Some thoughts on forecasting

Shashank Patil, a BSc student writes in with this query:

“Could you suggest books(those criminally thick ones work well too!) or any other reference to understand the nuances of forecasting better? (particularly how to be skeptical about specific models, their shortcomings or what thought process should follow whenever I see a forecast model and its predictions, etc.)
I guess a lot of this should come with experience rather than through purposeful effort. But any guidance on this should be of great help.”

First things first: I wish I had had the wisdom to ask this question at that age. I and a friend of mine were just discovering the joys of playing around with Microsoft Excel and MATLAB, and were more focused on learning how to code and model than on asking “Well, hang on. Does this even make sense?” Kudos, Shashank, for being sceptical. It’ll serve you well while learning econometrics!

Now, that being said, I’ll get to books and resources a little further below, but first some thoughts about forecasting that might help.

There are, to my mind, three ways to forecast something.

The first is to build a model in which the outcome is a function of measurable inputs, excluding time. What that means in non-academic gobbledygook is this:

 

That’s a model, with measurable inputs. If x, then y, and if y, then z. And you can keep this going for as long as you want. You can guess, with some allowances for error, what’ll happen at the end. Raise interest rates, and people will borrow less. If people will borrow less, people will spend less. If people will spend less, demand will go down. And on and on and on.

Economic models are more complicated, because they deal with us, human beings. And much as we economists would like human beings to be rational, we don’t always live up to our expectations. But that apart, this is one way to forecast. Build a model, which is basically a scaled down version of reality, and hope that the model can “predict” what’ll happen next.

Or, and this is where we enter the badlands of econometrics, we can do time series modeling. Time series modeling is special in the sense that we try and predict what happens next on the basis of what has gone before.

 

 

Times series chart example from Russia
Click here for original chart and article

What will the value be in April 2000? A time series model will try and “guess” the value, based on past trends and values. The reason I tend to be a little (well, ok, more than a little) sceptical of this kind of analysis is because a) we ignore everything else that is going on in the world and b) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

That is to say, just because it has not happened in the past is no reason to believe that it will not happen in the future. But time series models, by definition, project out into the future by looking at the past!

And finally, betting markets! Crowdsource what the future will look like, by asking people to bet on their view of what the future will be like.

 

Here’s the introduction from a Wikipedia article (but do read the whole thing)

“Prediction markets (also known as betting markets, political betting markets, predictive markets, information markets, decision markets, idea futures, event derivatives, or virtual markets) are exchange-traded markets created for the purpose of trading the outcome of events. The market prices can indicate what the crowd thinks the probability of the event is. A prediction market contract trades between 0 and 100%. It is a binary option that will expire at the price of 0 or 100%. Prediction markets can be thought of as belonging to the more general concept of crowdsourcing which is specially designed to aggregate information on particular topics of interest. The main purposes of prediction markets are eliciting aggregating beliefs over an unknown future outcome. Traders with different beliefs trade on contracts whose payoffs are related to the unknown future outcome and the market prices of the contracts are considered as the aggregated belief.”

Also read Bryan Caplan on betting. And Robin Hanson. And Vitalik Buterin.

Now all that being said, here are the books I would recommend you read:

  1. Walter Enders: Applied Econometric Time Series. A little advanced, perhaps, but it remains, for me, the bible of time series forecasting.
  2. A Little Book of R for Time Series Forecasting. Short lovely read, with lots of examples you can try for yourself in R.
  3. Superforecasting (somewhat tangential, but a great read)
  4. Mastering Econometrics, an online video series, by Joshua Angrist (who also has a lovely book called Mostly Harmless Econometrics).

Thank you for the question, Shashank!

