A Court of Many Opinions

June 26, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

In the past two decades the Roberts’ court has overturned several long standing court precedents and laws. In Heller and Citizens United, the court has favored the greatest degree of individual freedom in their reading of the 1st and 2nd Amendment. In this week’s 5-4 decision to overturn Roe, the court has chosen the least amount of individual freedom in their interpretation of the 14th Amendment. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated a desire to overturn other court precedents based on the 14th Amendment. In 2013, the court’s Shelby decision overthrew portion of the Voting Rights Act based on the 14th Amendment.

Before overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been in place for five decades, newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren delayed the Brown v. Board of Education decision by six months to try and convince two of the justices to change their vote and make the decision unanimous. Warren demonstrated a respect for the principle of stare decisis that the Roberts court does not have. This week’s decision overturned five decades of legal precedent on a 5-4 vote. At Scotusblog, Amy Howe (2022) notes the disagreement among the justices as to what their decision means going forward.

The six conservative members of the Supreme Court are members of the Federalist Society. Each working day of the session they gather in a candle lit chamber in the basement of the Supreme Court Building and kneel down before the Grand Jurist of the Federalist Society.

“Do you believe in the sanctity of the text?” they are asked and each affirms their belief.
“Do you swear to only write opinions and never write law?” the Grand Jurist asks and they each swear an oath.

Around each neck, an acolyte drapes a necklace adorned with eyes of newt, the claw of an eagle, the eye of a falcon. Each jurist will deftly weave through the jungle of legal texts like a newt. Each jurist will grasp the text’s relevant truth like an eagle. Each jurist will have the wide vision but narrow focus of a falcon.

Each jurist puts their thumbs and forefingers together to form the letter “O.” “Do you swear to observe the commandments of Originalism?” the Grand Jurist asks and each affirms obedience. Each justice stands and is wrapped in the black robe of objective jurisprudence based on the meaning of the original text as the lawmakers understood it. They bow to the Grand Jurist and are escorted to their individual chambers.

Their law clerks bring each justice the finger bones of dead lawmakers and jurists – the 18th century jurist Blackstone, the forefingers of Jefferson, Adams, the signers of the Constitution and the Amendments. Into a bowl go the bony digits and the justice gives the bowl three shakes, and no more. Two law clerks tie the dark bandana of Originalism around the justice’s eyes. In a ritual called “throwing the bones,” the justice withdraws a bone from the bowl, and lays it at a random spot on the unfurled scroll of sacred text. Twice more the ritual is performed, then the bowl is put aside and the bandana untied.

Jefferson’s finger may point to the “privileges and immunities” clause in the 14th Amendment and a clerk solemnly records the historical precedent. The thumb of John Bingham, the author of the first section of the 14th Amendment, may point to the “life, liberty, or property” phrase in that same Amendment. The pinky digit of Thurgood Marshall might point to the “due process” phrase in the 5th Amendment. These will be the foundations of the justice’s opinion. The bones are returned to their vessels, the scrolls rolled up and secured. The bones and their placement are different for each justice.

The clerks begin a scan of the databases containing all the sacred texts, searching for the occurrence of each phrase and an indication of how the lawmaker or previous justice understood those phrases. In the course of several months, each justice assembles these perspectives into an opinion which they hand first to the Grand Jurist of the Federalist Society. The Grand Jurist selects that opinion that most faithfully follows the principles of Originalism, secures that opinion with a wax seal, then imprints the wax seal with his ring. An acolyte then delivers the opinion to the Chief Justice, John Roberts and the opinion is made public.

The Grand Jurist was 22 and in law school when Roe v. Wade was decided fifty years ago. He never liked that decision. This Friday, the Grand Jurist smiled as he closed the heavy door to the underground chamber below the Supreme Court.


Photo by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash

Howe, A. (2022, June 24). Supreme Court overturns constitutional right to abortion. SCOTUSblog. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/06/supreme-court-overturns-constitutional-right-to-abortion/

Price Acceleration

June 19, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

There are several series of inflation and each offers a different perspective on annual price changes. Each month the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a headline number CPI-U, or Urban index, which estimates the annualized price change for urban dwellers of all ages. It also publishes a CPI-W or Worker index, which is focused on the spending priorities of working families. Yet another series is an index that the Federal Reserve uses to establish a longer term trend for price changes. This week the Fed enacted a rate increase of .75%, its strongest response to inflation since 1994, to counter the acceleration in price changes.

Working families and the general urban population differ in their spending priorities in transportation costs, household expenses and health insurance (BLS, 2021). Out of every $100 of income, working families spend about $2.40 less on maintaining a household, but $3.80 more on transportation. Being younger, they spend less on health insurance, about $1.50. The difference between the two series indicates which part of the population is bearing the weight of price changes. When transportation costs rise more than housing costs, the difference between the Workers and Urban index is positive.

