Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blaming Capitalism for Corporatism

by Edmund S. Phelps and Saifedean Ammous

Project Syndicate

January 31, 2012

The future of capitalism is again a question. Will it survive the ongoing crisis in its current form? If not, will it transform itself or will government take the lead?

The term “capitalism” used to mean an economic system in which capital was privately owned and traded; owners of capital got to judge how best to use it, and could draw on the foresight and creative ideas of entrepreneurs and innovative thinkers. This system of individual freedom and individual responsibility gave little scope for government to influence economic decision-making: success meant profits; failure meant losses. Corporations could exist only as long as free individuals willingly purchased their goods – and would go out of business quickly otherwise.

Capitalism became a world-beater in the 1800’s, when it developed capabilities for endemic innovation. Societies that adopted the capitalist system gained unrivaled prosperity, enjoyed widespread job satisfaction, obtained productivity growth that was the marvel of the world and ended mass privation.

Now the capitalist system has been corrupted. The managerial state has assumed responsibility for looking after everything from the incomes of the middle class to the profitability of large corporations to industrial advancement. This system, however, is not capitalism, but rather an economic order that harks back to Bismarck in the late nineteenth century and Mussolini in the twentieth: corporatism.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to Stop Urban Crime Without Jail Time

by Franklin E. Zimring

Wall Street Journal

January 28, 2012

Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the latest crime statistics for New York City, numbers that capped what he called the "safest decade in recorded city history."

The dramatic drop in New York's crime rate has become a phenomenon that its citizens take for granted. Between 1990 and 2011, the homicide rate in the city dropped 80%, the robbery rate fell 83% and the burglary rate was down by 86%. Auto theft has been banished to the endangered-species list, with a current rate of about 6% of the 1990 level. Nor is this profound change just the wishful thinking of police statisticians; it has been confirmed by independent measures such as auto-insurance claims and data from other levels of government.

The rest of the country also experienced a decline in crime over the 1990s, but New York's was twice as large and has lasted twice as long. So what has the city done differently? Rather than focus on imprisonment, New York has hired more police officers and changed its policing strategy.

The results of this experiment contradict four decades of crime-control orthodoxy. Since 1971, the U.S. prison population has grown from just over 200,000 to 1.5 million. When adjusted for population growth, the rate of imprisonment has increased 400%.

This dependence on incarceration was linked to the belief that street crime is committed by persistent "high-rate" offenders who will continue to offend if they are not locked up. As the thinking goes, the police cannot prevent much crime because they can't be everywhere at all times. Persistent offenders will always find a place and a time to rob and assault.


Fuzzy Facts Can Make Crime Rankings Suspect

by Carl Bialik

Wall Street Journal

January 28, 2012

Homicide might be the most concrete of crimes. In most cases, if there was a homicide, there's a body. That makes it the preferred benchmark for experts delving into the fuzzy world of crime statistics to compare cities or track trends.

But, as two recent rankings demonstrate, even homicide figures are subject to interpretation and uncertainty.

This month, a Mexican advocacy group released a ranking of the 50 cities around the world with the highest homicide rates. Forty of the cities on the list were in Latin America, but some of the most violent hot spots in Africa and Middle East were left off for lack of data. And critics say many of the underlying numbers originate with local police, which have varying levels of commitment to accurate reporting.

The underlying numbers are more solid, criminologists say, for the news that homicide has fallen out of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., according to a federal report, also out this month. But they question how much this slight shift in the rankings reflects a drop in society's level of violence, as opposed to demographic trends. Also, the homicide counts are preliminary and might be revised slightly for several reasons.

If interpreting homicide rates is this tricky, what does that say about overall crime rates, which experts say are more vulnerable to underreporting and subjectivity? Those issues are part of the reason the Federal Bureau of Investigation warns efforts to use its U.S. crime statistics to rank cities or states.


See also

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Could Google's data hoarding be good for you?

BBC News Magazine
January 26, 2012

Google's announcement that is now tracking users' web movements has upset privacy advocates. But consider what you get in return for the information.

With the news that Google is to merge data collected from its many platforms - including YouTube, Gmail and Blogger - privacy advocates say the company will have more information than it should. Even before this change, web users had too little control over their online information, they say.

