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It’s the Politics, Stupid!

June 27, 2015 16 comments

Update: 6/30:  A very interesting piece by BrankoMilanovic, made the same point before me

I have been silent on Greece, because scores of excellent economists from all sides commented at length and in real time on the developments of negotiation, and most has been said.

But last week has transformed in certainty what had been a fear since the beginning. The troika, backed by the quasi totality of EU governments, were not interested in finding a solution that would allow Greece to recover while embarking in a fiscally sustainable path. No, they were interested in a complete and public defeat of the “radical” Greek government.

The negotiation has not been one. The two sides were very far in January, as it is and it should be, if two radically different views about the engines of growth confront each other. Syriza wanted the end of austerity, that was much harsher on the country than expected, while failing to bring the promised benefits, even in terms of public finances’ sustainability. And it wanted the burden of debt to be lifted The troika wanted get its money back (well, not all of it; the IMF has always been open to debt restructuring), and more of the policies imposed to Greece since 2010, because, well, “eventually they will work”. (no need for me to remind with whom I have been siding).

But there was a common ground that, had the negotiation been real, could have allowed to reach an agreement, in just a few weeks of discussion. Both sides agreed that the Greek economy is broken, and that it needs radical reform. While Syriza focused on reorganisation of the State, on putting together a functioning tax collection system, at closing inefficiency loopholes, the troika demands were more “classic” and somewhat ideological: pension cuts, labour market reform, and the like. A continuation of the memorandum, in fact.

If we look at the economics of it, Sequencing is crucial: implementing structural reforms in bad times, when the economy is not able to absorb the short run costs of such reforms, imposes excessive disruption and risks hampering the potential long run benefits. This is why the joint implementation of austerity and structural reforms is particularly pernicious. Their short run contractionary effects reinforce each other and may be self-defeating, leading to no improvement in productivity or in public finances’ health. The dire state of Greece’s economy stands as a reminder that such an outcome is all but impossible. Troika reforms and cuts to public spending were doomed to fail since the beginning.

What happened since then? Well, contrary to what is heard in European circles, most of the concessions came from the Greek government. On retirement age, on the size of budget surplus (yes, the Greek government gave up its intention to stop austerity, and just obtained to soften it), on VAT, on privatizations, we are today much closer to the Troika initial positions than to the initial Greek position. Much closer.

The point that the Greek government made repeatedly is that some reforms, like improving the tax collection capacity, actually demanded an increase of resources, and hence of public spending. Reforms need to be disconnected from austerity, to maximize their chance to work.  Syriza, precisely like the Papandreou government in 2010 asked for time and possibly money. It got neither.

Tsipras had only two red lines it would and it could not cross: Trying to increase taxes on the rich (most notably large corporations), and not agreeing to further cuts to low pensions. if he crossed those lines, he would become virtually indistinguishable from Samaras and from the policies that led Greece to be a broken State.

What the past week made clear is that this, and only this was the objective of the creditors. This has been since the beginning about politics. Creditors cannot afford that an alternative to policies followed since 2010 in Greece and in the rest of the Eurozone materializes.

Austerity and structural reforms need to be the only way to go. Otherwise people could start asking questions; a risk you don’t want to run a few months before Spanish elections. Syriza needed to be made an example. You cannot  survive in Europe, if you don’t embrace the Brussels-Berlin Consensus. Tsipras, like Papandreou, was left with the only option too ask for the Greek people’s opinion, because there has been no negotiation, just a huge smoke screen. Those of us who were discussing pros and cons of the different options on the table, well, we were wasting our time.

And if Greece needs to go down to prove it, so be it. If we transform the euro in a club in which countries come and go, so be it.

The darkest moment for the EU.

@fsaraceno

Reform or Perish

June 19, 2015 2 comments

Very busy period. Plus, it is kind of tiresome to comment daily ups and downs of the negotiation between Greece and the Troika Institutions.

But as yesterday we made another step towards Grexit, it struck me how close the two sides are on the most controversial issue, primary surplus. Greece conceded to the creditors’ demand of a 1% surplus in 2015, and there still is a difference on the target for 2016, of about 0.5% (around 900 millions). Just look at how often most countries, not just Greece, respected their targets in the past, and you’ll understand how this does not look like a difference impossible to bridge.

