Thursday, July 15, 2010

Where I Try to Disagree with Someone I Agree With

If you're interested in understanding what's going on, confirmation bias is a scary thing. I once heard that as you age you just become an extreme version on yourself and I bet confirmation bias plays a big role in that (on the ideology dimension at least). To combat confirmation bias, I now try to challenge Arnold Kling's argument about job creation.

He basically says that job creation in a modern economy comes from stability. Modern middle class jobs are weird and tend to be things that firms want to buy ("Logistics expert. Database administrator. Corporate event planner. Training co-ordinator. Media relations person.") and since they require a lot of training (human capital), firms aren't going to hire unless there's steady waters. Just it's not just any firm which hires (most established firms already have these individuals in their payroll or Rolodex); it's entrepreneurs. This is why he claims it's not aggregate demand nor firms that create jobs. Fiscal stimulus doesn't help: it's a one time boost to existing firms when wasn't needed are steady waters and start ups with good ideas.

Let's set aside Ricardian equivalence (that if the government spends a lot of money, people will save more because they know their taxes will have to increase down the line). We're talking a one-time boost in spending which will be paid back over 20-30 years. On net, I think we can say if people get more money (even if it's a one-time thing), they will, on average, spend more. Yes, many will use it to pay back debt, but all that means is they will get out of debt sooner, freeing up income for spending. Let's also remember that banks who lent money don't burn the cash when they collect it. They either spend it, or save it (which is then lent out, which is then spent). Like from the consumer's side, it's either spent now, or it results in more spending later.

OK. Now consider the banks and firms out there with debt-derived assets (ie people owe them money and for the record, I don't feel like looking up these terms so I'm just making up some that sound plausible). You are in unsteady waters: will you get your money back or will you get a lot of defaults? Now suppose the government gives a bunch of people money and some of that comes to you to pay off debt. Success! You are more stable than you were before. Even in a one-time stimulus scenario, you added stability.

What about the people who bought durables? (I think buying durables, or items people use a lot once bought, like a TV or frig, as a common item bought if one time aggregate demand increases; I know if the government gave me a check for, say, $500 and I don't save it, I'd buy a durable.) That's an increase in aggregate demand, sure, but that's not stable. In fact, that's the opposite. You are in a business and you see more people wanting TVs. How much of that is recovery and how much of it is the one time stimulus? That's an important question because if it's the former, you should expand. And (enter the entrepreneur) if you're trying to start a business, now's a good time. But if it's the latter, you're just setting yourself up for failure.

Hmm. So more stability in one area and more uncertainty (and thus less stability) in another. And I'm ignoring the delivery system for the stimulus, too (just assuming everyone got checks in the mail).
I do not know how one can possibly determine the effect of the stimulus on jobs. The jobs that the CEA and the CBO say are created are nothing but figments of some model's imagination. Counting workers hired by some particular subset of firms is a mindless exercise.
On that, I definitely agree.

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