Today's Negative Nominal Interest Rates Won't Work

A lot of central banks have moved towards negative interest rates. Some people think it is essential that central banks ease below the zero boundary. This includes central bankers at the ECB, in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan who have all implemented negative rates.

Some critics believe that negative rates will have all sorts of unintended consequences. Even proponents of negative rates sometimes lobby for a move towards a cashless society where negative rates can be implemented with potentially fewer unintended consequences.

Regardless of whether side is correct, negative nominal rates are a sign that central bankers will fail to accomplish their goals. 

In the case of critics of negative nominal rates being correct, the reasons are relatively straightforward. Something will go wrong. Maybe attempts to avoid negative rates by changing deposits to cash mean negative rates merely incentivize unproductive behavior. Perhaps negative interest income of banks drive deleveraging, or the uncertainty of negative nominal rates negatively impact the markets. There are many possible unintended consequences that could cause negative nominal interest rates to be counterproductive.

What is interesting is that even if negative nominal rates are necessary and proper, things will still turn out badly in our current environment. Central banks are naturally cautious, and negative interest rates a new territory that they will not dive into. When central banks think an interest rate cut is necessary in positive nominal rate regimes, they usually move in increments in 25 or 50 basis points. However, many central banks are being very reticent about moving interest rates negative around or past the zero-bound - the Bank of Japan is a good example. They only moved the rate to negative 0.1%, and only apply it to specific accounts held by financial institutions held at the BOJ. To the extent that negative rates are necessary and proper, central bankers are too scared to move the rates sufficiently negative.

So either they are messing things up by implementing negative rates, or their negative rates won't be sufficient to accomplish their goals. This helps explain why the Japanese yen has actually strengthened since the implementation of negative rates by the Bank of Japan. Either they aren't doing enough, or what they are doing is counterproductive. Even if it is difficult to parse what negative nominal rates will do, it is safe to say that central banks resorting to the implementation negative nominal rates are unlikely to accomplish their goals.

The GOP Establishment's Primary Problem

It's been a long time since I've posted. And I've been following the primaries much more closely than is probably healthy. Following primaries is unhealthy for a few reasons. First, it's paying attention to things that are hard to benefit from or change. Second, believing that the future of our country is changing on a day to day basis with the polls ascribes a bit too much explanatory power to politics when the default is for the major parties to trade nominal control without usually making drastic changes. Finally, no one thinks reality TV is good for you, and this season politics and reality TV are inter-lapping more than ever before. Also, closely following the GOP primary is counter productive when demographics suggest that any moderate Democrat should be able to win in the general election in today's status quo. That said, I have some thoughts that I am going to in-advisably share with the internet.

The GOP primary is a coordinated action problem for the Republican establishment. They really don't want Trump to win. They don't like Cruz. Unfortunately for them, voters do not like them. Between Trump, Cruz and Carson, the anti-establishment Republican candidates are polling at over 50%. To have any hope of beating either, they need to unite behind one candidate. Scott Walker saw this early on, along with his relatively low poll numbers. But what is driving the establishment candidates still in the race?

The establishment money and votes are currently spread between Jeb and Rubio and with a little bit of money and more votes going towards the more moderate Kasich. Given how they are currently polling nationally, the first order solution is to throw support behind Rubio. There are currently a three issues preventing that.

First, Rubio's robotic performance in the pre-New Hampshire debate made him look stupid. He's already relatively inexperienced, so any signals that he'll help Democrats accentuate this weakness in the general election is extra worrisome.

Secondly, there is a perception that Rubio is a disloyal former Jeb Bush lieutenant. George W. Bush's book on his father, 41, made loyalty a central theme. Jonathan Haidt's research tells that loyalty is even more important to conservatives, so a sizable group of Bush loyalists will resist rewarding disloyalty. 

The third issue is immigration. On this issue Rubio is not only out of step with a significant amount of conservatives, but he has demonstrated his ability to at least partially change his position when he comes into power. So the GOP establishment has someone who is disloyal and changes positions. 