The remaining issue is reforms. Creditors argue that Greece cannot be trusted in its commitment to reform. After all, they cheated so often in the past… In particular, creditors point at one of Syriza’s red lines, the refusal to touch pension reforms, as proof that the country is structurally incapable of reform. And here is the proof, the percentage of GDP that crisis countries spent in welfare::

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_1

I took total social expenditure that bundles together pensions, expenditure for supporting families, labour market policies, and so on and so forth. All these expenditure that, according to the Berlin View, choke the animal spirits of the economy, and kill productivity.

Well, Greece does not do much worse than its fellow crisis economies, but it is true that it is hard to detect a downward trend. The reform effort was not very strong, and certaiinly not adapted to an economy undergoing such a terrible crisis. The very fact that after four years of adjustment program the country spends 24% of its GDP in social protection, is a proof that it cannot be trusted.This is just proof that, once more, the Greek made fun of their fellow Europeans, and that they want us to pay for their pensions.

Hold on. Did I just say “terrible crisis”? What was that story of ratios, denominators and numerators? The ratio is today at the same level as 2009. But what about actual expenditure? There is a vary simple way to check for this. Multiply each of the lines above for the value of GDP. Here is what you get (normalized at 2009=100, as country sizes are too different):

2015_06_Reforms_Greece_2

The picture looks quite different, does it? Greece, whose crisis was significantly worse than for the other countries, slashed social expenditure by 25% in 5 years (I know, I know, it is current expenditure. I am too busy to deflate the figure. But I challenge you to prove that things would be substantially different). Now, just in case you had not noticed, social expenditure has an important role as an automatic stabilizer: It supports incomes, thus making hardship more bearable, and lying the foundations for the recovery. In a crisis the line should go up, not down. This picture is yet another illustration of the Greek tragedy, and of the stupidity of the policies that the Troika insists on imposing. By the way, notice how expenditure increased from 2005 to 2009, in response to the global financial crisis. A further proof that sensible policies were implemented in the early phase of the crisis, and that we went berserk only in the second phase.

Ah, and of course virtuous Germany, the model we should all follow, is the black line. Do what I say…

One may object that focusing on expenditure is misleading. There is more than expenditure in assessing the burden of the welfare state on the economy. While Greece slashed spending, its welfare state did not become any better; its capacity to collect taxes did not improve, that its inefficient public administration and its crony capitalism are stronger than ever. Yes, somebody may object all that. That someone is Yanis Varoufakis, who is demanding precisely this: stop asking that Greece slashes spending, and lift the financial constraint that prevents any meaningful medium term reform effort. Reform is not just cutting expenditure. Reform is reorganization of the administrative machine, elimination of wasteful programs, redesigning of incentives. All that is a billion times harder to do for a government that spends all its energies finding money to pay its debt.

Real reform is a medium term objective that needs time, and sometimes resources. In a sentence, reform should stop being associated with austerity.

But hey, I am no finance minister. Just sayin’…

@fsaraceno

Sand Fiscal Foundations

April 11, 2015 6 comments

Simon Wren-Lewis has an interesting piece on structural deficits. He has issues with Pisani-Ferry’s plea for more stable  structural deficit targets for EU countries. While Pisani-Ferry has a point in invoking more certainty for EU government action, Wren-Lewis argues, rightly so, that stable targets risk creating straitjackets for countries, and that the problem is mostly in the excessively short time horizon of structural deficit targets.

The fact that both Pisani and Wren-Lewis have a point highlights what is in my opinion a structural flaw of EU fiscal governance, namely its reliance on the slippery concept of structural government deficit.

To explain this simply, the idea underlying structural deficit targets is that  not all deficit were created equal. if the government runs a deficit because of adverse cyclical conditions (low growth yields lower tax revenues and larger welfare payements), this deficit is “healthy” because it supports economic activity, and bound to disappear when the economy recovers. As such, governments should not be required to target cyclical deficit, but only  the structural (or cyclically adjusted) deficit, which is precisely the deficit “cleaned” of its cyclical component.

