Sunday, July 31, 2011

Two Hundred Trillion Dollars

There are some silly songs on Youtube about the $46,000 debt we're giving each new child at birth; the songs are supposed to make you feel guilty about what we're doing to our children, and I think they're supposed to energize you against the debt-ceiling rise and for the balanced budget amendment. Well, the debt ceiling is stupid, and the balanced budget amendment is a really bad idea, and $46,000 is a ludicrous figure; the correct figure, the figure that the average kid needs to pay (or pay interest on, or pass on with accrued interest to the next generation,) is probably well over half a million. Nobody can know exactly; it depends on future growth of expenses and revenues and population, but $46,000 is a very small fraction of the total.

In April 2010, after the health-care bill's passage, I wrote a "One Hundred Trillion Dollars" context post in which I quoted the Dallas Fed:

Add together the unfunded liabilities from Medicare and Social Security, and it comes to $99.2 trillion over the infinite horizon. Traditional Medicare composes about 69 percent, the new drug benefit roughly 17 percent and Social Security the remaining 14 percent. ... all we would have to do to fully fund our nation’s entitlement programs would be to cut discretionary spending by 97 percent....defense and national security, education, the environment ... All of them [forever]
Today I noticed on Yahoo a more up-to-date and more complete and therefore more scary view of the same concept, from BusinessWeek, in Why the Debt Crisis Is Even Worse Than You Think:
A more revealing calculation is the CBO’s measurement of what’s called the fiscal gap. That figure is conceptually cleaner than the national debt—and consequently more alarming. Boston University’s Kotlikoff has extended the agency’s analysis from 2085 out to the infinite horizon, which he says is the only method that’s invulnerable to the frame-of-reference problem. It’s an approach used by actuaries to make sure that a pension system doesn’t contain an instability that will manifest itself just past the last year studied. Years far in the future carry very little weight, converging toward zero, because they are discounted by the time value of money. Even so, Kotlikoff concluded that the fiscal gap—i.e., the net present value of all future expenses minus all future revenue—amounts to $211 trillion.

How does that work? Well, let's think about the Smith family and the Jones family, each expecting the same future expenses spread out over time. Joe Jones intends to pay as he goes; he hasn't borrowed anything. Sam Smith has borrowed enough money from a bank to fund an investment account which will pay exactly the same expenses. In fact, aside from the issue of bank profit, he had to borrow exactly the net present value of those future expenses. (He has a triple-A rating, of course. For now.) You can think of various ways that they're in different situations, but the Smith and Jones families are basically comparable: the payments on Smith's loan will not over time be appreciably different from Jones' direct expenses. So we can think of both of them as having the same financial future: if one is in trouble, they both are. And right now, the US has the same financial future as if it had made no unfunded promises but had borrowed a grand total of $211,000,000,000,000.00. So far.

Is that exact? No, of course not. Things might not be quite that bad, they could be even worse: as the article says, the calculation is quite sensitive to assumptions about future events and policy. But it's accurate enough to say that the "debt" is not what we should worry about; we should worry about the "fiscal gap".

Of course, if you worry about the debt, then it makes sense to talk about the deficit: $850 billion dollars last year. What if you're worried about the fiscal gap? Does the deficit become irrelevant? Yes, really; as Kotlikoff says:

The gap was $205 trillion last year, measured in today’s dollars. That’s an increase of $6 trillion. ... Hence, the real deficit we should be worrying about is more than six times larger than the $850 billion official deficit capturing all the attention.
In other words, Congress and the president’s administration could agree to run a balanced budget, making this year’s official deficit zero, and the nation’s true indebtedness would still rise by $5.15 trillion!... the main reason is that we are one year closer to having to pay 78 million baby boomers roughly $40,000, on average, per year in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Because the fiscal gap is a discounted present value, one year makes a big difference.

If you think back to the Smith and Jones family, and imagine the fiscal gap as an implicit debt, then the $5 trillion is mainly the result of our failure to pay even the interest on the $206 trillion we owed last year -- we do have a really good interest rate as long as we keep the AAA rating, but it's not zero.

So, should we balance the budget anyway, even if it's inadequate to do so? No -- not in years with high unemployment. I'd agree with Calculated Risk: Debt Ceiling Update

A politician can say "We should have a balanced budget". It sounds good, but why aren't they challenged about operating vs. capital budgets? And about business cycle spending (obviously revenue falls during a recession - and spending increases)?
What they really want is a balanced operating budget over the business cycle. You can't put that in the Constitution. It requires effective government and constant vigilance.
But even capital vs. operating budget doesn't quite do it for me: I want the fiscal gap, over the business cycle, to remain a limited multiple of GDP. Fifteen times GDP? Okay, fifteen times GDP. (It would be nice to shrink it.) But don't let it keep growing (as a multiple of GDP) from one business-cycle peak to the next.