"Your data is out there," says Jeff Blevins, an associate professor of communications law and policy at Iowa State University.

"It's really blind to us. We don't know what information they have and how they're using it, and we have no right to access it."

Web companies use browsing behaviour to paint consumers into boxes, making assumptions about their identities and targeting ads at them. Sometimes users can opt out. But often they are tracked without even knowing it.

Risk and reward

But one economist says concerns about privacy are misguided - and that having more online is better than having less.

Users are richly compensated for their personal information, says Paul Rubin, a professor of economics at Emory University in Atlanta. In exchange for it, he says, they receive a free and useful internet.

"It makes the internet work much better, in many dimensions.

"If you and I search on the same topic, we may have different interests, if the results are tailored to me and tailored to you, that's a better experience."

When the data is used to sell ads, the ads we get are tailored to things we might like, and the profits can work in our favour.

"Sure, Google makes some money, but they use that money to give away all kinds of stuff, like Gmail," says Mr Rubin.

"My life is on Google," he says, referring to the calendars, documents and other services Google provides. "It needs to be funded somehow."


Corporate Citizens Can Do Well by Doing Good

by Richard H. Thaler


January 26, 2012

Although the phrase is now somewhat out of fashion, the issue of corporate responsibility is at the heart of many of the debates on economic policies around the world. Should corporations simply maximize profits and let the invisible hand do its wonders, or do they have some obligation to be good corporate citizens as well?

As with many politicized debates, this one has been captured by two extreme positions, neither of which are, to my mind, particularly sensible.

At one extreme are “pro-responsibility” advocates. This camp is often pro-free-lunch, too. They think that companies have a responsibility to pay their workers higher wages, offer better benefits, yet still keep prices down. Good luck with that.

At the other extreme, is the “pro-profit” gang. These folks think that a company’s only responsibilities are to their shareholders. The pro-profit group worships at the shrine of Milton Friedman, the both deified and vilified former professor at the University of Chicago. Friedman called the concept of corporate responsibility a “fundamentally subversive doctrine.”

“In a free society,” he said, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business -- to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Meet the Marriage Killer

by Elizabeth Bernstein

Wall Street Journal
January 25, 2012

Ken Mac Dougall bit into the sandwich his wife had packed him for lunch and noticed something odd—a Post-it note tucked between the ham and the cheese. He pulled it out of his mouth, smoothed the crinkles and read what his wife had written: "Be in aisle 10 of Home Depot tonight at 6 p.m."

Mr. Mac Dougall was renovating the couple's Oak Ridge, N.J., kitchen, and his wife had been urging him to pick out the floor tiles. He felt he had plenty of time to do this task. She felt unheard.

"I thought the note was an ingenious and hysterical way to get his attention," says his wife, Janet Pfeiffer (whose occupation, interestingly enough, is a motivational speaker), recalling the incident which occurred several years ago. Her husband, a technician at a company that modifies vehicles for handicapped drivers, didn't really see it that way. "I don't need a reminder in the middle of my sandwich," he says.

Nagging—the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed—is an issue every couple will grapple with at some point. While the word itself can provoke chuckles and eye-rolling, the dynamic can potentially be as dangerous to a marriage as adultery or bad finances. Experts say it is exactly the type of toxic communication that can eventually sink a relationship.

Why do we nag? "We have a perception that we won't get what we want from the other person, so we feel we need to keep asking in order to get it," says Scott Wetzler, a psychologist and vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. It is a vicious circle: The naggee tires of the badgering and starts to withhold, which makes the nagger nag more.


See also

Why Singapore Has the Cleanest Government Money Can Buy

January 25, 2012

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, isn’t often taken publicly to task. But when you make S$3.1 million ($2.4 million) annually to run a country, people tend to expect results. When they don’t get them, the aggrieved masses turn to that lowest-of-common-denominator gripes: Hey, how much are we paying this guy?

Lots compared with, say, Barack Obama, who as U.S. president gets $400,000 a year. Lee’s compensation will fall 36 percent, and that of Singapore’s president will drop 51 percent, to S$1.54 million. The cuts were based on the recommendations of an advisory committee formed three weeks after last May’s elections, when opposition party candidates made hay with the pay issue -- and the ruling People’s Action Party won with the narrowest margin since independence in 1965.