The EU fiscal rule, the Stability Pact and its hardened Fiscal Compact extension, recognizes this distinction, and imposes that governments balance their budget over the cycle, which is yet another definition of structural deficit. This may seem a sensible approach, recognizing, as I just said, that not all deficits were created equal. But in fact sensible it is not.

The problem lies precisely in the word “cleaned” I used above . How do we clean headline deficit from its cyclical component, to compute the structural deficit that should be targeted by governments? This is how we should do it: We compute “potential output”, i.e. the capacity of production of the economy. From that we can obtain the output gap, i.e. the distance of actual output from its potential level; finally, by applying an estimate of how the deficit responds to the output gap, we can clean headline deficit from its cyclical component. Simple, right? Yes, in theory. In practice, we have no way to do it in a sufficiently precise way.

Just consider what the Commission itself states in the page dedicated to its own methodology for measuring potential output. (Their most recent methodological paper can be found here).

Any meaningful analysis of cyclical developments, of medium term growth prospects or of the stance of fiscal and monetary policies are all predicated on either an implicit or explicit assumption concerning the rate of potential output growth. Given the importance of the concept, the measurement of potential output is the subject of contentious and sustained research interest.

All the available methods have “pros” and “cons” and none can unequivocally be declared better than the alternatives in all cases. Thus, what matters is to have a method adapted to the problem under analysis, with well defined limits and, in international comparisons, one that deals identically with all countries. (emphasis is mine)

There is nothing wrong with recognizing that potential output estimates are “contentious”. Contrary to what some Talebans persist to argue, economics is a social science, subject to all the uncertainties, mismeasurements, and ambiguities that are inherently linked to human and social interactions.

Where we have a problem is in using a contentious concept as the foundation for rules in which a zeropointsomething deviation from the target may lead to sanctions and public disapproval by the EU community, with all the potential financial market disruptions associated with it.

This makes the rule non credible, because the contentious estimate may be questioned. More importantly, it leads to what Wren-Lewis fears: countries imposing harsh sacrifices to their people that may turn out to be unwarranted when the estimate is revised.

I am not clear about what fiscal rule we should have in the EU. I actually am not even convinced that we really would need one. What is certain is that two necessary conditions for any rule to be effective, credible, and reasonable are that it is not short -termist (I rejoin Wren-Lewis), and that it is based on indicators that are quantitatively as precise as possible.

The current rule fails on both ground (and don’t get me started on how crazily complicated and arbitrary it grew over time). EU fiscal governance remains founded on sand. And of course, a serious debate on its reform is nowhere to be seen in European policy circles.

The Confidence Witch

March 25, 2015 3 comments

Remember the old times? Here is a quote from ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet, September 2nd, 2010:

[Fiscal Consolidation] is a prerequisite for maintaining confidence in the credibility of governments’ fiscal targets. Positive effects on confidence can compensate for the reduction in demand stemming from fiscal consolidation, when fiscal adjustment strategies are perceived as credible, ambitious and focused on the expenditure side. The conditions for such positive effects are particularly favourable in the current environment of macroeconomic uncertainty.

And just in case it was not clear, on September 3rd, 2010:

We encourage all countries to be absolutely determined to go back to a sustainable mode for their fiscal policies,” Trichet said, speaking after the ECB rate decision on Thursday. “Our message is the same for all, and we trust that it is absolutely decisive not only for each country individually, but for prosperity of all.”

“Not because it is an elementary recommendation to care for your sons and daughter and not overburden them, but because it is good for confidence, consumption and investment today”.

Well, think again. Here is the abstract of ECB Working Paper no 1770, March 2015:

We explore how fiscal consolidations affect private sector confidence, a possible channel for the fiscal transmission that has received particular attention recently as a result of governments embarking on austerity trajectories in the aftermath of the crisis. Panel regressions based on the action-based datasets of De Vries et al. (2011) and Alesina et al. (2014) show that consolidations, and in particular their unanticipated components affect confidence negatively. The effects are stronger for revenue-based measures and when institutional arrangements, such as fiscal rules, are weak. To obtain a more accurate picture of how consolidations affect confidence, we co nstruct a monthly dataset of consolidation announcements based on the aforementioned datasets, so that we can study the confidence effects in real time using an event study. Consumer confidence falls around announcements of consolidation measures, an effect driven by revenue-based measures. Moreover, the effects are most relevant for European countries with weak institutional arrangements, as measured by the tightness of fiscal rules or budgetary transparency. The effects on producer confidence are generally similar, but weaker than for consumer confidence.