And with all that, should my taxes be raised? Yes, emphatically so -- my taxes should be raised as part of a plan to deal with the fiscal gap. I can and should pay more taxes than most people; that part's understood. I'm not in Kerry's league for lifetime income, not even in Obama's, but I can pay more taxes than I do -- it won't even cut my consumption until taxes get quite a lot higher. What I don't think most raise-taxes people understand is that even though a fairly substantial tax hike won't be a "hardship", won't seriously cut my consumption, it will cut my reinvestment. It has to. So it will reduce the money available to future generations of taxers; in fact a dollar of tax revenue increase now is somewhat more than a dollar of tax revenue decrease later, because you'll have spent the money before it grew. So it's crucial, when you take my money, to take it as part of a plan to deal with the fiscal gap--otherwise the gap grows and you've taken some of the resources we'll need to deal with it. (I tried to go over this in the aforelinked One Hundred Trillion Dollars post.) In any case, if you actually want to fix things, focus on consumption, not income. (I'll still pay more than average, I promise.)

And is it hopeless? Not at all. We still see, e.g. Foxconn to replace workers with 1 million robots in 3 years. We still see Sarcos Exoskeleton Bringing Iron Man Suit Closer To Reality and the beautiful Watch Festo's SmartBird Robot Soar Over TED Conference. We still see Loss of memory due to aging may be reversible and, for young and old, How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education. We may even see Could 100 Kilometer high towers usher in the next space age?

The SpaceShaft concept isn't as ambitious as the space elevator but it is much more feasible. For 130 million Euros we could design and construct a 100 kilometer tall SpaceShaft within a decade. Once we have SpaceShafts up and running, the frontier of space will finally be open to humanity.

Or then again.... maybe not.

update: Fixed silly typo which had billions instead of trillions.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Language-Learning Software; Bottom-Up?

As I've said, this year I've been working some on modern Greek, and thinking about it. My context, though, is a little more than simply that of a programmer with Greek family but no aptitude for languages. For more than ten years now, I've been on-and-off involved with media-annotation software that was mostly intended for teaching languages in a higher-education setting. (See, e.g., a 2005 Semantic Web Applications writeup as "Semantic Annotations for Digital Video" (PDF).) Quite a few Colgate students have learned Russian using Russian video with time-aligned transcript and commentary, texts that I can't read but that were linked by code I wrote. (The commentary may or may not be just one "layer", and may or may not include a translation; the time-aligned transcript starts as the sort of thing you create in transcriber, which I had scripts for the previous version of, or with ELAN — Language Archiving Technology; I've contributed code to ELAN, and I like its design and I'm doing more work on it this year, but I end up wanting an actual editable HTML page to contain the transcript etc. I'm hoping to do it all in HTML5, Real Soon Now.)

Of course, I'm not trying to learn modern Greek in a higher-education setting; I'm doing that on my own. Self-study software? I did get the Rosetta Stone Greek Level 1-2 Set and used it for a while (the little doggie at my feet is in fact named Rosetta, and that's why.) I haven't used it for a long time, though, and I really can't do it while trying for nine-minute miles on the elliptical. Still, the idea of language learning as a figure-it-out-as-you-go-along matching game does appeal; it's a common way for game worlds to work, and I have thought about implementing it within a world of time-aligned transcript+commentary, where we match sentences and play the selection...Hmm. But that would be further from my own personal current requirements than Rosetta itself. Well, since I was using actual flashcards for exercise-study and then using texts that I could think of as flashcards, it obviously might make sense to use flashcard software, say The Mnemosyne Project offering

  • Efficient scheduling algorithm, so you don't waste time on things you know well
  • Support for languages using different scripts through unicode
  • Support for pictures, sounds and html formatting
  • Support for three-sided cards, e.g. foreign words where you are interested in written form, pronunciation and translation

Mostly, though, I've been using pages that look like this fragment, from Dover's Listen & Learn Modern Greek:

I treat these as three-sided cards of variable size; in other words, I try to memorize a word at a time, then a phrase at a time, then a clause at a time, then a sentence at a time, and maybe even a dialog-fragment at a time. I start with the English and phonetic rendering, over and over, one word at a time, and then when I come back to a piece later I try to pay attention only to the Greek text. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Hmm....

