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Quick Housekeeping Note

December 5, 2020

By James Kwak

I’ve been asked if you can sign up for email notifications when I write stories on Medium. Apparently you can, but the option is a bit buried. (One of the nice things about Medium is the clean interface. One downside of that clean interface is that sometimes you have to go looking for things.)

If you’re on my main page (jamesykwak.medium.com), you have to click on About at the top.

Then you get to this page, and at the bottom there’s a link to an email subscription form.

I hope that helps.
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Housekeeping

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Quick Housekeeping Note

December 5, 2020

By James Kwak

I’ve been asked if you can sign up for email notifications when I write stories on Medium. Apparently you can, but the option is a bit buried. (One of the nice things about Medium is the clean interface. One downside of that clean interface is that sometimes you have to go looking for things.)

If you’re on my main page (jamesykwak.medium.com), you have to click on About at the top.

Then you get to this page, and at the bottom there’s a link to an email subscription form.

I hope that helps.
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Housekeeping

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Moving On

December 3, 2020

By James Kwak

I’ve decided not to post on The Baseline Scenario anymore. I’ve thought about this on and off during the several years that the site has been mostly dormant, but I never pulled the trigger, mainly because this blog still has thousands of email subscribers and an unknown number of followers on Facebook. But I obviously haven’t been into blogging for a long time now, and it feels weird to continue using a platform whose peak was in 2010 and 2011 (when we were regularly listed, with reason, as one of the most important finance and economics blogs on the Internet). As you’ve probably noticed, Facebook, Twitter, and the consolidation of media platforms (the Times, the Atlantic, Slate, Vox, etc.) has killed off most independent blogging. In addition, while Simon and I rarely

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Moving On

December 3, 2020

By James Kwak

I’ve decided not to post on The Baseline Scenario anymore. I’ve thought about this on and off during the several years that the site has been mostly dormant, but I never pulled the trigger, mainly because this blog still has thousands of email subscribers and an unknown number of followers on Facebook. But I obviously haven’t been into blogging for a long time now, and it feels weird to continue using a platform whose peak was in 2010 and 2011 (when we were regularly listed, with reason, as one of the most important finance and economics blogs on the Internet). As you’ve probably noticed, Facebook, Twitter, and the consolidation of media platforms (the Times, the Atlantic, Slate, Vox, etc.) has killed off most independent blogging. In addition, while Simon and I rarely

Read More »

Leverage

December 1, 2020

By James Kwak

One of Congress’s top priorities this week and next is to pass some kind of funding bill that will keep the federal government operating past December 11. There are basically two ways this could happen. Option A is that Congress could pass a continuing resolution that maintains funding at current levels until, say, the end of January—that is, when we’ll have a new Congress and a new administration. Option B is to pass an omnibus fiscal year 2021 spending bill that determines discretionary spending levels through September of next year when the federal government’s fiscal year ends.

Photo by 1778011 from PixabayThe Democratic leadership apparently is pushing for Option B because—well, probably because they think it’s the responsible thing to do and will make them

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Leverage

December 1, 2020

By James Kwak

One of Congress’s top priorities this week and next is to pass some kind of funding bill that will keep the federal government operating past December 11. There are basically two ways this could happen. Option A is that Congress could pass a continuing resolution that maintains funding at current levels until, say, the end of January—that is, when we’ll have a new Congress and a new administration. Option B is to pass an omnibus fiscal year 2021 spending bill that determines discretionary spending levels through September of next year when the federal government’s fiscal year ends.

Photo by 1778011 from PixabayThe Democratic leadership apparently is pushing for Option B because—well, probably because they think it’s the responsible thing to do and will make them

Read More »

The COVID-19 Economy: What Can We Do?

July 12, 2020

By James Kwak
Today, the Washington Post’s Outlook section published my article on the future of the American economy in the wake of the pandemic. They invited me to write it because of my earlier blog post on “Winners and Losers.” (Hey, despite all appearances, maybe blogs are still worth writing.)
Photo by skeezeThe article is pretty gloomy. The short summary is that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and reinforce the two primary economic trends of our time: consolidation and inequality. At this moment, I believe that more strongly than when I originally drafted the article two months ago. It seems to me that, as a society, we are caught between two unacceptable outcomes: either we reopen elementary schools (at least) so that parents can go to work, adding fuel to the

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The COVID-19 Economy: What Can We Do?