The confidence fairy seems to have turned into a confidence witch. One more victim of the crisis. But this one will not be missed.

It is not shameful to change opinion. Rather the contrary, it is a sign of intellectual courage. Two years ago, the IMF famously surprised commentators worldwide with a rather substantial U-turn on the impact of austerity. Revised calculations on the size of multipliers led them to acknowledge that they had underestimated the impact of austerity on economic activity.

Even at that time it started with a technical paper. But significantly, that paper was coauthored by Olivier Blanchard, IMF Chief Economist. It then served as the basis for a progress report on Greece, in June 2013, that de facto disavowed the first bailout program arguing that austerity had proven to be self-defeating.

Let us just hope that in the ECB new building communication between the research department and the top guys is more effective than in the old one…

Ps
I am glad to give credit for the title to Merijn Knibbe, from Real-World Economics Review Blog, who used the term in a comment to my last post.

Push Greece Off the Cliff?

February 5, 2015 18 comments

Yesterday, like many, I was appalled by the ECB announcement that it would stop accepting Greek bonds as collateral for loans. The timing, right after Greek finance minister Varoufakis met Draghi, but before he met German finance minister Schauble, seemed a clear signal: the ECB sides with Germany and EU institutions, and the only possible outcome it expects is a complete rolling back of Syriza electoral promises, and a renewed Greek commitment to austerity and troika-style structural reforms (privatizations plus labour market reform, to say it simply). This would of course be terrible news for Europe (these recipes simply did not work, this is acknowledge  everywhere from the IMF to the White House, passing by Downing Street). And terrible news for democracy as well. The signal to voters would be “Enjoy your day at the polls. Then we decide in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin”.

Appalling, I said. This morning I have read a different, very interesting interpretation by Frances Coppola.  Please read the piece. Is wonderfully written. In a few sentences, it says that the ECB move may not be pressure just on Greece, but on both sides involved, i.e. on Germany as well. In a sort of mega game of chess, by weakening Greece, by pushing it closer to the edge of the cliff, the ECB forces both sides to actively look for a deal, in order to avoid the catastrophic effect of Grexit. Coppola mentions the principle of “coercive deficiency” (famously applied to nuclear deterrence): a weaker Greece makes it run out of options, and hence a deal unavoidable.

Boy, I hope Frances is right! The alternative interpretation, United Creditors Against Greece, would mean the end of the Euro. And it is true that the practical implications of yesterday’s decision are in the end limited.  But I remain worried, for at least two reasons.

  1. The first is that if the ECB were trying (in a convoluted way) to set the stage for a deal, it should push Greece closer to the cliff, while at the same time showing at least some willingness to negotiate. Now, it seems that the ECB is not willing even to grant an extension of maturities. This is at odds with the interpretation of the ECB as setting the ground for a deal
  2.  Second, even assuming the ECB were in fact trying to crate the conditions for a deal, the game would be dangerous indeed, because it relies on Germany’s leaders to be good chess players! Leaving metaphors aside, it seems that Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble are trapped in their own narrative of debt as a morality tale, in which punishment of the sinners is by definition impossible. So the question becomes whether they would recognize that pushing Greece off the cliff would entail huge costs for the EU at large. And even if they recognize it, they may be willing to pay the price “to teach the sinners a lesson”

Difficult times ahead. I am not optimist

Who are the Radicals in Europe?

