects of disability.



Wisconsin vs. Minnesota – The Battle for Sustainable Economic Growth

In the years after World War II, Wisconsin leveraged its manufacturing base to keep its income per capita above that of its Minnesota rival.  Since the 1960s, however, the pattern has reversed.  Consequently, Minnesota now ranks among the states with income well above the US average while Wisconsin has fallen below this benchmark.  In a recent article, Roger Feldman, University of Minnesota economist, provides  four compelling reasons for this marked change in economic fortune, largely based on growth pattern differences between the Milwaukee Metropolitan Area and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area


1. Minnesota diversified its economy more than Wisconsin has.

2. Minnesota did a better job of educating its residents generating fewer high school dropouts and more college graduates.

3. Minnesotans are much healthier than Wisconsinites with, among other factors, lower adult obesity rates and higher spending on parks and recreation.

4. Minnesota located its primary university and state capital in its economic center; Wisconsin chose not to locate these entities in Milwaukee.

For more details on his arguments, check out the article.  In my view, these arguments support the notion that sustained economic growth comes from a vibrant, diverse, urban economy rather than one that tries to preserve economic advantage of past eras at the expense of supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.

American Household Income Has Been Stagnant Since the 1970s or Has It?

As you might guess, it all depends upon what one chooses to observe.  A new article by Robert Shapiro pulls the pieces apart to show that median household income has not moved much since the 1970s; however, it varies greatly by age group and presidential regime.

For example, 25 – 29 year olds in 1975, 1982, 1991, and 2001 all saw their household incomes rise for at least one decade after those designated dates.  Furthermore, the 1980s and 1990s saw relatively continuous median household income growth for those aged 25-29 at the beginning of each decade with incomes falling since the early 2000s.  Even those 25-29 saw their incomes rise post 2001.

“Shapiro concludes that ‘our current problems with incomes are neither a long-term feature of the U.S. economy nor merely an after-effect of the 2008-2009 financial upheaval.’ Nor are they driven by ‘economic impediments based on gender, race and ethnicity, or even education.’ He identifies two structural causes; globalization and information technologies. But he also asks us to think about what Reagan and Clinton did that the two presidents of the 21st century did not do. ‘The Clinton and Reagan fiscal approaches supported stronger rates of business investment than seen under Bush-2 or Obama. In addition, their support for aggregate demand included public investments to modernize infrastructure, broaden access to education and support basic research and development.’ ”

When pundits discuss the economy in general and “middle class economics” in particular, they should bear the above evidence in mind. As is typically the case, averages hide more than they reveal.

Supremes 1 Economists 0

No, this is not the score of a virtual soccer match designed to parallel the World Cup.  It’s Uwe Reinhardt’s assessment of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

As Reinhardt puts it “These justices seem to believe that the owners of ‘closely held’ business firms buy health insurance for their employees out of the kindness of their hearts and with the owners’ money.  On that belief they accord these owners the right to impose some of their personal preferences – in this case their religious beliefs – on their employee’s health insurance.”

The literature in economics is clear on who pays for employer organized health insurance: most of the burden is borne by employees, no matter who actually “writes the check.”  Health plan coverage benefits are part of employee compensation.  In contrast with the argument made by “The Supremes,” all employers subject to competition in the goods and services they produce and sell have to compare the total compensation to labor with the value generated by such labor.

Since many employees have virtually no choice in the type of health care coverage they receive, in the United States we effectively grant “quasi parental power” to their employers.  Furthermore, such powers carry over into other aspects of employee’s personal life including retirement plan choices and wellness programs.  I find it intriguing that a Supreme Court with a strong contingent that believes in primacy of liberty accepts such restrictions on personal freedom.

The Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) may right the balance as next year small businesses and their employees, in addition to the more than 8 million individuals who signed up this year through the exchanges, will leave employer paternalism for more choice and better value (especially for those who are able to take advantage of income-related Federal governmental subsidies.) Wouldn’t it be ironic if this Supreme Court decision actually underpins support for participation in the health plan exchanges and thus the ACA?

LU Alum and Serial Entrepreneur Featured

’97 Lawrence alum Abir Sen is featured in a recent article in Twin Cities Business. Sen recently joined Lawrence’s Board of Trustees and has been an active participant in our Innovation and Entrepreneurship program as both guest expert and member of the advisory committee. See below for his view of the right job for him.


“The job I want is the one I have to give to myself because nobody else will give it to me. I have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder—it’s just boring and it’s not cut out for me.”