My ideal software, maybe, would have time-aligned video dialog scenes (pretend or even real restaurant scene, airport scene, hotel scene...) done at full speed by native speakers and time-aligned sentence by sentence, but that wouldn't be the starting point. That would be the goal. The starting point for each scene would use the same transcripts spoken much more slowly with alignment points between each word and the next, and markup to indicate phrase/clause/sentence/paragraph structure.

The user would start with word-at-a-time audio to play over and over while getting used to the English; in effect, single-word flashcards with audio support. As those got familiar, they'd be merged into phrases and so on up; a Mnemosyne-like strategy would have to track which phrases contain only words you've adequately learned, which clauses contain only phrases you've adequately learned, and so on. There would also be auxiliary pseudo-scenes for verb conjugations and such, but they'd be dealt with in the same way: bottom-up.

Sure, it would be nice to click "KRAH-tee-seh" or the Greek it represents and get a dictionary entry which identified as much as possible. But that kind of thing is easy enough; it so happens that I'm spending part of my work-time trying to improve the extent to which ELAN can talk to SIL's FLEx, which does dictionaries nicely. (As long as somebody creates the dictionary data; content is hard.) And it might be nice to add a link to a Google Translate suggestion, in this case "κράτα τα ρέστα". Many things might be nice, but the idea I'm thinking about has what I'd like to call bottom-up flashcards, based on an ELAN-style breakdown of each sentence as a basic framework, with the actual dictionary for the bottom level if possible. Hmm.

I would really like a piece of software that supports this kind of use-case, and maybe one exists. Or it's possible that the code I work with now can be modified to do so.

Of course, maybe I shouldn't be thinking about this as a strategy; it may be a bad strategy even if implemented well. If I were a foreign-language teacher, or even a good foreign-language student, I'd probably know better.

Or then again, maybe not. I dunno.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thoughts on Greece, and us

A large part of what holds Greece back, and us as well, is fairly described as rent-seeking--manipulation of public power for private profit, one way or another. In Greece, as in the Latin America of my childhood, it's much more likely to take the form of simple corruption: imagine (as I was told in Greece last week) an underpaid government official who approves environmental permits, and who provides faster service for those who provide extra money. And then he slows down the uncompensated permits sharply, to encourage the trade. It's not that he is lazy or works few hours, it's not even that there are too many such officials -- all that is often said but seems to be wrong. It's simply that his work product tends to detract from actual GDP, even as it's added at "cost" to official GDP. If he weren't doing that, Greece would be richer.

Other kinds of rent-seekers include those who profit from government-imposed monopolies, like the Athens taxi-drivers now striking, unpredictably blocking port and airport. Rent-seeking is a pretty broad category in my mind. I suppose that all countries end up with issues of regulatory capture and indeed of crony capitalism; government makes rules, and these rules will tend to promote the interests of those who have something to offer to the rule-makers, or some credible threat they can make. That interest-promotion is "rent," paid to the people who've managed to make some government power into their own property, legally or not.

I spent last week on Spetses, with various extended-family events relating to my granddaughter's baptism. It's interesting and educational to listen to Greeks and Greek-Americans talking about their fiscal crisis; I'd hoped to get some time specifically listening to Yannis Ioannides and Anna Hardman, and did, but not enough for real understanding. Yannis' basic Greece-is-not-bankrupt statement surprised me considerably (see Ioannides Says Greece Not Bankrupt, Must Change Economy: Video - Bloomberg). He thinks Greece really can pay its debts -- and he thought that even before the ’Restricted Default’ deal of this week, so I presume he thinks his case has been strengthened. He's an advocate for the austerity measures, which I suppose makes him one of the Serious People of whom Paul Krugman said this week in 1937! 1937! 1937! - that