Keep an eye on China stories #1

  1. This one isn’t about China per se, it is about how the corona virus is caused by 5G – but the story does begin with Wuhan:
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    ” Sploshing about this sludge are six main coronavirus conspiracy theories: that 5G is, somehow, dangerous; that 5G worsens the effects of coronavirus by weakening your immune system; that 5G outright causes coronavirus-like symptoms; that the coronavirus lockdown is being used as cover to install 5G networks; that Bill Gates had something to do with it; and, finally, that this is all an Illuminati mass-murder plot. None of these conspiracy theories have a shred of truth in them, while some are outright dangerous.”
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  2. Imagine that you are a Chinese strategist. What course of action would you recommend when you see the level off hatred and venom the world has towards China?
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    “I think that’s exactly right. For years, people who think seriously about China’s political trajectory have said that the biggest risk in the US-China relationship is that there will come a time when China, because of something like an economic depression, would need to rally people around the flag in a particularly acute, brittle, aggressive way. This tool has been built into Chinese politics: When needed, you can direct your animus, your political energy, against a foreign opponent.”
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  3. Ananta Nageswaran on much more than just China bashing:
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    “For two nations to collaborate, both sides have to trust each other and share information. In the case of Covid-19, the People’s Republic of China did not do so. Just to recap, there were three major failures and at least one of them continues to this day:(1) Suppression of the flu outbreak for five to six weeks

    (2) Banning travel from Wuhan only to other parts of China

    (3) Not reporting the true number of infections.

    One does not even have to go into the spin on controlling the infection more efficiently than others; ridiculing other nations and even daring to suggest that the virus originated elsewhere.”
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  4. “All Chinese businesses, large and small, have struggled since COVID-19 emerged at the beginning of this year, forcing stores, restaurants, and factories to cut down on hours or completely shutter. While the full economic impact of the outbreak on China’s economy is still uncertain, popular business writer Wú Xiǎobō 吴晓波 detailed in a recent report that about 247,000 Chinese companies declared bankruptcy in the first two months of 2020.”
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    Here we go…(This link is from Mahesh Avasare)
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  5. China, or the USA? The world?

Postwar Economic Problems, The Book

Reading this blogpost helped me land upon this link. The book is titled Postwar Economic Problems, edited by Seymour E. Harris.

The introduction begins with the following sentence:

“Win the war first” is a sensible slogan. But all agree that if we do not also win the peace, we shall have lost the war.

It is hard not to be hooked!

From the same chapter, a little further down, a whiff of a familiar problem:

It will be necessary to stimulate consumer spending if a high income level is to be attained and maintained. Provision of security and an accompanying stimulation of spending; the further spread of education; an improved distribution of income; community spending for consumption—all these will be required.

The authors include, among others, Hansen, Samuelson, Haberler, Leontief, Schumpeter, Kindleberger and Lerner.

You could do a lot worse than skim through the book right now. The numbers aren’t relevant today, of course, but the line of thinking is bound to be.

Links about these changing times

  1. Agnes Callard on wanting to feel pain:
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    “We don’t consciously choose to feel pangs of guilt or waves of regret, in the way that we consciously choose what novel to read. Still, we can assimilate the two sorts of cases if we introduce a hypothetical: Imagine you are offered a pill that would make you immune to regretful or guilty thoughts. Would you choose take it? If your worry is that those thoughts are important for steering you away from future wrongdoing, let me assure you I’ve built that functionality into the pill: You won’t behave any worse for having taken it. You’ll just stop having negative feelings.”
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  2. Via MR, social distancing and examinations in South Korea. (I’m not a fan)
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  3. Scott Adams has been calling it correctly for a while. Read more Dilbert!
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  4. Again via MR, a lovely list.
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  5. What will change, culturally speaking? Telecommuting will be the default, and in the years to come, maybe you’ll have to ask the manager for permission to go to office.
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    “But the pandemic is forcing these investments in industries where telework is possible, with more people learning how to use remote technology. As a result, we may see a more permanent shift toward telecommuting. As the economist Susan Athey recently told the Washington Post, “People will change their habits, and some of these habits will stick. There’s a lot of things where people are just slowly shifting, and this will accelerate that.””

Financing the stimulus #1

Devesh Kapur and Arvind Subramanian, writing in the Business Standard:

In principle, there are five ways of financing additional expenditures over the next 12 months or so:

  • Reduction in other expenditures (Rs 1-1.5 trillion)
  • Foreign borrowing, from official sources and non-resident Indians (NRIs; Rs 1-1.5 trillion)
  • Public financing by issuing g-secs (including to banks and LIC) (Rs 5 trillion)
  • Monetary financing or “printing money” (Rs 1-1.5 trillion)
  • Mobilizing additional resources via raising taxes and cutting subsidies (Rs 1-1.5 trillion)

The rest of the article explains their rationale behind each point above. Essential reading!

