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Monday, July 26, 2010

Credit Card "Miles" Scam

We've all gotten them in the mail from various credit card companies -  letters that read something to the effect of:
"Hey, you are so special that we are going to rip you off by misleading you into getting a card with a balloon interest rate of 10-20% by redefining the word 'mile'."  ... Or something like that.

In fact, I just got one in the mail this week:
I got a nice shiny letter with a statement in big bold letters saying: ..."earn 1.25 miles for every $1 you spend on any purchase...."

Really?  Well then you read the fine print (which may be too small for you read) written on this giant small-print fold-out brochure, tucked neatly away on panel 3 of 8, which says, "the number of miles you need for travel varies, and depends on the cost... simply multiply your travel purchases by 100...."

Oh...ok.  So, I want to go on an 800 mile trip that costs me $200.  I have earned 800 miles, but wait, we can't use the normal definition of a mile, we have to use this credit-card-created definition of 'mile' which is ticket cost multiplied by 100.  So I have earned 800 miles, but need 20,000 miles to travel 800 miles.  Sure, yeah, that makes sense.

Just to be clear, if you wanted to buy a $10 flight across town (just for a silly example) you'd need to have 1,000 fake miles saved up - which means you'd need to have spent $800 on the credit card just for that.  Call it what you will - fake miles, 'points', whatever... but they are not real miles and therefore it should be illegal to use that term in such a way as to mislead the public.

Of course most of us know this scam, but it is just an example of a simple marketing ploy designed to get quick-judgement people, teenagers, and senior citizens signed up for a credit deal that could ruin their lives.  Yeah, that's all.   The fact that every major credit card company does it should bother you.  Doing away with this nonsense is something that should have been part of the credit card reform bill that passed congress last year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Neo-Chartalism, Part III

A question to MMT'ers.

Let's ignore the issue of insolvency, inflation, hyperinflation...all that jazz from Krugman/Wray....
My question is:

In this brave new world where the government spends, numbers are added to a bank account and that spending provides income to the under-capacity private sector to indirectly create some jobs [X], or, contrarily, let's assume the idea of a 'full employment' government guaranteed wage/job at $8 an hour or whatever is provided during a moderate recession to maintain employment - that income is provided by the government (labor spending) to hire that worker to do some job X.

Point is: deficits don't 'matter' (given underemployment) because inflation, stability, politics, perception, credit rating... aren't a concern (which I disagree with to a degree from my last post - but this isn't about that). ...

So the question is: what is "some job [X]?"  And, why do you suspect, in aggregate, that X people that would be otherwise underemployed / unemployed are better off working in a government created job (indirectly or directly) as opposed to some alternative?  I suppose my concern here has a bit of an Austrian tinge to it along the lines of inter-temporal missalocation of capital (and I'll extend that to include labor).  Why assume that the government won't create dynamic inefficiencies?

What happens to these jobs when the recession ends?  Who determines what these jobs are?  Would these jobs create unfair externalities on other private industries?  What about the capital investment created to support the public jobs?  Could these things and the ability to speculate on them create a different kind of government led bubble?  Surely some capital stock would already exist (the under-utilized stock) but certainly not all of it, and that which does exist would need significant retooling - capital purchased from private suppliers.  I recognize that Minsky (who I'll admit I was unaware he was a proponent of this) viewed this as not a real problem provided the employment would be in labor-intensive service type public jobs.  Though, to me, this 'program' just seems riddled with issues.   Though, I'd love your feedback MMT'ers.

But then let us assume that, beyond that question, the employment itself creates a perverse incentive to expect to just work a low-paying, low-skill public works job every recession as opposed to doing what people SHOULD be doing during recessions (re-tooling, continuing education, increasing skill sets, chasing dreams...)  Is that not problematic?

I thought that part of the heterodox tradition was not to blindly say, "it's the spending, stupid" but to anticipate outside the box economic concerns.  I see no real answers in your literature to these concerns.  I understand, from a paper provided to me that Minsky thought that it was 'unfair' to have workers tool to their jobs, rather, particularly in hard times, jobs should tailor to workers - but this strikes me as being a bit one-sided.  Is there not room for development and aid of the worker?   Maybe it's the heterodox in me, but this almost seems to take it to the opposite extreme from Austrianism.   I find that typically, the best policies are those incorporating ideas from numerous fields of thought - which typically means a meeting in the shades of gray.

I await your responses...cordially please....calling me 'sophomoric' is hardly a response.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neo-Chartalism, Part II

I respond to the back-and-forth between Paul Krugman and MMT proponents (Wray, Galbraith).

I will put this caveat up front:  I may not 'get' MMT...despite reading numerous papers, blogs, etc. on the subject.  I don't see this as my failure.  I see this as the proponent's of MMT's failure.  They only ever respond with vague notions - never anything substantial.  This is a challenge.  Try convincing me.  Because if you can't convince me, you sure as hell won't convince mainstream economics, or this country. 