Such still-fat paychecks may give pause. Yet let’s applaud Singapore for what it’s trying to achieve by paying top salaries to leaders and ministers: attracting the best and brightest to public service and reducing the temptation to engage in graft. Done properly, such initiatives can make government more efficient and economies more vibrant. Transparency International has ranked Singapore among the world’s top five least-corrupt governments since 2001, and according to Worldwide Governance Indicators, an index supported by the World Bank, it has also been among the best governed.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Watchdog to protect ‘irrational’ investors

Financial Times
January 24, 2012

Investors cannot be counted on to make rational choices so regulators need to “step into their footprints” and limit or ban the sale of potentially harmful products, the head of the UK’s new consumer protection watchdog said on Tuesday.

In his first big interview since starting work last autumn, Martin Wheatley told the Financial Times that the 2008 financial crisis had fundamentally reshaped regulators’ assumptions about the people they protected.

“You have to assume that you don’t have rational consumers. Faced with complex decisions or too much information, they default ... They hide behind credit rating agencies or behind the promises that are given to them by the salesperson,” said Mr Wheatley, a key figure in the government’s effort to revamp financial regulation.

Under the government’s plan to break up the Financial Services Authority, the FCA, headed by Mr Wheatley, will spin out as an independent agency early next year and be granted enhanced powers to police markets and protect investors. It intends to be far more interventionist in an effort to head off the mis-selling scandals that have dogged the financial sector in recent years.

The new approach rests on research in behavioural economics that shows investors often make decisions contrary to their own interests because of their aversion to losses or unwillingness to ditch a losing strategy. It represents a profound shift in regulatory stance.


What's One of the Leading Marriage Breakers?

Wall Street Journal
January 24, 2012

Marriage counselors warn that nagging is one of the leading causes for discord and divorce, Elizabeth Bernstein reports on Lunch Break.


See also

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Libertarian and the Lobbyists

by Simon Johnson

Project Syndicate
January 23, 2012

In the three years since the global financial crisis erupted, two dominant views of what went wrong have emerged. It is crucial that we understand each, because their implications for policymakers – and thus for the future health and stability of the global economy – could not be greater.

The first view is that governments simply lost control of the situation, either through incompetence or because politicians were pursuing their own agendas. This is the view heard most frequently from the political right – for example, from people who think that the main problem in the run-up to the financial meltdown of 2008 was government housing policies.

In the United States, among the candidates still competing for the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Barack Obama in November’s presidential election, Ron Paul stands out for arguing consistently that government is the problem, not the answer, with regard to banking. If the government were removed more fully from the financial sector (including abolishing the Federal Reserve), he argues, the economy would function better.

The second view is that the financial sector lobbied long and hard for deregulation in recent decades, and spent a great deal of time and money persuading politicians that it constituted the safe and modern approach to banking. According to this view, government policies did not fail; on the contrary, they operated exactly as intended – and as bought and paid for.

If this view is correct, the kind of policy prescription recommended by Ron Paul is less appealing. Unless you think that a modern financial sector really can operate with absolutely no regulation of any kind (including, presumably, the rules for banks that come with deposit insurance), the real problem is not government officials’ policy preferences, but what financial-sector lobbyists are able to persuade officials to do.


Read the papers: here and here

Monday, January 16, 2012

Keep It Simple

by Joe Nocera

New York Times

January 16, 2012

What if Jamie Dimon is right?

What if the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase is not just blowing smoke when he complains that the country — and, indeed, the world — has imposed so many new rules on the banking industry, some of them overlapping, others seeming to contradict each other, yet others whose sole purpose seems to be to weigh down the industry, that they threaten to do as much harm as good? Last summer, you’ll recall, Dimon confronted Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, at a conference and asked him: “Has anyone bothered to study the cumulative effect of these things?” Just last week, during JPMorgan’s earnings call with analysts, Dimon complained that Europe’s “regulatory policy, government policy, central bank policy — it’s not coordinated. It’s making the situation worse, not better.”