Assorted corona links for Monday, 13th April

  1. False negatives don’t matter as much as you might think.
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    “The simulated data here contrast policies that isolate people who test positive using four different assumptions about the quality of the test. Even a very bad test cuts the fraction of the population who are ultimately infected almost in half. And when I say bad, I mean bad – an 80% false negative rate, which means that 4 out of 5 of people who are truly infectious will get a negative test result – i.e. a result saying that they are not infectious.”
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  2. An interview with Bob Nelsen. Worth reading!
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    “I mean, I’m biased, but I think antibodies are probably the highest probability to work. I hope some mRNA works. I think if you ask scientists, they’re more skeptical. But I hope it works, especially in populations that tend to have weak immune systems. When you get skepticism about mRNA, it tends to be, ‘Yeah, it might work in a young person, but how is it going to work in the populations at risk?’ My own gut feeling is that mRNAt works a little and I hope it works a lot. And even then, there’s a role for all of the systems.If mRNA works, it bides us time to develop more potent, longer term vaccines. Antibodies will likely work and have the highest probability of working. There are multiple companies pursuing antibody therapy. So you hope that mRNA and antibiotic therapy start ramping up by the fall.”
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  3. What is mRNA? Here you go.
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  4. Doing it like Singapore.
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    “We try not to meet at all with the other teams as much as possible. We’ll just say hi from across the corridor. Meals are the same. All our cafeterias and everything have got social distancing spaced in already,” said Chia, who is also a member of parliament and chairs a shadow committee on health.”
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  5. The Bill Gates TED Talk about pandemics (from 2015!)

Back To Posting Regularly. Hopefully.

I wrote every day on this blog from the 13th of June, 2018. No exceptions. Until sometime last week. I was done.

I don’t know what, exactly, was the tipping point. But I just couldn’t write anymore, so I didn’t.

To those of you who asked about me, thank you! I’m perfectly fine. I just needed to step away, and so I did.

Today, I felt like getting back on the treadmill, so here we go again.

I’m perfectly ok, to be clear. But I will take breaks if I need to from writing about the damn virus, because god knows it helped.

Thank you for reading, as always.

So what does stimulus actually mean?

A reader sends in this question:

“What do governments actually mean when they say that we’re going to announce a 1 trillion dollar economic stimulus package? Does it mean that they’re going to spend that much money? Or they’re just going to give it to the industries? (if so what does that entail?)”

Keep the following in mind:

  • I’m going to assume that the person who asked the question hasn’t learnt macroeconomics in a formal setting just yet, and will therefore answer the question accordingly
  • I will describe a macroeconomic model using words, and keep it fairly simple
  • I will use examples from earlier crises
  • Let’s get started!

 

  • Think of the Indian economy as a patient, and think of monetary and fiscal policies as medicines that are going to be administered by doctors. The RBI governor is a doctor to this patient, as is the Finance Minister.
  • Any move pertaining to regulation of banks (allowing banks to ask for EMI’s later, reduction of interest rates, forbearance of loans) is medicine administered by the RBI.
  • Any move pertaining to reduction of taxes, introduction of subsidies, amnesty schemes for taxes due in the past, spending on specific projects (construction of roads bridges etc), changes to government employees salaries/pensions, payouts to firms or individuals (literally giving them money) is medicine administered by the finance minister.
  • Under normal circumstances, one doctor is plenty enough. In fact, macroeconomists often end up saying that if fiscal policy is going to provide the medicine, monetary policy should stand ready to counteract any excesses.

    There is a dilemma as to whether these two policies are complementary, or act as substitutes to each other for achieving macroeconomic goals. Policy makers are viewed as interacting as strategic substitutes when one policy maker’s expansionary (contractionary) policies are countered by another policy maker’s contractionary (expansionary) policies. For example: if the fiscal authority raises taxes or cuts spending, then the monetary authority reacts to it by lowering the policy rates and vice versa. If they behave as strategic complements, then an expansionary (contractionary) policy of one authority is met by expansionary (contractionary) policies of the other.