Even with all of those problems, Rubio has plenty of money and is polling moderately nationally. With full establishment support he'd have a plurality of voters against Cruz and Trump. Absent a new self inflicted wound, he has no incentive to bow out at this point.

The other establishment hope has been Jeb! Jeb's problems are simpler than Rubio's. Jeb just isn't a good enough candidate to make up for the fact that he is a Bush. Not enough people support him. In a recent poll, 24% of Republicans claim that they would not support him in the general election even if he became the Republican nominee. The only candidate who has more Republicans refusing to support them in the general election is Trump, at 30%. The massive amount of money that he and his super PACs have raised will keep him in the race. My prediction is that he will stay in the race as long as it looks like he has a chance and/or if he believes that staying in the race will harm Rubio.

That leaves Kasich. He's more moderate, which works against him in primary season. He doesn't have the name recognition that McCain had, and without funds he is well behind on setting up his political organization outside of the time he spent in New Hampshire. When his second place finish in New Hampshire coincided with Rubio's debate implosion he seemed like the perfect compromise candidate. But he might not be able to stay in the race long enough to garner the establishment support, he entered the year with a lot less cash on hand than either Bush or Rubio. If he does stick around the establishment might default towards him, if it isn't too late by that point. Being more experienced and less ideologically conservative than Rubio, Kasich has little incentive to step aside for Rubio.

South Carolina and Super Tuesday might encourage establishment GOP members to get their collective houses in order, but the longer this disorder goes on the better it is for both Cruz and Trump. The way things are going, we may even see a brokered convention. That would be fun, at least for those of us who like a certain type of reality TV.

Good policy held hostage

There are a lot of silly laws out there. People on all sides of the aisle would agree on that. And many would agree that some form of the solution is relatively obvious. But even when a most reasonable people on all sides would agree that a policy is bad the work to change it is just beginning. 

That's because fixing broken policy still creates winners and losers. And sometimes those winners are more on one side of the spectrum than others. Unfortunately, giving away a free win to the other side in the name of good policy is bad politics. 

This is a broken part of our system that is under discussed today. The current debate around oil exports in congress is a prime example of how hard it is to fix. Policy implemented in the 1973 oil crisis banned exports in most circumstances. So this is a forty year old nationalistic policy implemented in the midst of a crisis around a good whose supply and demand dynamics have flipped on its head in recent years. It obviously should change, and the White House's primary argument against it is that they would like to keep control of their ability to allow or disallow oil exports.

So unfortunately, if this policy is going to pass it needs to be included as part of a broad deal on spending and taxation. And tax credits to solar and wind companies need to be extended (corporate welfare in action), so each side gets a win. Refineries who have benefited from captive domestic oil producers and earned out sized profits for years may or may not be handed a tax credit as a consolation prize for losing their captive oil suppliers.

It is true that there is some real opposition to changing the inane law preventing oil exports from people who seem to think that our carbon energy based society needs to be made as inefficient as possible if they are going to reduce emissions in the long run. Politicians that count on support from these confused constituents could use a small victory to show them. But holding back a fix on bad policy to implement something for their special interests should be mocked the same way as Republicans who threaten a debt crisis to get their way on minor spending matters.

And outside of the debt ceiling hostage shenanigans, many within the GOP have acknowledged that they will fix the carried interest tax loophole only as part of an overall bargain around reforming the tax code. They are holding back an obvious policy change favored by almost everyone not currently utilizing the loophole as a bargaining chip.

A very similar dynamic is occurring within immigration policy, this time with Democrats holding back some obvious fixes unless the GOP agrees to a comprehensive deal. People on both sides know many of the things that need to be done with high skilled immigration. They don't quite understand that high skilled immigrants should never be placed in the position of indentured servants, but they generally recognize that educating students at world class colleges and then making it difficult to stay and live in the United States is bad policy. 

However, there is no chance of this being fixed unless the more difficult problem of low skilled immigrants is addressed. Each year this policy isn't fixed, too many promising college graduates decide to head back home where they can get jobs or start companies without worrying about legal issues. Even if the preferred solution to the thorny political problem would be good policy, holding acknowledged good policy hostage as a bargaining chip is an action that needs to be understood as a destructive tactic.

