Josh Barro and the Gold Standard

A few days ago, when it was announced that former Cato Institute president John Allison was under consideration for treasury secretary, Josh Barro of Business Insider dismissed the man as a “nutcase”. Why? Because Allison believes that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) generates a moral hazard that contributes to financial crises (a statement I agree with).

This slur irked one of the economists at Cato, George Selgin, who took to twitter to challenge Barro. In the exchange, at one point, Barro indicated that the desire of libertarians to return to the gold standard confirms the “nuttiness” of libertarians and the people at Cato.

And here, Barro allows me to make a comment on the gold standard. The sympathy towards the gold standard is not sympathy towards gold per se, but rather sympathy for reducing the capacity of governments to exercise discretion. Basically, each time you hear some academic economist mention the gold standard, what that economist means is rules-based monetary policy.

The gold standard era (1875-1914) was not an image of perfect monetary policy. It is not a lost paradise that we ought to strive to. However, the implicit rules imposed by the system did favor more stability that would have been the case with discretion during that era. In fact, the era of central banking with the Federal Reserve has not been that great relative to the gold standard era (and in the world of central banks, the Fed is pretty good). A lot of the scorn that the gold standard era has received had to do with regulatory policy towards banks (notably regarding restrictions on branch banking which forced more volatility) or with the role of changes in international demand for assets (see here). Thus, in spite of its many flaws, the gold standard was not that bad (but it was not* gold per se that was helpful – it was the shunning of discretion by governments).

To be sure, I do not favor a return to a gold standard era. What I do like, and what I think John Allison likes as well, is the return to rules-based monetary policy. Josh Barro should have been intellectually generous and understand this key distinction. By not making that distinction, of which he must be aware given his background, he debased the debate over monetary policy.

“Voice, Exit, and Liberty: The Effect of Emigration on Origin Country Institutions”

That’s the title of this short piece (pdf) by Michelangelo, which was just published by the Cato Institute. Michelangelo, by the way, just got his MA in economics and is now in a doctoral program at UC Riverside’s political science department. Get reaquainted with his bio.

Hopefully he has a little bit of time now to work on NOL‘s soon-to-be-world-famous foreign policy quiz…

A Quick PSA: Putting “boots on the ground” in Syria is still a dumb idea

Readers might be mistaken into thinking that I am some kind of statist or rabid interventionist because I often put forth arguments that are nowhere to be found at the Cato Institute or the Mises Institute when it comes to American foreign policy.

I have argued that the federation of countries would be a good idea. I have argued that multilateralism is of the utmost importance when it comes to solving problems. I have no problem using IGOs like the UN or the IMF to bolster diplomacy. I have entertained the notion that the US should take a back seat in hot spots in order to better bait autocratic states into committing blood and treasure to the said hot spot, and then unleashing hell. Sanctions are dumb and never work, but building closer trading ties with an adversary’s enemies is a underdeveloped path.

Statist AF, right?


I am trying to put forth alternatives to “boots on the ground.” I understand that military interventions are a bad thing. I don’t want “boots on the ground.” I understand that the costs far outweigh the benefits. I understand that war is the health of the state. What I don’t understand is how “doing nothing” is a libertarian position. Dogmatic slogans made us lazy a century ago. We lost our claim to the title “liberal” because of it. Dogmatic slogans made us lazy a century and a half ago, and we lost our claim to the title “internationalist” because of it. What will our laziness cost us today?

Boots on the ground? We should be so lucky.

Which countries are of US interest?

I was reading my news stream when I noted a blog post from the Cato Institute discussing the silliness of adding Montenegro to NATO. I don’t disagree per se. I certainly don’t see the value of adding Montenegro to NATO, if the purpose of NATO is to protect the US. Nor do I disagree with the general US-libertarian belief that the US has over extended itself in terms of military alliances.

I do wonder though what countries US-libertarians should desire to maintain a military alliance with. A North American military alliance, ranging from Canada to Panama and including the Caribbean, makes sense to me. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are our greatest defenses, but I welcome military cooperation from our geographical neighbors.

Beyond there though it gets tricky. Western Europe is certainly rich enough to protect itself. The main reason I am hesitant to leave NATO altogether is the nuclear question. France and the UK are the only European powers with nuclear weapons, but several others are part of NATO’s nuclear sharing program. Should the US leave NATO would these countries seek nuclear weapons for themselves? Would the UK/France provide substitute weapons? Ending military ties with Europe would likely be the easiest option in terms of cutting down on allies.

Japan and South Korea are likewise rich countries, but here too the nuclear question arises. Japan has a cultural aversion to nuclear weapons that I do not see it overcoming in the foreseeable future. South Korea may be willing to use nuclear weapons, but its strained historical relationship with Japan leaves me concerned about the future possibility of a Korean-Japanese alliance to counterweight China PRC. I believe that Japan should be encouraged to modify its constitution to allow its military greater freedom in action and to consider acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. Other nations in the region, such as the Philippines, are outmatched in conventional weaponry or, in the case of Australia, too far away geographically to be of much use in restraining China PRC’s influence in east Asia.