July 12, 2020

By James Kwak
Today, the Washington Post’s Outlook section published my article on the future of the American economy in the wake of the pandemic. They invited me to write it because of my earlier blog post on “Winners and Losers.” (Hey, despite all appearances, maybe blogs are still worth writing.)
Photo by skeezeThe article is pretty gloomy. The short summary is that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and reinforce the two primary economic trends of our time: consolidation and inequality. At this moment, I believe that more strongly than when I originally drafted the article two months ago. It seems to me that, as a society, we are caught between two unacceptable outcomes: either we reopen elementary schools (at least) so that parents can go to work, adding fuel to the

Read More »

COVID-19: Winners and Losers

March 29, 2020

By James Kwak
I think it’s highly likely that the dust will clear eventually and that our economy will come back to life at some point in the next two or three years. I know there are certain disaster scenarios that can’t be ruled out, but I think they are unlikely. I’m not going to guess when things will return to a semblance of normal. Really, no one knows.
Photo by Free-Photos from PixabayThe question for now is: what will that economy look like?
A few things, I think, are clear. The economy will not grow back up to its trend line prior to the pandemic. This, for example, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is what happened after the financial crisis and Great Recession:

Not only did actual GDP fall, but the trend line of potential GDP fell as well, costing the economy

Read More »

COVID-19: Winners and Losers

March 29, 2020

By James Kwak
I think it’s highly likely that the dust will clear eventually and that our economy will come back to life at some point in the next two or three years. I know there are certain disaster scenarios that can’t be ruled out, but I think they are unlikely. I’m not going to guess when things will return to a semblance of normal. Really, no one knows.
Photo by Free-Photos from PixabayThe question for now is: what will that economy look like?
A few things, I think, are clear. The economy will not grow back up to its trend line prior to the pandemic. This, for example, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is what happened after the financial crisis and Great Recession:

Not only did actual GDP fall, but the trend line of potential GDP fell as well, costing the economy

Read More »

COVID-19: Inequality

March 26, 2020

By James Kwak
By some measures, in the short term, COVID-19 will surely reduce inequality of wealth, and probably inequality of income as well. As a purely mechanical matter, the rich have a lot more money to lose when the stock market crashes and most sectors of the economy grind to a halt.
Photo by Free-Photos from PixabayAt the same time, however, this pandemic is throwing into stark relief how unequal the lives of Americans are today. Most of the upper-middle class and rich seem to fall into one of two categories. Those without children in the house trade suggestions on how to fill their time: virtual happy hours, virtual yoga, free streaming opera, binge TV-watching, etc. Those with children in the house trade suggestions on how to keep said children occupied so that we can get

Read More »

COVID-19: Inequality

March 26, 2020

By James Kwak
By some measures, in the short term, COVID-19 will surely reduce inequality of wealth, and probably inequality of income as well. As a purely mechanical matter, the rich have a lot more money to lose when the stock market crashes and most sectors of the economy grind to a halt.
Photo by Free-Photos from PixabayAt the same time, however, this pandemic is throwing into stark relief how unequal the lives of Americans are today. Most of the upper-middle class and rich seem to fall into one of two categories. Those without children in the house trade suggestions on how to fill their time: virtual happy hours, virtual yoga, free streaming opera, binge TV-watching, etc. Those with children in the house trade suggestions on how to keep said children occupied so that we can get

Read More »

COVID-19: The Butcher, the Brewer, and the Baker

March 24, 2020

By James Kwak
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Image by Mandy Fontana from PixabayThis is the most famous line from the most famous justification of market capitalism. Smith’s point is that it is individual self-interest that drives the economy. In the next paragraph, he goes on to describe how gains from trade explain the division of labor in a modern economy:
“The certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular

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COVID-19: The Butcher, the Brewer, and the Baker

March 24, 2020

By James Kwak
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Image by Mandy Fontana from PixabayThis is the most famous line from the most famous justification of market capitalism. Smith’s point is that it is individual self-interest that drives the economy. In the next paragraph, he goes on to describe how gains from trade explain the division of labor in a modern economy:
“The certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular

Read More »

COVID-19: The Statistics of Social Distancing

March 23, 2020

By James Kwak
It seems that social distancing is the primary strategy for slowing the propagation rate of COVID-19. That and widespread testing are the key tools for containing an outbreak, for reasons discussed repeatedly in the media.
Photo by Hans Braxmeier from PixabayBut does it work? Or, more to the point, how well do different degrees of social distancing work? How strict does it need to be, and how tightly does it need to be enforced? It seems to me that this is an important and at least theoretically answerable question.
Thanks to ubiquitous commercial and government surveillance, there are staggeringly comprehensive databases of exactly where people are at all times. Google has one, for example. Picture for yourself an enormous aerial picture of some metropolitan area with a

Read More »

COVID-19: The Statistics of Social Distancing

March 23, 2020

By James Kwak
It seems that social distancing is the primary strategy for slowing the propagation rate of COVID-19. That and widespread testing are the key tools for containing an outbreak, for reasons discussed repeatedly in the media.
Photo by Hans Braxmeier from PixabayBut does it work? Or, more to the point, how well do different degrees of social distancing work? How strict does it need to be, and how tightly does it need to be enforced? It seems to me that this is an important and at least theoretically answerable question.
Thanks to ubiquitous commercial and government surveillance, there are staggeringly comprehensive databases of exactly where people are at all times. Google has one, for example. Picture for yourself an enormous aerial picture of some metropolitan area with a

