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March 31, 2005

Max Sawicky Reports on Brookings

Max Sawicky reports from the Brookings Institution:

MaxSpeak, You Listen!: GUNFIGHT AT THE
"Dean Baker and Paul Krugman presented their paper, co-authored with Brad DeLong, on 'Asset Returns and Economic Growth,' at the Brookings Institution today. They lay out the problem of what makes a logically consistent scenario of economic growth, in terms of assumptions on interconnected variables, including labor force growth, productivity, immigration, stock prices, returns on equity, etc. N. Gregory Mankiw, late of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, acted as discussant.

The authors zero in on 4.5 percent as the most plausible estimate of future returns to stock ownership. This tracks closely with the 4.6 of Robert Shiller, discussed here previously. When you include this in a diversified portfolio that has bonds and government securities, the average rate of return is much lower than the numbers routinely thrown around by privatization snake oil salesmen.

The paper discusses how plausible economic growth elsewhere does not change the basic scenario, a previously neglected subject.

Mankiw gave me a Groucho Marx moment -- as in, 'who are you going to believe, me or your own two eyes? -- by suggesting that the connection between stock returns and Social Security privatization was spurious. So why, you may ask, are the President and Vice Pres . . . Oh never mind.

Mankiw also accused the authors of Galbraithian lack of faith in 'corporate capitalism,' due to what he construed as their assumptions about corporate dividend policy. This was good timing, since there happens to be an event at Brookings next week about Galbraith and his life's work.

Nobody in the room (about 50 heavy-weight economists) sided with Mankiw's comments. Robert Gordon and Benjamin Friedman made fun of him. Gordon for Mankiw's New Republic article, where Mankiw cited the investment opportunities of the Harvard faculty as a model for working people. Friedman noted that he was implicitly attacking George W. Bush for mixing up the issue of Social Security privatization with that of solvency.

Gordon is much more optimistic about economic growth than the Social Security trustees. This suggests better stock market performance, but it also means the Trust Fund balances persist for much longer than 2041. He said 'the big deal here is immigration.' He went on to point out that a modest assumption about immigration meant a huge difference for labor force size in the long run.

There was a fair degree of consensus, as there is in the literature, that privatization and solvency are two separate matters that don't have much to do with each other. Privatization -- not necessarily in the form proposed by the Bush Administration -- allows the individual to revel in his own risk-taking, enjoying the thrill of success and the agony of failure. It entails the replacement of social insurance with individual saving. You could be for this irrespective of whether the market rate of return is much higher than that under Social Security, or under riskless U.S. government bonds.

Solvency or 'pre-funding' is the grim task of matching the present value of future spending to future receipts, mostly by reducing benefits. An irony of this is that 'solvency' proposals typically take a burden that is otherwise spread over all future generations and concentrate it on . . . why, on you, dear reader. As long as you're under 55. The people who have been told they benefit the most from 'privatization' are precisely the ones who get screwed the worst.

I met Mankiw afterwards. He wasn't too familiar with this site, which was predictable and is probably just as well. I told him I quoted him periodically. He was pleased.

Most of the conference was on some crazy little thing called the current account deficit, which maybe could cause interesting problems in the future.

So Mankiw didn't even say that a 3% real clawback on private accounts is too high? That the clawback rate should be matched to the actual Treasury borrowing rate?


Bob Gordon is--as is almost invariably true--smart. Raising immigration by 0.3% of the workforce every year wipes out nearly half of the 75-year Social Security deficit.

Posted by DeLong at March 31, 2005 08:15 PM