Our government is dysfunctional enough. Whenever there is general consensus on what would constitute good policy the politicians holding policy fixes hostage should not be given a free pass.

Protecting Students with Double Negative Rights

One framework that I've found to be useful when thinking about policy is that of positive and negative rights. When thinking about who benefits, it's helpful to determine whether a policy protects an individual from others or if it gives individuals a claim on other members of society. I've used this framework in the past to discuss corruption in developing countries. To avoid both plagiarism and re-paraphrasing common knowledge, I'll quote myself:

"Negative rights are things that are prohibited from being done to a person, and includes areas such as freedom from violent crime, private property (freedom from theft), freedom of speech and freedom from slavery. Positive rights are things that society must provide for a person. These include areas such as the right to police protection, housing, a job, food and health care. Many positive and negative rights conflict either indirectly or directly with each other. While a police force might help enforce the negative right or protection from violent crime, it also weakens the right to private property by requiring that citizens have some of their money taxed in order to pay for that protection."

When thinking about how these categorizations of rights might apply within our modern cultures of victimhood, it becomes a little more complicated. Take the new proposal by the University of California Regents which hopes to label being "free from expressions of intolerance" as a "right," recently highlighted by Eugene Volokh. The proposed policy principles state in part that.

"Everyone in the University community has the right to study, teach, conduct research, and work free from acts and expressions of intolerance...


The following non-exhaustive list contains examples of behaviors that do not reflect the University’s values of inclusion and tolerance, as described in the Regents of the University of California’s Statement of Principles Against Intolerance.

* Vandalism and graffiti reflecting culturally recognized symbols of hate or prejudice. These include depictions of swastikas, nooses, and other symbols intended to intimidate, threaten, mock and/or harass individuals or groups.

* Questioning a student’s fitness for a leadership role or whether the student should be a member of the campus community on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, sex, or sexual orientation.

* Depicting or articulating a view of ethnic or racial groups as less ambitious, less hardworking or talented, or more threatening than other groups.

* Depicting or articulating a view of people with disabilities (both visible and invisible) as incapable."

Volokh goes on to highlight some of the more inane situations that could result.

"For instance, articulating a view that people with various intellectual disabilities are incapable of various intellectual tasks, or people with various physical disabilities are incapable of various physical tasks, would be condemned by the authority of the University."

It is interesting to fit these policies into the framework of positive and negative rights. Students, staff and administrators will not have to hear anything that might disturb their delicate psyche* and on that basis it looks like the Regents are trying to define a new negative right. But protecting people from offense is a false negative right. If a large subset of people become offended when women refused to cover up their left hand, the policy of protecting the offended by mandating gloves would not be the enforcement of a real negative right. The obligation of the women the cover their safehand for fear of offending crazy people would be best understood as a nonsensical positive right.

The required self censorship by many who would in the normal course of events cause offense is a duty imposed on them. The new policy of the Regents is the creation of a double negative right, or a nonsensical positive right. 

My grammar school teacher always made sure to point out when I was using a double negative because that meant I was being incoherent and if the Regent's principles are adopted the forthcoming policies are likely to be similarly incoherent**. The implementation of a speech and conduct code that discourages students from even thinking of discussing protected groups in a negative manner will not change hearts and minds. Students won't lose their prejudiced views, it will just prevent their views from facing scrutiny in the light of day.

If the approved answer to "What is your physically disabled classmate capable of?" has to always be "Everything!" then the ignorant students will never learn when the true answer is "Actually, a lot more than you thought possible." because there is less likely to be any discussion in the first place. It's better to let the prejudiced or misguided air their beliefs openly where they can be confronted with reasoned debate and facts.

Universities should make sure students are safe. Preventing vandalism, unwanted graffiti and actual threats to students are causes that everyone can stand behind. But academic institutions should encouraging discourse, and enshrining principles that will make people scared to state what they think is true for fear of punishment does the opposite. If I told you ten years ago that an institution's leaders decided that a large subset of contentious topics are not open for debate and anyone bringing up forbidden ideas will likely be condemned, you would have assumed I was talking about a religious institution or an authoritarian government. Today, more of you would have filled in the details correctly. And that might be the saddest part about this story.