Read More »

COVID-19: Not One Penny

March 22, 2020

By James Kwak
The airline industry is trying to hold up the federal government for $29 billion in grants and another $29 billion in loans. They threaten that if they don’t get the grants they will lay off employees, and that if they don’t get the loans they will use their remaining cash on dividends and stock buybacks.
Photo by Júlia Orige from PixabayFirst of all, the second threat is staggering in its audacity. At current course and speed, the airlines will go bankrupt. When you are in financial distress, the last thing you should do is take your scarce cash and hand it to your shareholders. That meets at least the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of a fraudulent conveyance in bankruptcy law. But it represents the pinnacle of the idea of shareholder capitalism: screw the workers, screw

Read More »

COVID-19: Not One Penny

March 22, 2020

By James Kwak
The airline industry is trying to hold up the federal government for $29 billion in grants and another $29 billion in loans. They threaten that if they don’t get the grants they will lay off employees, and that if they don’t get the loans they will use their remaining cash on dividends and stock buybacks.
Photo by Júlia Orige from PixabayFirst of all, the second threat is staggering in its audacity. At current course and speed, the airlines will go bankrupt. When you are in financial distress, the last thing you should do is take your scarce cash and hand it to your shareholders. That meets at least the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of a fraudulent conveyance in bankruptcy law. But it represents the pinnacle of the idea of shareholder capitalism: screw the workers, screw

Read More »

COVID-19: Who Bears the Losses?

March 21, 2020

By James Kwak
Our business and household sectors are losing lots of money every day, and will continue to lose money for the foreseeable future. People no longer spend money at restaurants. Restaurant owners can no longer pay the rent or pay back their business loans. Restaurants fire their workers, who lose their paychecks and can no longer pay their rent, or their credit card bills, or their student debt. In an economic crisis like this, the overriding question is: who ultimately bears the losses?
Photo by skeeze from PixabayWe’ve been through this before. In the 2008 financial crisis, we applied the usual rules of capitalism—unless you were a large bank. Businesses failed and their owners (including shareholders, for corporations) were wiped out. Renters were evicted. Homeowners lost

Read More »

COVID-19: Who Bears the Losses?

March 21, 2020

By James Kwak
Our business and household sectors are losing lots of money every day, and will continue to lose money for the foreseeable future. People no longer spend money at restaurants. Restaurant owners can no longer pay the rent or pay back their business loans. Restaurants fire their workers, who lose their paychecks and can no longer pay their rent, or their credit card bills, or their student debt. In an economic crisis like this, the overriding question is: who ultimately bears the losses?
Photo by skeeze from PixabayWe’ve been through this before. In the 2008 financial crisis, we applied the usual rules of capitalism—unless you were a large bank. Businesses failed and their owners (including shareholders, for corporations) were wiped out. Renters were evicted. Homeowners lost

Read More »

Thoughts About COVID-19: PPE

March 20, 2020

By James Kwak
PPE, as we now know, stands for Personal Protective Equipment, like face masks and gloves. Right now there isn’t enough of it, and that’s one of the constraints on being able to test people, which is one of the biggest problems we face.
Photo by ehpien (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)The only point I want me make here is this: This is how capitalism is supposed to work. If you’re a for-profit healthcare provider—or any kind of provider that is trying to provide the most value, however defined, with limited resources— you are not going to stock up on enough PPE to handle every possible scenario you might face. This is what management consultants and business school professors have been saying for decades. PPE, like inventory, is a form of working capital. If you can reduce the amount of

Read More »

Thoughts About COVID-19: PPE

March 20, 2020

By James Kwak
PPE, as we now know, stands for Personal Protective Equipment, like face masks and gloves. Right now there isn’t enough of it, and that’s one of the constraints on being able to test people, which is one of the biggest problems we face.
Photo by ehpien (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The only point I want me make here is this: This is how capitalism is supposed to work. If you’re a for-profit healthcare provider—or any kind of provider that is trying to provide the most value, however defined, with limited resources— you are not going to stock up on enough PPE to handle every possible scenario you might face. This is what management consultants and business school professors have been saying for decades. PPE, like inventory, is a form of working capital. If you can reduce the amount

Read More »

About that Democratic Primary …

February 11, 2020

By James Kwak
Today is the day of the New Hampshire primary, and, perhaps more importantly, lots of people in California are getting their ballots around now. Before you cast your vote in the Democratic presidential primary, I wish you would read Take Back Our Party, either online (for free) or in print. But I know most of you won’t, so this is what I want to say.
As a preamble, if you are a moderate Democrat—if you think welfare reform and financial deregulation were good ideas; if you think, along with Barack Obama, that more oil production is a good thing; if you think that America’s health care problems can be solved by private health insurance companies—what I am going to say is not for you. Go ahead and vote for Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar.
The key message