I am hopeful that within my lifetime China PRC will transition to a liberal democracy, but till then I am skeptical about allowing it free reign in east Asia. For the foreseeable future it is hard for me to consider an east Asia without a significant role for the US. Nor would I be particularly against offering South Korea and/or Japan statehood in a United States of the Pacific.

Thoughts? I admit that international politics is not my area of expertise and I more than welcome other’s thoughts on the matter. I also admit that I am not viewing these issues from a pure libertarian perspective but with a splash of nationalism.

As readers may know our own Brandon is playing around with creating a NOL foreign policy quiz similar to the Nolan libertarian quiz.

How does emigration impact institutions?

Hello everyone. As usual I’ve come to ask for feedback on my latest research. I can’t emphasize enough how much it helps to blog it out, if only because it forces me to sit down and try to summarize things in a few hundred words.

My current research is looking at the effect emigration has, if any, on institutions. Institutions come in various forms. The state is an institution, but family, religion, and even organized crime are too. Broadly speaking institutions are those rules that govern society, both formal and informal. Institutions have increasingly been acknowledged as being one of the key (if not the key) determinants of a nation’s wealth.

Despite the importance of institutions, we know relatively little about them. By no means is this due to a lack of trying, and in there have been some earnest attempts to tackle the issue. Acemoglu’s Why Nations Fail is one such attempt.* For the time being the goal in institutional studies is to properly explain how and why institutions form.

My goal is to neither explain the origin of institutions or to measure their impact on economic well being. I take it for granted that good (and bad) institutions populate the world. Instead I am interested in how different institutions interact with one another.

My former boss at Cato has looked at how immigration has influenced a destination country’s (the USA) institutions. He finds little effect. In my project I try to look at the problem from the opposite end – how does emigration influence an origin country’s institutions. To measure the impact of emigration I use remittance data.

Remittances come in two form. There are monetary remittances, which are cash transfers from emigrants to their family members and friends back home. There is a broad economic literature on the former and its affect on development outcomes. There is however little (if any- I haven’t found any at least) economic work on social remittances. Social remittances is the transfer of ideas from emigrants to their family members and friends. In general the economic remittance literature has not yet attempted to connect itself with the institution literature despite both being part of the larger development literature.

Most work on social remittances has been done by sociologists. Thus far though most of the work has been qualitative and/or focused on how social remittances tie migrant communities with their origin countries. There has been little work on how this communication translates to changes in institutions.

Political scientists are currently taking the lead on the question. Earlier this year Abel et al. published a paper looking at how remittances affect democratic transition. They find that increased monetary remittances decreases voter turn out and thus weakens the political base of populist-based autocracies. Another recent paper by Miller et al. find that emigration increase the possibility of civil war by giving opposition parties an external funding source.

I think Abel and Miller’s work the best thus far in seeing how emigration affects institutions. My biggest concern with Abel’s paper is that he looks at democratic transition events, but there is no reason why democracy must lead to better institutions. Hong Kong and Singapore alternate as the most economically free states in the world, but neither is a bastion of democracy. India is the world’s largest democracy and by most metrics has awful institutions.

Miller’s work on the other hand looks at how the probability of civil war increases, but civil war in itself is not always bad. On occasion war is necessary for the improvement of institutions**.

To remedy my concerns I look at how remittances marginally influence institutions. I use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom in the World summary index as my measure of a country’s institutions. My regression tables are found below. All observations are for north American (including central America but excluding the Caribbean) countries from 1994-2012.

Column 1 is a simply regression between a country’s EFW score and remittances as a percent of GDP. Initially we find a negative correlation between the two – a 1 percentage point increase in remittances is associated with a 0.01 point decrease in its EFW score. Is this a sign that brain drain, the emigration of high skilled migrants, is reducing the institutional qualify of origin countries? Not quite – it’s simply caused by the lack of control variables. At this point remittances is a proxy for a country being undeveloped.

Columns 2-4 are me playing around with various control variables. The interaction of phone subscriptions with remittances is my attempt to proxy for social remittances. Presumably emigrants are more likely to call back home, and exchange ideas, if their family members and friends have a phone to be contacted at. The 1 year lagged EFW index symbolizes the ‘stickiness’ of institutions: in the short run institutions do not drastically change.

Column 5 is simply column 4 re-run using clustered errors and country fixed effects. Country fixed effects, for those of you who have been spared endless hours of statistical classes, is a technique that allows us to account for unobserved characteristics of a country that do not change across the observed time span. This is usually done to account for such things as culture or geography.

In this final iteration we find that a one percentage point increase in remittances increases a country’s EFW index score by 0.05 points. This is a marginal effect, but its not irrelevant. See the Cato Institute’s interactive map of economic freedom. The difference between the United States and Russia is about one point despite the former presumably being a bastion of freedom.


*Why Nations Fail has been discussed on NOL several times before, see here and here.
** But let me emphasize that this is rarely the case and war should be the last option. We really do need to make our own NOL foreign policy quiz.