In 2015-16, increases in senior housing costs caused the difference to go deeply negative. Starting in mid-2021, rising costs for new and used cars produced a positive difference, the highest since WW2. The Russian attack on Ukraine in February accelerated increases in gas prices and working families have borne more of that burden. Rising food costs have an almost equal impact, although working families tend to spend more eating out.

Just as we feel changes in our car speed, we feel changes in inflation. We expect some variation up and down around an average, but expect a balance of up and down. We are sensitive to acceleration, the change in speed, and become alert to too much up or down. Since mid-2021, the monthly acceleration in price changes have been mostly up.

Because pandemics only come along once a century and strangle the global economy, it was hard to tease out the underlying trend. Look at the negative drop in inflation in April 2022 on the far right side of the graph. The acceleration in price changes seemed to be easing up. In May 2022, the acceleration turned positive again and that prompted the Fed’s strong move this week.

Price changes in energy and food are both seasonal and volatile. To understand the trend, the Fed looks at yet another CPI index that excludes food and energy. Before the pandemic, the variation around the trend was small.

After the pandemic the variation in inflation was as severe as the early 1980s. Supply chains had been shut down, goods were stacking up at US ports, people were getting vaccinated and were spending money. With a shortage of new cars because of a chip shortage, used car prices increased a historic 45% in June 2021. Veterans in the industry shook their heads in disbelief. What should the Fed do? It has a double mandate of full employment and stable prices. Unemployment was still high at 6% in the spring of 2021. They maintained a zero-interest rate policy. As unemployment fell below 5% in September 2021, they probably should have increased interest rates a little.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s month-long shutdown of Shanghai factories this spring threw yet another wrench in the forecast. Families abruptly switched their spending from household to more social spending, services and travel. Airline fares increased 38% in May. The change in spending patterns caught the buying managers at Target, Home Depot and Wal-Mart by surprise and these retail outlets now have excess inventory.

The housing market is experiencing declines as people respond to rising interest rates. The real estate giant Redfin just reported that home sales fell 10% y-o-y in May 2022, down 3% in one month from April (Ellis, 2022). Rising rates will curb the volatility in price changes but they usually cause a recession. Investment spending, both commercial and residential, responds first and that causes a decline in economic activity. Over the past few months the Atlanta Fed has revised their 2022 GDP forecast from over 2% annualized growth to 0%. Each revision has been negative.

During the pandemic, households reduced their spending and have stored up a lot of spending power. There is a lot of untapped equity in homes as well. Higher interest rates will slow residential and commercial investment spending. Inflation may stay elevated if consumption spending remains strong and offsets that decline.


Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash

BLS. (2022, February 11). Relative importance of components in the Consumer Price Indexes: U.S. city average, December 2021. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/cpi/tables/relative-importance/2021.htm

Ellis, T. (2022, June 17). Home sales post rare May decline as mortgage rates rise. Redfin Real Estate News. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.redfin.com/news/housing-market-may-home-sales-decline/

House of Money

June 12, 2022

By Stephen Stofka

Economics students learn that money is a complex function, a multi-tool that plays three roles in our lives. Lawyers study the role of money in contracts. Psychologists study how our beliefs and personal history shape our distinct attitude to money. Our use of money embodies our expectations of the future and our perceptions of risk. The financial crisis demonstrated that money connects us and separates us. The struggle between cooperation and distrust is the foundation of our experiment in democracy.

Money is the Swiss army knife of most societies. As a medium of exchange, it saves us the cost of matching our needs. We can store our labor in a unit of money, then trade it for the things we want. The law regards an exchange of money as a “consideration” that distinguishes a contract from a gift. Current Supreme Court precedent has held that money is speech. Because we use money to store purchasing power, we want it to be a reliable container that doesn’t leak value. Money’s role as a unit of account requires legal institutions to administer the rules of that accounting.

We buy insurance to mitigate risk but to do so we are herded into risk pools based on age, sex or occupation. Those under age 25 pay higher car insurance premiums but lower health insurance premiums. Because they make less money as a group, they have a higher loan default rate and must pay higher borrowing costs. Roofers pay higher workmen’s compensation premiums than police. Heights are more dangerous than criminals. Before Obamacare, health insurance companies charged women of childbearing age higher premiums for individual policies (Pear, 2008). The premiums reflected the higher expected costs of pregnancy regardless of whether a woman had any intention of getting pregnant. We are Borg.

Companies may classify our risk profile but we have a unique relationship with money, a composite of personal experience and inclination. “Me” and “my” are appropriately contained in the word “money” because our attitude toward money is as unique as our fingerprints. In 1984, British psychologist Adrian Furman (1984) led a study to assess people’s attitudes toward money. The questionnaire included 150 questions grouped into five areas that probed the subjects’ beliefs, their political attitudes and affiliations, their sense of autonomy and personal power. An argument about money can be as complex as that questionnaire.