OK, so we’re going to demand harsh austerity in the debt-crisis countries; and meanwhile, we’re also going to have austerity in the non-debt-crisis countries. Plus, the ECB is raising rates. So demand will be depressed in both crisis and non-crisis economies; this will lead to a vigorous recovery through … what? The Serious People are determined to destroy all the advanced economies in the name of prudence.
I'm mostly on Krugman's side there; we're combining monetary policy from the ECB which may be reasonable for Germany but not for Greece, along with drastic contractions of an uncomfortably the-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves flavor. Or so it seems to me. But Yannis isn't supporting austerity to reassure bond markets as Krugman says; Yannis thinks that the "austerity" (including the deregulation of taxi medallions being protested) is part of breaking or at least limiting the rent-seeking system. Well, I'm not sure he or Anna ever said "rent-seeking" but that's my understanding of what they did say, and when I look for related material online I find things like BusinessInsider's querying a member of the `professional "elite" class' of Greece, who said
We want the Greek economy reformed. An end to the of unimaginable waste of taxpayers money,...cronyism and corruption. A much smaller and reformed public sector... A pursuit and prosecution of presently wide spread tax evasion practices. The above would immediately provide us with a considerable primary surplus, enabling us to keep repaying our debt, an obligation we wish to honour. ... Unfortunately it appears that the average Greek, does not view things the same way.
That certainly sounds like the viewpoint of the Greeks with whom I spoke. And how big is the corruption problem? Well, Transparency International said
The Greeks paid an average of €1,355 ($1,830) in bribes [in 2009] for public services such as speeding up the issue of driver's licenses and construction permits, getting admitted to public hospitals or manipulating tax returns, ... Bribes paid for private sector services such as lawyers, doctors or banks were even higher...
So really, Yannis and those he supports (to the extent that I understand what's going on here) are not so much engaged in economics as in political action aimed at restructuring Greek culture. Otherwise, the bailouts fail. In The Painful Arithmetic of Greek Debt Default | e21 - Economic Policies for the 21st Century I see
How does corruption limit the capacity for tax and spending reform? Tax avoidance, which relies on bribery to avoid prosecution, is a national pastime in Greece – the envelope used in the bribe even has its own name, the “fakelaki,” confirming the age-old adage that the Greeks “have a word for it.” Bribery is so rampant in Greece that real estate developers’ method of obtaining cheap land is to burn down public land, squat on the burned parcels, and pay off public officials to permit this. Greece’s forest fires, particularly in the Peloponnese in 2007, have been a source of public outrage for years, and yet the developers continue to squat on the land with impunity. Is a society that permits that sort of lawlessness capable of tax reform?
Maybe. Maybe not. I respect Yannis, but if the average Greek doesn't believe in it to begin with, I don't see a happy ending to this story.

Corruption is by no means the only problem, and an end to rent-seeking would not necessarily make Greece fit comfortably into the Eurozone. Clearly, little Greece will never be the target of the ECB's monetary policy. Krugman, in Anatomy of a Euromess, said that

Spain’s troubles are not, despite what you may have read, the result of fiscal irresponsibility. Instead, they reflect “asymmetric shocks” within the eurozone, which were always known to be a problem, but have turned out to be an even worse problem than the euroskeptics feared.
David Beckworth took Krugman's analysis and extended it in "Optimal Currency Area" terms within Eurozone Periphery and the Euro, saying
If a region’s economy is not in sync with the currency union’s business cycle and the above listed shock absorbers ("flexible wages and prices, factor mobility, fiscal transfers, and diversified economies") are absent then it does not makes sense for a country to be a part of the currency union. Instead, the country should keep its own currency which itself will act as a shock absorber.
It's no great surprise to see that in his graphs, Greece ends up as the most ill-placed. But I believe that part of the "austerity" program is intended to increase the flexibility of the job market (by pruning job protection programs, as has been tried before) and maybe, if the austerity programs are accepted, maybe things will work out. For a while. Public Pensions and Labor Force Participation: The Case of Greece
The pension system of Greece is a representative case of the “Mediterranean welfare state”, which is characterized by extensive segmentation, very high payroll tax rates, and yet inadequate pension benefits. In order to explain this paradox we construct an economic–demographic model. We show that in the period 1980–2000, the segmentation of the system and the very low labor force participation rates of the Greek economy have resulted in very high payroll tax rates in relation to the current level of benefits. On top of these problems, the expected adverse demographic developments in the period 2005–2050 will render the pension system completely unsustainable.

Still, the near-term need is to cut the rent-seeking (including corruption) and collect the taxes and shrink the regulatory/welfare state. Maybe. And can it be done? Well, my own approach in Greece, even more than in the US would be:

automate, eliminate, simplify, outsource.
Almost all of a government's functionality should be virtual... Well, maybe I will make a separate post about that, sometime.

Meanwhile, a little more time has been bought. The Economist remarks that

the biggest risk to the euro zone is that its leaders will begin thinking that they've solved the problem. As growth figures worsen in coming months, markets will once again become antsy. Euro-zone officials had better be preparing for a way to convince them anew that they want this thing to work.

And I go back to the pattern I established last winter, of exercise and education

This morning I spent 45 minutes trying to pound a few modern Greek words and phrases into an aging memory; until a month ago, this would have required a major effort of willpower, but lately I've been doing it every day with no problem...
As I commented to my son's mother-in-law, see-gah-see-gah mah-THAY-no, which I think means "little by little I'm learning;" since her response was "bravo, Tom, ah-krih-VOS!" (precisely), maybe it does. And maybe I will eventually learn some economics too. Or then again, maybe not.

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