*The neuroticism of Americans has been consistently increasing from the 50's through at least the 90's, so they may be right about the vulnerability of today's college students and staff. But it's likely that the implementation of policies such as the above exacerbate the situation.

**Often the application of negative and positive rights framework can also be incoherent, because outside of the simple cases it depends on how the rights are framed. If this post seems to go off the rails a bit, it's because I really wanted to use the phrase "double negative right" to describe anti-free speech rules and nonsensical positive rights in general. Unfortunately, I can't easily tell if the phrase "double negative right" has been used in a similar context due to the popularity of the phrase "that's a double negative, right?".

Honor vs Dignity vs Victimhood Cultures

Jonathan Haidt posted a really interesting article that puts the recent increased focus on microaggressions into a larger context. He posted the paper Microaggressions and Moral Culture by Bradley Campell and Jason Manning. The basic thesis is that the increased policing of microaggressions could herald another major cultural transition akin to the transition that occurred in Western societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The cultures displaced in the 18th and 19th century West were cultures of honor. Honor was something that had to be earned and protected. The classic example of defending honor would be the duels that were fought to defend honor. These duels were fought even if the slight that caused the duel was unintentional. Members of honor cultures would be less likely to appeal to the law for help and are more likely to settle disputes themselves.

This culture of honor was displaced by a culture of dignity, where it is assumed that all humans have dignity that does not have to be earned or personally defended. People socialized into cultures of dignity rely more on centralized authority to settle major disputes, and will be more likely to shrug off minor slights that would need to be addressed in honor cultures. Campell and Manning point out that "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is a concept that is foreign to honor cultures.

In settings where censuring those who engage in microaggressions is becoming common, this culture of dignity is being supplanted by a culture that Campell and Manning label a culture of victimhood. In their words:

"A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization."

The last transition from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity occurred during a step function upwards in economic growth. Cause and effect are messy, but the culture of dignity reinforced things that are beneficial to economic growth. The rule of law and the ability to trust strangers enough to work with them are both more difficult to implement in cultures of honor. 

This current potential transition from a culture of dignity to one celebrating victimhood is occurring during a time period of potentially slowing long run economic growth. Again, cause and effect are messy but there are obvious ways that a more enshrined culture of victimhood could retard economic growth. To take one example, the process of documenting and aggregating small offenses to punish people will eventually incentivize people to interact with out-group strangers to a far smaller degree than they have in the past. The act of sending a stranger a message will become a very risky. Transaction costs are increased when every little action is potentially going to be monitored and might lead to severe punishment.

It's important to note that this is not an inevitable transition. Even in our current society, there are many pockets where cultures of honor dominate. The culture of victimhood that is prevalent on college campuses today is not yet the dominant culture. 

Restaurant advice - ditch the middle

Tyler Cowen linked to some very good restaurant advice from Todd Kilman.

The basic thesis is that avoiding mid priced restaurants in favor of high end and low end restaurants will help avoid bad meals.

Anyone living in an area with good ethnic food can see the strengths of this strategy already - a good burrito or broken rice dish is going to beat most meals at casual sit down diners. Middle end sushi places will be getting their fish from the same places that low end sushi places do - they all will be serving the same mass frozen salmon/tuna/yellowtail/albacore that you can find in local Japanese supermarkets - the middle end places will just charge more for the decor and service. The places serving better sushi will be the ones at a high enough price point (or at a mid-high price point but in an area where their overhead costs are significantly cheaper) that take the trouble and expense to source better fish from their wholesalers.

There is a problem with this advice for those who live in or near San Francisco, which arguably has the best middle end food in the country. But even at the high-middle end restaurants in SF I often find myself disappointed as common tropes such as pork belly dishes at froufrou places won't be as good (but will be three times as costly!) as at much cheaper ethnic restaurant.