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About that Democratic Primary …

February 11, 2020

By James Kwak
Today is the day of the New Hampshire primary, and, perhaps more importantly, lots of people in California are getting their ballots around now. Before you cast your vote in the Democratic presidential primary, I wish you would read Take Back Our Party, either online (for free) or in print. But I know most of you won’t, so this is what I want to say.
As a preamble, if you are a moderate Democrat—if you think welfare reform and financial deregulation were good ideas; if you think, along with Barack Obama, that more oil production is a good thing; if you think that America’s health care problems can be solved by private health insurance companies—what I am going to say is not for you. Go ahead and vote for Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar.
The key message

Read More »

Take Back Our Party, Print Edition

February 7, 2020

By James Kwak
I’ve never wanted to write a book as much as I wanted to write Take Back Our Party. And I’ve never wanted people to read one of my books as much as this one—in particular, before the 2020 Democratic primary season ends. For that reason, I bypassed the usual publication route. (As my editor at Pantheon liked to say, the period for turning a manuscript into a book is, for unknown reasons, the same as the gestation period of a human. In his defense, he did get both 13 Bankers and White House Burning out in around 5–6 months.)
Instead, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, agreed to publish the book online, and it went live here in December. In addition, I wanted there to be a print edition for people (like me) who, well, prefer reading things on paper—and

Read More »

Take Back Our Party, Print Edition

February 7, 2020

By James Kwak
I’ve never wanted to write a book as much as I wanted to write Take Back Our Party. And I’ve never wanted people to read one of my books as much as this one—in particular, before the 2020 Democratic primary season ends. For that reason, I bypassed the usual publication route. (As my editor at Pantheon liked to say, the period for turning a manuscript into a book is, for unknown reasons, the same as the gestation period of a human. In his defense, he did get both 13 Bankers and White House Burning out in around 5–6 months.)
Instead, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, agreed to publish the book online, and it went live here in December. In addition, I wanted there to be a print edition for people (like me) who, well, prefer reading things on paper—and

Read More »

Economism on Marketplace

February 6, 2020

By James Kwak
David Brancaccio of Marketplace has started a new radio project called Econ Extra Credit: reading a first-year economics textbook, one chapter per week, along with his listeners. Luckily, he chose one of the textbooks produced by the CORE project, a group of economists who set out to rewrite the economics curriculum in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession.
David invited me to talk with him about “Economics 101” and the one-sided impression of the world that people often take away from the class—especially those for whom it is their only economics class. This, of course, was the subject of my 2017 book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality.
You can hear the whole interview here. Enjoy!
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Economism on Marketplace

February 6, 2020

By James Kwak
David Brancaccio of Marketplace has started a new radio project called Econ Extra Credit: reading a first-year economics textbook, one chapter per week, along with his listeners. Luckily, he chose one of the textbooks produced by the CORE project, a group of economists who set out to rewrite the economics curriculum in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession.
David invited me to talk with him about “Economics 101” and the one-sided impression of the world that people often take away from the class—especially those for whom it is their only economics class. This, of course, was the subject of my 2017 book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality.
You can hear the whole interview here. Enjoy!
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False Choice

December 21, 2019

By James Kwak
The scene: Two well-dressed, fully employed people sitting at a table in the chic café at their workplace.
Martha: Do you like your health plan?
George: I love it.
Martha: How much do you pay for your plan?
George: About $550 per month.*
Martha: Do you have a deductible?
George: I have a $1,000 deductible for my whole family.
Martha: What about co-payments?
George: I have to pay 20% of the cost for hospital stays and outpatient surgery.
Martha: What if you just want to see the doctor?
George: I pay $25 to see my primary care physician, and $40 to see a specialist.
Martha: Can you see anyone you want?
George: I pay more if I see people out of network, but the insurer still pays something.
Martha: I’m thinking about switching to the new plan they’re offering. Have you heard

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False Choice

December 21, 2019

By James Kwak
The scene: Two well-dressed, fully employed people sitting at a table in the chic café at their workplace.
Martha: Do you like your health plan?
George: I love it.
Martha: How much do you pay for your plan?
George: About $550 per month.*
Martha: Do you have a deductible?
George: I have a $1,000 deductible for my whole family.
Martha: What about co-payments?
George: I have to pay 20% of the cost for hospital stays and outpatient surgery.
Martha: What if you just want to see the doctor?
George: I pay $25 to see my primary care physician, and $40 to see a specialist.
Martha: Can you see anyone you want?
George: I pay more if I see people out of network, but the insurer still pays something.
Martha: I’m thinking about switching to the new plan they’re offering. Have you

Read More »