Krugman and Wrary back and forth: HERE

Garth Brazelton July 20 at 1:36pm - my general discussion with an MMT proponent
Still not convincing. No economist denies the obvious that technically the government faces no legal or operational constraint to money creation- or I should say bank reserves so as not to contradict circuitism. Krugman makes a valid argument that the government does however face choice of default or risk hyperinflation. Wray counters that by either putting his faith in politicians (which never makes for good policy) or then denying the problem outright by pointing to automatic stabilizers. I would say his latter argument is more assumption laden than anything I've ever read in any mainstream text. Who is to say the stabilizer would offset the spending over time? If taxes do need to be raised because spending occurs past so-called full employment (which is defined as what by MMTers), who is taxed and for how long? And politicians will do this for economic reasons only? I don't think so. MMT is the challenger - it has the burden of proof here.... So far I don't see remotely resembling a useful or reasonable argument to justify it's existence as a "theory.". It keeps saying that everyone else thinks the government is operationally constrained. No one is saying that. I at least am saying they are "effectively" constrained due to the reality that there are costs associated with deficits (including country credit ratings and foreign perception which seems to be often ignored by MMTers), which MMTers seem to just shrug off.
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Now, my thoughts...
So very clearly, Wray does not agree with me that defaults matter / are a policy concern. Wray is suggesting governments would 'rationally' fight against hyperinflation - that assumes a lot about the abilities and intellect of politicians, which I for one, am not going to go there. As Zimbabwe attests (and I know quite a bit about Zimbabwe), hyperinflation can develop faster than most politicians can draft 800 page pieces of legislation - let alone passing it.

Countries can go bankrupt. If we reach the point where our currency is worth less than the stuff we use to wipe our asses with, then we will become Zimbabwe. That may not be government bankruptcy, but that is private sector bankruptcy as corruption, cronism, milita activity along with the inevitable call for price controls, net capital outflow (flight) ensues. Worse case scenario but it's possible - and MMT (chartalism) is all about telling people that all this stuff is 'impossible.' Once the government is over-thrown (like Zimbabwe almost was) ...well...there's your governmental default... there's your restart button.

Even if it doesn't reach that extreme, the fluctuations in exchange rates, price levels, tax levels, the level of uncertainty that all that would create (something 'true' followers of Keynes and Minsky should appreciate) would surely become serious problems. I don't prefer deflationary risk to inflationary risk - I recognize the pitfalls of both - frankly, in this recession, I don't see risk of either to any huge degree right now. If prices started declining dramatically in the broad economy I'd be concerned, but they are not. I agree Ricardian equivalence (so called) is perhaps the most idiotic idea ever to come out of economics - but it doesn't follow that we should be creating inflation expectations by actually creating inflation risk via spending.

In the end, DUH, the government is monopolizer of our currency. That doesn't mean anything special - and no real economist is saying otherwise. It's pretty clear the Chartalists have this obsession with talking about how the government is not operationally constrained and about absolutes (very much counter to the post-Keynesian tradition which I find interesting). They seem to ignore that we, and the government are all politically, economically, and realistically constrained. In the end, I don't want to put all that power in the hands of politicians. I'm no monetarist, but they are correct in their critique of fiscal policy in this regard.

I remember when post-Keynesianism used to stand for realism and challenging assumptions. It was about promoting certain regulations and private market behaviors to fix the inherent problems in the private sector of a capitalist society - not about liberal spending. Government can do good work, and some spending is important which I've talked about here before (infrastructure, promoting a new direction in terms of energy) but to base a whole monetary (really, a fiscal) movement around amorphous 'spending' is contrary to common sense. Chartalism is not seemingly based in reality and is riddled with assumptions - They have created this Bolshovikian "reality" in their own minds - that our politicians can save the day and smooth out the business cycles - that deficits don't matter because we are going to create this automatic employment mechanism - a philosophy not wholly different from the 1960's Keynesians. If this is the new post-Keynesianism, count me out.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Re-reviewing Chartalism / Neo-Chartalism

At request, I am re-reviewing this hot-button post-Keynesian topic. There seems to still be a debate within the post-Keynesian world about whether chartalism (of which I am still very skeptical) is in competition with or in conjuction with circuitism (of which I believe).

I am therefore revisiting chartalism - re-reading things I've read, and reading new stuff. I have to say I still have concerns about chartalism - about it's seeming tendency to ignore inflation, about the seeming assumption of a foreign exchange market in equilibrium, about its assumption that the demand for money is a function of the need to pay taxes as opposed to cancel bank obligations, etc. Basically, I have concerns like this and of those as outlined by Febrero here.

I note that Bill Mitchell, a current proponent and leader in the chartalism area, seems to answer the 'inflation' critique I mention above by pointing out that apparently with chartalism the fiscal authority (government) would need to create a base wage / full employment mechanism in order to control inflation - this as opposed to the current classical thinking of having monetary authority controlling inflation. I have to say that that this is a novel idea to me, and I'm considering buying his book to read up on his thoughts. And who knows, maybe it will help alay some of my concerns about chartalism. I have to say, so far, I'm less than impressed with the movements seeming inability to adequately and coherently answer these critiques. ...I'm continually pointed to this person's blog, or this person's unpublished (or sometimes published) paper. But none of it seems very cohesive.