  • But when the patient is as ill as is the case now (and is going to get sicker in the days to come!), well then monetary and fiscal policy are not substitutes: both need to be at play at the same time.
  • For example, in the 2008 recession, American policymakers resorted to both monetary and fiscal policy measures (all countries did, to be clear. I’m just using the American example because its data is easier to find and present)
  • The monetary policymakers announced, among other things, TARP. By the way, astute readers might want to point out that this seems to have been run by the Treasury Department, not the Federal Reserve. True, not arguing with that. It’s complicated! Also, watch this movie.
  • And, among other things, the American government also announced ARRA. The original website is no longer up, but you can see this, or read this.

 

Now, all that being said, we’re going to take a look at fiscal policy alone from here on in. It is not that monetary policy isn’t important (oh dear lord, it is!) but the question is more focused on fiscal policies.

To understand the answer to this question, let’s go back to an earlier post of mine, and quote from it:

Let’s break this tweet by Paul Krugman down.

  • The government has decided that it will give away money. Ergo, fiscal policy.
  • To whom should it give the money? It can give the money to firms, or to households.
  • If it gives the money to households (in India for example, this would have been through Direct Benefits Transfer), might that help people more?
  • Or should it give the money to firms instead?
  • Payroll taxes, which is what is being spoken about in the tweet, is tax paid on behalf of employees to the government, by firms. Here’s Wikipedia:

    Payroll taxes are taxes imposed on employers or employees, and are usually calculated as a percentage of the salaries that employers pay their staff.[1] Payroll taxes generally fall into two categories: deductions from an employee’s wages, and taxes paid by the employer based on the employee’s wages. The first kind are taxes that employers are required to withhold from employees’ wages, also known as withholding tax, pay-as-you-earn tax (PAYE), or pay-as-you-go tax (PAYG) and often covering advance payment of income tax, social security contributions, and various insurances (e.g., unemployment and disability). The second kind is a tax that is paid from the employer’s own funds and that is directly related to employing a worker. These can consist of fixed charges or be proportionally linked to an employee’s pay. The charges paid by the employer usually cover the employer’s funding of the social security system, Medicare, and other insurance programs. It is sometimes claimed that the economic burden of the payroll tax falls almost entirely on the worker, regardless of whether the tax is remitted by the employer or the employee, as the employers’ share of payroll taxes is passed on to employees in the form of lower wages that would otherwise be paid.

  • So when there is a payroll tax holiday, firms no longer have to pay these taxes. So who is benefiting here? Firms or the employees of firms? To the extent that the firm no longer has to pay these taxes, it has more money with itself. It can either keep this money and use it for other things, or it can pass on this money to the employees. What will actually happen is tricky to predict, and trickier still to measure!
  • For example, imagine the Indian government says to the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE) that the Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) from the professors salaries need no longer be given over to the government. (To people who know their macro, I know it is not the same thing. Treat this as an illustrative example)
    • If GIPE was due to pay me a 100 rupees every month, it would deduct 10 (that’s the TDS) and pass it on to the government. That need be done no longer.
    • But the government doesn’t say that this money should be given to the professors instead – GIPE can do with it whatever it wishes.
    • Will (should) GIPE pass on this money to the professors? Or use this to pay other people employed by GIPE? Or just keep it with GIPE (who knows when the college will reopen, hoarding cash may be a good idea). Or… anything else you can think of, really!
  • So “giving” to industries really can mean a variety of things. And it really depends on what industry chooses to do with this money. You could apply conditionalities and say you will only get the money if:
    • It’s passed on to employees
    • You qualify because your firm falls in an important sector (employs a lot of people, is important from a social viewpoint, is critical to combat the virus etc)
    • Anything else you can think of
  • Or the government could spend the money itself! Build roads, bridges, dams, employ thousands more teachers, temporary employees – but all of this is assuming we can control the spread of the virus, of course. Without that, all of this is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

 


So the correct answer to the question that the reader asks is: all of the above. At this point in time, a good fiscal policy move will be to spend, and give tax benefits to firms and households. This is roll out the big guns territory, no half measures will do.

Homework:

A useful exercise to do: go through the fiscal stimulus announced by our government, and try and pinpoint which parts are directly in the hands of the people, which in the hands of the firms, and which is spending by government on building out infrastructure etc. Here’s one article to help you along.

Homework Part Deux:

Are we Rawlsian?