January 25, 2015 5 comments

As I write the Greek people are voting.  I was puzzled in the past weeks by the fear (more in the media than in markets, actually) of a “radical” left win. Puzzled, because the radical and ideological policy makers do not seem to live in Greece, today. On January 20 I wrote a piece for the Greek website Macropolis, where I claimed that we should not expect an Armageddon if Syriza wins, but rather some welcome fresh air.  I reproduce the piece here:

It is most likely that from the elections of January 25 will emerge a Syriza-led government, the main uncertainty being how large a coalition Alexis Tsipras will have to gather to obtain a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is seen with a fair deal of preoccupation in Europe. A preoccupation that does not seem warranted. Syriza is no longer the radical party of the beginning, which called for the exit from the euro and for a default on Greek public debt. Today it is party whose program can hardly be defined revolutionary, and whose label of “radical” left is justified mostly by the drifting of other social democratic party in Europe  (for example in Italy and in France) towards the center of the political spectrum, and towards a de facto acceptance of the European macroeconomic orthodoxy. Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, as the prospects of victory become more concrete, has further softened his tones and is already actively negotiating with the Commission and with the major countries, in view of a compromise on the key points of his program. However, some of the media and some political leaders around Europe continue to present the Greek elections as an incoming Armageddon, and the possibility of a Syriza victory as the beginning of the end for the monetary union.

Let’s see what are the reasons for concern. Regarding Europe, Syriza’s agenda has two key elements. First, in case of victory Tsipras would ask to renegotiate a substantial chunk of Greece’s unbearable public debt, that today is mostly (for around 80%) in the hands of official creditors. Of course, this would mean a loss for creditors to absorb. But, as the Financial Times noted as well,  it is difficult to imagine a durable exit from the crisis that has choked Europe since 2008,  if at least a part of the debt burden that is stifling the recovery is not removed. The French finance minister has agreed yesterday that some compromise on Greek debt will be have to be found, even if some northern countries are at least as of now inflexible. What seems increasingly evident, in fact is that with the European economy back into deflation the costs, for creditor countries as well as for debtors,  of a long stagnation, seem far more important than the loss associated with the debt restructuring. The second key point of Syriza’s electoral agenda is the abandonment of austerity that, albeit less stringent than in previous years, continues to characterize European economic policy   In other words, Syriza asks to address the problem of unsustainable debt, so far hidden under the rug, and to finally acknowledge the need for a comprehensive plan to restart the European economy, that goes well beyond the accounting tricks of the Juncker plan. Syriza may seem radical to some German economist. But it is in good company of other well-known extremists such as Paul De Grauwe, the IMF, the US government, and much of the Anglo-Saxon press. The European economy is unbalanced and stuck in a deflationary  liquidity trap, Mario Draghi’s faces fierce political opposition, and his arrows are increasingly ineffective; it is therefore increasingly clear that only fiscal policy will be able to get us out of trouble.

On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany.

What will happen then, if “radical” Syriza will win the election? Actually not much. Tsipras, comforted by opinion polls among his fellow citizens, does not consider the Grexit option. He will sit at the negotiating table to try to obtain for his country a substantial restructuring of debt, and for Europe change towards a more Keynesian policy. If on the latter objective it is hard to imagine that substantial progress will be made, debt restructuring in some form will probably happen. First, because as we said above, it seems to be an unavoidable event, just waiting for the political conditions to be reunited. And second, because Greece will negotiate from a position of strength.  Its primary budget surplus (a proof, if needed, that contrary to widespread beliefs Greece actually did its homework; and painfully so), and the low share of debt held by private investors, around 15%, would allow it not to be subject to market pressures in case of exit and default.

And contrary to some declarations that resemble to pre-electoral tactics (the Greek election game is played in the European arena as well), Greece’s exit from the euro would not arrange its European partners either. First, because it would be accompanied by default, and losses for creditors would be significantly larger than in the case of restructuring. Then, probably more important, because Grexit would have unpredictable contagion effects on other peripheral economies, which not hazardously today look with concern to the increasingly harsh tones used in particular by the German Government. In case of a Syriza victory Angela Merkel will most probably soften the tone and agree to negotiate. It is hard to imagine that orthodoxy will go as far as to push Greece out of the euro.

It goes without saying that the negotiation will be harsh, and that tensions will emerge. But today the ECB is more active in assisting countries in difficulty, and its program OMT, which recently received preliminary clearance by the European Court of Justice, is a good protection against speculative attacks.

To conclude, Europeans should stop worrying and let democracy play its role. A Syriza-led government (possibly forming an alliance with George Papandreou’s To Kinima) would not cause an earthquake. Rather the contrary, it could help stirring things up, and bring within the European debate discussion about measures the need for which is now obvious to all except to those who will not see.