Kilman ends with a discussion of when middle end restaurants are unavoidable:

"Granted, there are going to be times when you can’t avoid the middle. You’re out with a group of co-workers, say, and need to find a place that satisfies a multitude of tastes and needs. Or you’ve got family coming in, and need to keep the costs down for a big group, while also making sure that a not-so-gently aging aunt is going to feel “comfortable.” These are obligation meals. And there’s nothing much to be done about them, except to go along with the wishes of the group, which, by the way, is what a good chunk of the middle exists to serve—the needs of the many."

One of the best ways to avoid middle end obligation meals is educating potential dining partners. Alternatively, now you know why your foodie friends are avoiding you.

Loyalty and Patronage Politics

Loyalty is often an underrated attribute. It's important for large networks to be oiled by trust and having everyone work from the same page will mean that things actually get done. The Bush family values loyalty highly - it's a theme prevalent in 41, George W's book about his father. A recent NYT article covering Jeb Bush's campaign and their insistence that policy advisers only advise his team highlights how he has similar views on loyalty.

One of the major problems in politics today is a modern elite patronage system in which the government enables the continuation of rent seeking opportunities to large political donors. In this environment, an overvaluation towards the concept of loyalty can backfire. Loyalty to people will mean loyalty to insiders who have been benefiting from policies at the expense of the public.

Jeb Bush comes across as one of the more outwardly sensible GOP figures when it comes to policy, but libertarian leaning supporters need to remember that someone who values loyalty highly will have little interest in dismantling the system that has served their supporters well for decades. 

The principle applies to more than just one family, but it's helpful to remember that seemingly good qualities can have significant drawbacks in the wrong scenario. It's also an important reminder that it is important to identify the long time supporters of politicians, since those are the ones who might be able to call on loyalty for favors that help them at the expense of the public.

The More Fungible Worker

A lot of people have been worrying the technology is taking away jobs and suppressing wages. To a large extent these worries are compared to the Luddites and are dismissed as silly and misguided.

The economist reaction to these worries is basically "That's silly, this is how economic growth works. No one thinks it is bad that the horse driver and telegraph operator jobs have disappeared." Economists are right that old inefficient jobs need to be replaced in order for human society to grow richer over time. When technology satisfies one need, workers are free to take a job that satisfies another of the almost infinite desires that humans have. And when workers are more productive, the marginal productivity of a good worker often goes up proportionally and their wages increase. 

But there is more to the "technology reduces wages" story than economists like to admit. The Luddites tried futilely to stop progress that benefited society, but the artisans themselves really did see their wages fall due to competition from technology. 

The obvious way that technology reduces the wages of workers in the developed world is how it enables and facilitates competition from workers in the developing world. Arnold Kling has called this the Great Factor Price Normalization.  In this scenario the average worker is significantly better off and society gains from trade, but workers in the developed world may see wage stagnation to pair with lower prices.

Arnold explains. "I want to suggest that there is a connection between this trend and the stagnation of median incomes in the United States, and even to the decade-long drop-off in employment here. New patterns of trade are developing that are reducing the advantage that a person enjoys merely for being located in the United States."

But there is a second way by which technology can suppress wages - when technology can guide and track workers the output of different workers becomes more uniform and thus more fungible. Before the era of ubiquitous cheap information technology, training and tracking the performance of mid and low skill workers was more expensive. Workers varied significantly in quality and ability and it made sense to pay workers with experience more so they would not have to be replaced by new workers who would be expensive to train. The extreme example of the fungible worker is the Amazon warehouse worker.

"The programs for our scanners are designed with the assumption that we disposable employees don't know what we're doing."

Amazon can quickly train employees as well as track them to make sure they are not underperforming. There is a smaller difference between one employee and their potential replacement. If an employee decides to leave their replacement is guided by technology that makes the new worker's productivity very close to that of a good worker.