Homework Part Trois:

Are we Rawlsian enough?

 

MMT and the corona virus, courtesy Yash Agarwal

Yash Agarwal (here is his Twitter page) messaged yesterday, asking about MMT and whether it could be used to tackle the current crisis. He has shared a video as well, and asked a rather specific question, both of which we will get to shortly.

But first things first, what is MMT?

MMT stands for modern monetary theory. For there to be a “modern” monetary theory, there must have been a monetary theory, right?


 

OK, Lerner: His argument was that countries that (a) rely on fiat money they control and (b) don’t borrow in someone else’s currency don’t face any debt constraints, because they can always print money to service their debt. What they face, instead, is an inflation constraint: too much fiscal stimulus will cause an overheating economy. So their budget policies should be entirely focused on getting the level of aggregate demand right: the budget deficit should be big enough to produce full employment, but no so big as to produce inflationary overheating.

The excerpt is from Krugman’s blog/column in the NYT, but if you want the academic paper behind this, here you go.

Here’s the short version of the Lerner argument: so long as you don’t borrow from abroad, and so long as you print your own money without any backing (such as gold), well, there can never be no crisis. Just, literally, print your money and throw it at the problem. The one thing you gotta keep in mind is you want to do this until aggregate demand is “just” right. Too much of AD, and you’re in inflationary territory. Too little and you never solved the crisis – print more money in that case.

So today, given the low interest rates that are likely to prevail in the economy, just have the finance minister and team spend, spend and spend, until aggregate demand rises and the economy is back on track. Build more schools, lay more roads, build more bridges – spend, spend and spend. That, best as I understand it, would have been the Lerner position.

And what about the debt and the deficit once things are back to normal? Well, that’s the problem with the Lerner doctrine. It involves running, then, a primary surplus – which means cutting subsidies and raising taxes. And no, I don’t see that happening.

If you want the modern version of this monetary theory, which is MMT, a good place to begin might be this blog post I wrote a while back.


But they key thing, best as I can tell, about MMT is that you must not worry about deficits, especially during a crisis. Print more money and spend your way out of it.

Here’s a more recent take on the issue:

The world is changing that is for sure. Governments around the world are promising to spend billions to address the coronavirus crisis and no-one (other than a few so-called progressives – see below) are talking about how governments will pay for the interventions. Everybody knows how. They have always known. The shams about governments not having enough money to provide adequate housing, schooling, health care, employment, other services, and a sustainable response to climate change are now exposed for all to see. The game is well and truly up. Everybody can now see that governments just have to announce billions of intervention and it will happen. Forget all the ‘complexity’ about accounting arrangements. Forget all the stuff that we will also drown under massive tax burdens if the government dares to help some disadvantaged person get a leg up in life. Forget all the stuff about bond markets punishing profligate governments with insolvency. Everybody can now see that the bond markets are the beggars and the government rules. Even in the Eurozone, it is obvious that the ECB is able to fund fiscal deficits of any size – ‘there is no limit’. Only the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have consistently outlined the rationale for what is going on at present. And that point is increasingly being recognised although not always in ways I think does our work justice.

That’s mostly rhetoric (and I do not mean that as a criticism), the meat is found later on in the article. In particular, note the 2×2 matrices that are to be found further down, of which I present one below:

Original can be found here

Essentially, MMT says that if a country has monetary sovereignty (and India does), and if a country has an aggregate demand crisis (and India does), then proceed full steam ahead with MMT. Go full steam ahead on expansionary fiscal policy, and don’t worry about finding the money to do this, or about the debt: just create the money!


 

Here’s Stephanie Kelton on the topic, in conversation with Michael Moore:

 

For a more theoretical look, especially at the operational aspects from a global viewpoint, read this article by William Buiter:

Much of the US response will come in the form of “helicopter money,” an application of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in which the central bank finances fiscal stimulus by purchasing government debt issued to finance tax cuts or public spending increases. The US economy is deteriorating at a spectacular rate, partly because of the direct health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but mostly as a result of social-distancing mandates that are preventing people from producing and consuming.


So ok, let’s say we’re going to do MMT: what exactly might this entail for, say, the USA?