Many political debates involve money. Each party tries to gain control of the public purse to fund its priorities. After 9-11, the debate over money intensified. The hijackers had attacked a money center as a symbol of American hegemony. While Americans debated the justification for an invasion of Iraq, the budget surplus of the late Clinton years evaporated. For some voters, the choice was a stark one – spend money to blow up people in a foreign land or spend it to strengthen American communities. To calm his critics, Mr. Bush promised that Iraq would repay American war expenses with its oil revenues. This was one of several follies that turned voter sentiment toward Democrats in 2008.

The financial crisis showed us the complex nature of money and tested the values that we attach to money. In the last months of a flailing Bush Presidency, the crisis exposed the corruption, greed and stupidity of the country’s largest financial institutions. Billions of taxpayer money had created and fed a thicket of regulatory agencies that were either corrupt or incompetent. The crisis ignited a strong moral outrage that intensified when Democrats fought to pass Obamacare.

The debate may have ebbed during the decade that followed but the Republican tax cuts of 2017 reignited public disdain and distrust. While many American families struggled to recover from the crisis, the politicians and their rich patrons fattened their fortunes.

Money is the heart of the American experience. The American confederacy of colonies that had won independence from Britain could not pay its debts or borrow money. The writing of the Constitution was sparked by the urgent desire to resolve that crisis or risk becoming subjects again of a colonial power. To reach consensus, the colonies had to overcome their distrust of a central government with the power to levy taxes. The colonies distrusted each other and the regional coalitions that might take the reins of that central government. The founders built their distrust into the Constitution and its governing institutions. In grade school we learn them as “checks and balances,” a euphemistic phrase for distrust.

On social media we argue about the many aspects of money. Our experiment in democracy will be over when Americans stop having spirited discussions about money.


Photo by Kostiantyn Li on Unsplash

Furnham, A. (1984). Many sides of the coin: The psychology of money usage. Personality and Individual Differences, 5(5), 501–509. https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(84)90025-4

Pear, R. (2008, October 30). Women buying health policies pay a penalty. The New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/us/30insure.html

Lessons Learned

June 5, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week Janet Yellen, the current Secretary of the Treasury and former Fed Chair, admitted that she had not understood the path inflation would take. Such honesty from an administration official is refreshing. Ms. Yellen joins a long list of smart and experienced money managers who did not forecast this inflation trend. Global pandemics happen once a century, producing economic shocks that are unpredictable.

The economist Milton Friedman attributed inflation to money growth. Who grows money? Banks. The central bank (Fed) may increase the base money[1] it makes available to its member banks but it is the banks who multiply that base money when they make consumer and business loans. In the past decade, the annual percent change in household debt has tracked closely the rate of inflation. As long as banks were reluctant to extend credit, inflation remained low. The CARES act transferred billions to consumers and banks followed the money, extending more credit and shifting consumer demand higher.

For more than a decade sales of consumer durables excluding cars (ADXTNO) had waned. Pandemic restrictions forced us to alter our consumption habits and we bought durable goods for a new stay-at-home lifestyle. These included computers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and workout equipment. Our collective actions produced positive and negative effects. There is no one individual responsible for the negative impacts so we have blamed government policies or politicians.

Our collective actions change our physical and economic environment. Like a forest fire, we create our own weather and that feedback process can amplify the destructive forces of our actions. Adam Smith, the first economist, lived at a time when people were clustering in communities to trade with each other and engage in collective production. He was the first to note the dynamics of labor specialization where the productivity of individual effort is magnified and the entire community benefits from the assembly of coordinated effort.

As our  population grows and concentrates in larger communities, group dynamics have a greater influence in our individual lives.  Fashionable ideas and perspectives sweep through our society as easily as new product innovations. Social media speeds the introduction and adoption of trends. Under normal circumstances, the global supply chain adapts to these demand shifts rather quickly. However, the supply chain relies on a continuous flow of goods and services. The pandemic interrupted that flow, inducing a supply shock into the economy.

As economic activity returned to normal during 2021, investors and policymakers thought that supply chain disruptions would ease. Market prices increased about 20%. In January 2022, companies reporting 4th quarter results indicated that supply chain problems were slow to resolve and anticipated higher prices in 2022. Thousands of very smart people revised their earlier forecasts and adjusted their portfolio positions.

One of our favorite pastimes is armchair quarterbacking. We do it with ourselves as much as we do it with others. Reviewing a test score, we are sometimes surprised by a dumb mistake we made. Many of us gravitate toward jobs with a greater degree of familiarity and predictability. There is less stress and less likelihood of making mistakes. Some jobs are like daily tests with multiple selection choices and the answers are not certain. The lessons emerge as events unfold and lack what statisticians call external validity. The lessons learned or principles identified cannot be generalized to other situations because of important differences. Top administration officials and those in upper company management have those kinds of jobs.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

[1] Base money refers to reserve money that is available only to banks.