Confidence and the Bazooka

January 23, 2015 19 comments

It seems that we finally have our Bazooka. Quantitative Easing will be put in place; its size is slightly larger than expected (€60bn a month), and Mario Draghi, once again, seems to have gotten what he wanted in his confrontation with hawks within and outside the ECB (I won’t comment on risk sharing. I am far from clear about the consequences of that).

And yet, something is just not right. I am afraid that QE will end up like LTRO and all the other liquidity injections the ECB performed in the past.  What bothers me is not  the shape of the program (given the political constraints, one could hardly imagine something more radical), but Draghi’s press conference. Here is a quote from the introductory statement:

Monetary policy is focused on maintaining price stability over the medium term and its accommodative stance contributes to supporting economic activity. However, in order to increase investment activity, boost job creation and raise productivity growth, other policy areas need to contribute decisively. In particular, the determined implementation of product and labour market reforms as well as actions to improve the business environment for firms needs to gain momentum in several countries. It is crucial that structural reforms be implemented swiftly, credibly and effectively as this will not only increase the future sustainable growth of the euro area, but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery. Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while ensuring debt sustainability in compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact, which remains the anchor for confidence. All countries should use the available scope for a more growth-friendly composition of fiscal policies.

And here the answer to a question, even more explicit:

What monetary policy can do is to create the basis for growth, but for growth to pick up, you need investment. For investment you need confidence, and for confidence you need structural reforms. The ECB has taken a further, very expansionary measure today, but it’s now up to the governments to implement these structural reforms, and the more they do, the more effective will be our monetary policy. That’s absolutely essential, as well as the fiscal consolidation side. So structural reforms is one thing, budget and fiscal consolidation is a different issue. It’s very important to have in place a so-called growth-friendly fiscal consolidation for confidence strengthening. This combined with a monetary policy which is very expansionary, which has been and is even more so after our decisions today, is actually the optimal combination. But for this now, we need the actions by the governments, and we need the action also by the Commission, both in its overseeing role of fiscal policies and in its implementing the investment plan, which was launched by the President of the Commission, which was certainly welcome at the time, now has to be implemented with speed. Speed is of the essence.

The message could not be any clearer: Draghi expects the QE program to impact economic activity through private spending. What we have here is the nt-th comeback of the confidence fairy: accommodative monetary policy, structural reforms and fiscal consolidation, will cause a private expenditure surge (“[..] but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery“). We have been told this many times since 2010.

Unfortunately, it did not work like this, and I am afraid it will not this time either. The private sector signals in all surveys available that it is not ready to resume spending. If governments are not given the possibility to spend more, most of the liquidity injected into the system will remain idle, exactly as it was the case for the (T)LTRO.

The concept of countercyclical policies is so trivial as to become commonsensical: Governments should step in when markets step out, and withdraw when markets step in again. Filling the gap will actually sustain economic activity, and crowd-in private expenditure; more so, much more so, than filling the pockets of agents with money they are not willing to spend. This is the essence of Keynes. Since 2010 in Europe governments rushed to the exit together with markets; joint deleveraging meant depressed economy. How could one be surprised that confidence does not return?

I would like to add that invoking more active fiscal policy within the limits of the Treaties has the flavour of a bad joke.  Just so as we understand what we are talking about, the EMU 18 in 2014 had a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 2.6% (preliminary estimates by the Commission, Ameco database); this means that to remain within the Treaty a fiscal stimulus would have to be limited to 0.4% of GDP. How large would the multiplier have to be, for this to lift the eurozone economy out of deflation? Even the most ardent Keynesian would have a hard time claiming that!! And also, so as we don’t forget, at less than 95% of GDP EMU, Gross public debt can hardly be seen as an obstacle to a serious fiscal stimulus. Even in the short run.

The point I want to make is that QE is all very good, but European governments need to be put in condition to spend the money. It is tiring to repeat the same thing again and again: in a liquidity trap monetary policy can only be a companion to the main tool that could be used by policy makers: fiscal policy.

But in Europe, bad economic policy is today considered a virtue.