What is more important is a set of policies that tackles the health crisis head-on while also mitigating the economic uncertainties faced by households and their communities. These include:
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(1) full coverage of medical costs associated with testing and treatment of COVID-19;
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(2) mandated paid sick leave and full coverage of associated costs;
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(3) debt relief for families;

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and (4) swift deployment of testing and treatment facilities to underserved communities. We will probably still need some demand stimulus, but these four steps require immediate attention.


I learnt about their article by reading about Amol Agarwal’s take on MMT, available here:

After being ignored (and humiliated), is this the MMTers moment in the sun? Will their ideas get a hearing? One would say that we should keep all options open and not be bound by the shibboleths of economics. The speed at which the pandemic has shifted gears and become an economic crisis needs all possible policies which need to be executed at even faster speed. My gut feel is most of the economies will eventually be implementing ideas from MMT without calling it so. The Governments are being pressed to introduce fiscal support and will be calling their central banks to finance the support. MMTers might not mind their not being given due recognition. First they are used to being ignored. Second, they may well think that as long as humanity benefits, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.


Now (phew, that was a long introduction!) here’s the video that Yash shared:

And here’s his question:

I just watched this and I was wondering if it would be correct to state that the modern monetary theory is practically possible just for the United States of America since it issues the global reserve currency?

The answer is no: so long as you have your own currency (where the “you” in question is a sovereign government), and you are only borrowing domestically, you can go ahead with MMT.

And I agree with Amol Agarwal: right now, we need all the propping up of AD that we can get, and so we should do “whatever it takes”. And that right soon!

That doesn’t mean there won’t be problems later – there may well be – but now is about now. Spend!

Five articles from economists about tackling the crisis

  1. Arnold Kling advises us to not worry about “going back to normal”. It’s about winning the war, no matter what it takes. There will be a new normal at the end of it, and no one today knows what that normal will be like. Focus on winning!

    “We are acting as if our biggest worry is how to get back to our “normal,” pre-war economy. Our biggest challenge instead is to win the war, after which we will transition to an economy that looks considerably different, just as the post-WWII economy was quite different from the pre-war economy.”

  2. I found this fascinating: on how the RBI is working to keep our financial system alive.

    As the country goes on a self-imposed lockdown to fight the coronavirus contagion, a crack team of 150 people, in hazmat suits, is keeping India’s financial system up and running since March 19 from an unknown location in a completely quarantined environment. These 150 people, including 37 officials from critical departments of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), such as debt management, reserve management and monetary operations, and third-party service providers, are now in charge of the business continuity plan of the central bank, designed in a way that could help create a benchmark for such exigencies in the future as well.

  3. Greg Mankiw comes up with a form of social insurance. Here’s a challenge for you – how would you game this system?

    Let’s send every person a check for X dollars every month for the next N months. In addition, levy a surtax in 2020–due in April 2021 or perhaps spread over several years–equal to N*X*(Y2020/Y2019), where Y2020 is a person’s earnings in 2020 and Y2019 is a person’s earnings in 2019. The surtax would be capped at N*X.

  4. Via MR, how about pausing time?

    Sometimes, the best solutions to big problems are very simple. Regarding the current outbreak of COVID-19, I propose a solution that—on the surface—might seem preposterous, but if one manages to stay with it and really think through the potential benefits, then it emerges as a much more credible course of action.I propose temporarily stopping time. This means that today’s date, Tuesday, March 17th, 2020, will remain the current date until further notice. This also means that everything that happens in time (e.g. mortgage due dates, payrolls, travel bookings, stock market trading, contractor gigs, concerts, sporting events) will be paused. It also means that all of these events remain on the books, and will continue as planned once time is resumed.

     

  5. And on the same point, Tim Taylor:

    “Here, I want to focus a bit on a theme that comes up in a number of the essays: the idea that sensible economic policy can put the economy in the freezer for a few months, and the pull the economy out of the freezer, thaw it out, and restart it. I find myself in the awkward position here of largely being in agreement with this policy as a short-run approach, and at the same time also feeling that the ultimate consequences of the policy are going to be more difficult than a number of authors are envisaging. ”

    (An aside: WordPress formatting has already cut years from my life, and will continue to do so. That last bit is, to be clear, an excerpt. That is clear to me, to you – but not to WordPress)