Before these technological advancements, workers enjoyed mini-monopolies. The warehouse worker couldn't be easily replaced because their replacement might be way less efficient as they learned the layout of their workplace. As technology more directly guides low and mid skill workers in their jobs the workers are losing their mini-monopolies. Workers don't need job specific experience to be hired so the supply of workers available to every technology guided job has increased. A higher supply leads to a lower price (the price of a worker is their wage). After full employment is reached the general wage level may increase for low skilled workers, but for now the impact of the Great Factor Price Equalization and the More Fungible Worker are suppressing the wages of middle and lower class developed world workers.

Vocational Training vs College in the US

Critics of the higher education system in the United States have a lot to complain about, but one of their clarion calls is that there needs to be a shift towards more vocational training. In principle this seems reasonable, the problem is that vocational training in the US doesn't work very well. A study of How College Affects Students found that evidence from the 1990's suggested that the impact of sub baccalaureate vocational training has approximately 1/2 the impact of an associates degree. And associates degrees are less than one half as effective as a bachelor's degree. In recent years, the advantage of a bachelor's degree has increased even more - this causes those who are familiar with the data to be very skeptical of those who call for increased vocational training.

Meanwhile, vocational education does seem to work quite well in Europe. Switzerland and Germany appear to be running many successful vocational training programs.

What's keeping the US vocational programs from looking like the successful European ones?

1. A lot of vocational education in the United States is provided by for-profit colleges that are dependent on federal student aid. For-profit colleges in the United States have until recently only had to convince students to attend and the federal government to continue to provide loans - they have not been held accountable for their failure to provide a valuable education. When the education company with the political connections and the best marketing win, the bad education companies prevent good education companies from taking root and growing.

2. In Europe, the important of a four year college degree is not stressed nearly as much. Especially if students were in a top high school, there is some measure of shame in going directly to vocational education.

3. If only low quality students are going to opt for vocational training right out of high-school, businesses will not want to create apprenticeship programs for workers they would not want to hire.

4. Vocational training in Switzerland starts at the age of 16. Instead of being at school for five days a week, students are in school fir one or two days a week and working at their apprenticeship on the other days. This preemptive sorting does not sit well with the American notion that anything is possible for high school students.

Current critics of the United States higher education system need to understand why vocational programs in the US generally have not worked. The best solution to a poor education system is the creation of a parallel system that works better. Peter Thiel is trying to demonstrate a parallel system operating with top students via his 20 under 20 program. But significant change will not occur without a solution that can be applied to a sizable percentage of average students. These solutions need to provide proof of intelligence and consciousness while imparting useful skills. And perhaps most importantly, any successful large scale education system has to show that their students have a willingness to conform

Defenders of the higher education status quo need to realize that emphasizing the importance of a four year college education for everyone creates a self reinforcing belief that makes it difficult to create workable alternatives. But many of those arguing in favor of our current education system are professors with a lifetime tenure, so some of them might understand the self reinforcing cycle they are perpetuating. 

Assorted Links: The Environment

1. Death to beavers! The next time you hear someone discussing the environmental benefits of vegetarianism for cutting methane production, see if they are equally as enthusiastic with regards to hunting down beavers in order to cut into some of the 800 million kg of methane they cause. [Edit: Not 800 million kg of methane, but methane to be 800 million kg CO2 equivalent]

Warning: Pointing out the various ways in which politics is not actually about policy is not the best way to make friends at parties. [Edit: And the search for counter-intuitive insights can often lead to inaccuracies]

2. India is attempting to stimulate growth by parring back environmental rules. Considering their current environmental rules are organized, they would need to be replaced anyway. The question is whether this cuts back on the need of bribery or if it just centralizes the bribes into the hands of centralized officials.

3.  The Economist on geoengineering.

"And the mere fact of experiments going ahead might lead people to assume that geoengineering could easily be made feasible, and thus to give up on reducing carbon emissions."

This sounds a lot like the people who in 2009 wanted to pretend that monetary policy was impotent because the fed funds rate were at the zero bound. They made these claims this in order to maximize the size of the fiscal stimulus. Once it was realized that more stimulus was needed, monetary policy became the only game in town and the Federal Reserve implemented QE2 and other programs.

At some point, geoengineering will be the only game in town and the people fighting it today are just ensuring that we will have less data on the long term impact of many potential solutions.