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
VARIABLES EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index EFW Index
Remittances as a percent of GDP – Fraser EFW -0.01* 0.04*** 0.00 0.01** 0.05***
(0.01) (0.01) (0.00) (0.01) (0.01)
Fixed telephone subscriptions (per 100 people) 0.03*** 0.01* 0.01
(0.00) (0.00) (0.01)
Remittances * Phone -0.00 -0.00 -0.00**
(0.00) (0.00) (0.00)
EFW Index 1-year lag 0.81*** 0.78*** 0.54***
(0.04) (0.05) (0.05)
Income Per Capita in 000s, Constant 2005 dollars. 0.00* -0.00 -0.01
(0.00) (0.00) (0.05)
Constant 7.39*** 6.60*** 1.33*** 1.50*** 3.04***
(0.06) (0.06) (0.28) (0.32) (0.45)
Country Fixed Effects No No No No Yes
Observations 134 134 110 110 110
R-squared 0.03 0.66 0.91 0.91 0.93

Standard errors in parentheses in columns 1-4. Robust errors in column 5.

*** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1

Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Blaming Finance, Ignoring Real Causes

The fall 2014 Cato Journal has an article, ‘The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom Has It All Wrong,” [pdf] by Richard Kovacevich, Chairman Emeritus of Wells Fargo. The author is correct in saying that the conventional wisdom is wrong in blaming the slow recovery on the “uniqueness of a financially led economic recession.” The US economy recovered from the severe 1980 recession within two years, while now the economy is creeping like a turtle.

The economic cause of recovery and growth is simple. Economic investment – the production of capital goods – drives the business cycle. Recessions are caused by a sharp fall in investment. Then, as the prices of raw materials fall, and as land rent drops, a depression reduces these costs of production, therefore increasing profits, so investment recovers. Government can boost the recovery by further reducing the costs of production, by decreasing the taxes and regulations it imposed previously. This is the “supply side” policy of increasing investment and production by reducing the costs of regulations and taxes.

But this time around, the federal government did the opposite. Costly regulations have magnified, with an anti-supply-side effect. Every year, there are thousands more regulations that hamper enterprise, and finally, regulations plus taxes have achieved the tipping point of making it too costly for enterprise to invest and hire labor.

After the Crash of 2008, the federal government had two basic policy options: it could help the economy recover with market-enhancing supply-side policies, or else the government could enact the welfare-state agenda of greatly increased governmental medical services. The government chose the latter option, which imposed even greater costs on enterprise and labor.

When the recession hit the economy in 2008, one of the responses was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As the article states, one of the problems with TARP was that it did not focus on the troubled banks, but imposed the policy on all banks. The banks that were not troubled had to obtain the funds and then pay interest on them. TARP imposed the impression that all banks were in trouble, which destroyed confidence, and then Congress responded to the turmoil by imposing 25,000 pages of Dodd-Frank regulations.

None of the financial regulations, going back to the Great Depression, confront the causes of the boom and bust. The fundamental cause is massive subsidies to land values. The Cato article focused on the financial industry, but the more fundamental issue is government policy regarding real estate. The problems of the financial industry originate in their financing of real estate.

The history of the Americas has been that of grabbing land and enslaving labor. In the American colonies, the British government promoted European settlement to control land and to profit from trade. After the defeat of the French in 1763, the United Kingdom changed policy to avoid conflict with the people of Quebec and with the Indians, by restricting western speculation and migration. That annoyed the landed interests enough to declare independence, and to establish a constitution that would better extend and protect land speculation. Huge grants of land were given to railroads, veterans, colleges, and speculators.

After the public domain was disposed of, the government continued the subsidy of the large landed interests with implicit policies that are invisible to the public and to most economists. The provision of public works, welfare to the poor and elderly, and artificially cheap credit, all generate greater land rent and land value. This amounts to a vast redistribution of wealth from workers, tenants, and enterprise owners, to landowners, especially the concentrated owners of commercial and farm land.

With a fixed supply of land, much of the gains from an economic expansion is captured by higher land rent and land value, which then attracts speculation that carries real estate prices to unsustainable heights. When land values crash, they bring down with them the financial system that provided the loans. None of the financial regulations touch this basic cause, and land-value seeking is so deeply ingrained in American culture that people favor it even at the price of high taxes, high unemployment, and the destruction of liberty.

Ask a typical American, “Would you favor a tax reform that eliminates taxes on your wages, on interest from your financial assets, and on buildings, replaced by a tax only on land values?” The answer is, “No! I would rather suffer unemployment, insecurity, crime, poverty, and loss of liberty, than have my precious land taxed!”

“OK, then, would you favor the complete replacement of government’s public goods with private, contractual, provision that eliminates the subsidy to land values?” “No! We need government to provide these things!”

Then you ask, “So why do you want the word ‘liberty’ put on our coins?” The answer is, “I want liberty so long as it is not put into practice!”

And that is why government deals with the superficial financial appearances, and not the implicit reality that causes the booms and busts.