Like most nonbankers, I’ve tended to roll my eyes at Dimon’s continuous lamentations. Surely, given all the harm the banks did to the country, regulations aimed at preventing a repeat of the financial crisis struck me as being worth whatever cost they imposed on the industry. And, yes, I admit to a little schadenfreude as well. (To be fair to Dimon, he is not completely opposed to all the new regulations. He just comes across that way when he’s in rant mode.)

What has caught me up short recently is the emergence of a new critic of the banking regulations that have been pouring forth from Washington and Europe. Her name is Karen Petrou, and she is the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a consulting firm that, among other things, analyzes bank regulations for clients.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Religion matters, in life and death

by Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann


January 15, 2012

Does religion affect suicide? This column presents new evidence from 19th century Prussia showing that suicide rates are much higher in Protestant than in Catholic areas, and that this reflects a causal effect of Protestantism. It also suggests that economic modelling can help understand why this is so.

As early as 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) in his classic Le suicide presented aggregate indicators suggesting that Protestantism was a leading correlate of suicide incidence. The proposition that Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics has been “accepted widely enough for nomination as sociology’s one law” (Pope and Danigelis 1981).

And even today, Protestant countries tend to have substantially higher suicide rates, suggesting that the relation of religion and suicide remains a vital topic – not least because about one million people commit suicide worldwide every year, making suicide a leading cause of death in particular among young adults (World Health Organisation 2008). Clearly, the large prevalence of suicide creates far-reaching emotional, social, and economic ramifications and invokes major policy efforts to prevent them.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Mind over Market

by Michael Spence

Project Syndicate

January 13, 2012

In the 66 years since World War II ended, virtually all centrally planned economies have disappeared, largely as a result of inefficiency and low growth. Nowadays, markets, price signals, decentralization, incentives, and return-driven investment characterize resource allocation almost everywhere.

This is not because markets are morally superior, though they do require freedom of choice to function effectively. Markets are tools that, relative to the alternatives, happen to have great strengths with respect to incentives, efficiency, and innovation. But they are not perfect; they underperform in the presence of externalities (the un-priced consequences – for example, air pollution – of individual actions), informational gaps and asymmetries, and coordination problems when there are multiple equilibria, some superior to others.

But markets have more fundamental weaknesses. Or, rather, most societies have important economic and social objectives that markets and competition are not designed to achieve. In today’s rapidly globalizing world, the most important of these objectives – expressed in various ways through the political and policymaking process in a wide range of countries – are stability, distributional equity, and sustainability.


What kind of capitalist is Romney?

by Michael Lind


January 13, 2012

In a presidential primary season distinguished so far by the absence of substantive debates, the controversy over whether Mitt Romney and his partners at Bain Capital should be considered job creators or job destroyers raises a profoundly important issue.

Beyond the concerns about the loss of American jobs to off-shoring or automation and the food-fight tactics of Romney's rivals is a legitimate question about what kind of capitalism 21st century Americans should want.

The choice is between "stakeholder capitalism" and "shareholder capitalism." According to the theory of stakeholder capitalism, corporations are and should be quasi-public entities with responsibilities to the nation-state and to the communities in which they are embedded. The corporation should make a profit and provide a fair return to investors. At the same time, workers who contribute their labor to the company have a legitimate interest in it as well as investors who provide capital. Managers serve the company and the country, not merely the investors.

In the theory of "shareholder capitalism," the corporation exists solely for the purpose of the investors, whom the managers serve as agents. In shareholder capitalism, short-term profits are the only goal, and if that means laying off workers instead of retraining them or reassigning them, breaking up the company and selling the assets to enrich private equity partners and shareholders, so be it.

The stakeholder conception of the firm is still the norm in Europe and East Asia, as it was in mid-20th century America. But beginning in the 1970s, the shareholder conception of capitalism prevailed in the United States.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Random Horror of the Death Penalty

by Lincoln Caplan

New York Times

January 7, 2012

The Supreme Court has not banned capital punishment, as it should, but it has long held that the death penalty is unconstitutional if randomly imposed on a handful of people. An important new study based on capital cases in Connecticut provides powerful evidence that death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime.

A number of studies in the last three decades have shown that black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim is white rather than black. But defenders of capital punishment often respond to those studies by arguing that the “worst of the worst” are sentenced to death because their crimes are the most egregious.

The Connecticut study, conducted by John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, completely dispels this erroneous reasoning. It analyzed all murder cases in Connecticut over a 34-year period and found that inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape that penalty. It shows that the process in Connecticut — similar to those in other death-penalty states — is utterly arbitrary and discriminatory.

From 1973, when Connecticut passed a death penalty law, to 2007, 4,686 murders were committed in the state. Of those, 205 were death-eligible cases (capital murders that include the killing of a police officer, murder for hire, murder-rape and murder committed during a kidnapping) that resulted in some kind of conviction, either through a plea bargain or conviction at trial. The arbitrariness started at the charging level: nearly a third of these death-eligible cases were not charged as capital offenses as they could have been, but as lesser crimes. Sixty-six defendants were convicted of capital murder, 29 went to a hearing for a death sentence, nine death sentences were sustained and one person was executed.

Why was this small group of defendants singled out for death? Did their crimes make them more deserving of execution than all the others?


Read the Paper

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Four Economists Come Together to Say ‘We Agree’

by Claudia Goldin, William Nordhaus, Richard Schmalensee and Anil Kashyap


January 5, 2012

“If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.” This old joke still works because it reflects a common belief that economists can’t agree on anything important. Yet the four of us are part of a project that we believe will demonstrate that this proposition is wrong.

Each week since late September, along with 37 other economists at top universities, we have been answering questions on major public policy issues. These include the predictability of the stock market, the best design for health insurance and the effect of China’s managed exchange rate. You can find our answers (and sign up to be notified of future poll results) here.

Why are we taking the time to do this? Although we can’t speak for the other distinguished panelists, the four of us are tired of seeing our profession’s views misrepresented in policy discussions.

We think there are two main reasons for the distortions. The first is the conventions of journalism itself: Although there are notable exceptions, most journalists have limited training in economics, and those who edit the articles often have even less. Hence, out of an understandable but misguided sense of fair play, there is a bias toward wanting to show both sides of an issue. When, for example, an economist tells a journalist the equivalent of 1+1=2, the writer, in an effort to provide “balance,” will often include a quote from someone who says that 1+1=3.

Second, editorial boards don’t want wishy-washy, hedged opinions. As a result, op-ed pages are more likely to publish someone advocating an unequivocal position than someone who offers a more nuanced argument. This favors fringe views. A position that sounds new, yet is completely untested, is all the more enticing to editors, so long as it appears to challenge mainstream views.

We don’t claim that there is research-based consensus among economists on all important policy questions. But even when there is broad agreement (say, 1+1=2), the news media rarely makes it clear that such a consensus exists.

To overcome this problem, we rely on a phenomenon that is often called the “wisdom of crowds” effect. It is based on the observation that the collective judgment of a diverse group of people about a question is almost always better than the answer of any single person from the group. (Think of the accuracy of the “Ask the Audience” lifeline in the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”)


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Crisis of Leadership, Not a Crisis of Capitalism

by Clive Crook


January 4, 2012

With the world’s rich economies struggling and the leaders of the European Union intent on making things worse, the gravity of the economic crisis still confronting the West is hard to exaggerate. Nonetheless, it can be done.

According to what I read, we face not just the worst recession since the 1930s, but a challenge to the West’s entire economic order. The Great Recession exposes the poverty of orthodox economics. It constitutes an ideological crisis. It shows that capitalism itself is “fundamentally” flawed. If all this were true, I’d be a lot more worried about the coming year than I am -- which is saying something.

A new year’s corrective is in order. Reports of the death of capitalism are greatly exaggerated.

What’s surprising is just how wrong those reports have been. Perhaps, as I write, the revolutionaries are organizing in secret, but I see no signs of a popular uprising. Please don’t say Occupy Wall Street, that risible stirring of the perpetually discontented whose principal goal seems to be “a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner” (not all at once, I assume). It is a movement, if you can call it that, without an agenda, and as soon as it tries to get one, if not before, it will sputter out.