How Not to Do Macroeconomics

A frustrating recurrence for critics of ‘mainstream’ economics is the assertion that they are criticising the economics of bygone days: that those phenomena which they assert economists do not consider are, in fact, at the forefront of economics research, and that the critics’ ignorance demonstrates that they are out of touch with modern economics – and therefore not fit to criticise it at all.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with macroeconomics. Macroeconomists are commonly accused of failing to incorporate dynamics in the financial sector such as debt, bubbles and even banks themselves, but while this was true pre-crisis, many contemporary macroeconomic models do attempt to include such things. Reputed economist Thomas Sargent charged that such criticisms “reflect either woeful ignorance or intentional disregard for what much of modern macroeconomics is about and what it has accomplished.” So what has it accomplished? One attempt to model the ongoing crisis using modern macro is this recent paper by Gauti Eggertsson & Neil Mehrotra, which tries to understand secular stagnation within a typical ‘overlapping generations’ framework. It’s quite a simple model, deliberately so, but it helps to illustrate the troubles faced by contemporary macroeconomics.

The model

The model has only 3 types of agents: young, middle-aged and old. The young borrow from the middle, who receive an income, some of which they save for old age. Predictably, the model employs all the standard techniques that heterodox economists love to hate, such as utility maximisation and perfect foresight. However, the interesting mechanics here are not in these; instead, what concerns me is the way ‘secular stagnation’ itself is introduced. In the model, the limit to how much young agents are allowed to borrow is exogenously imposed, and deleveraging/a financial crisis begins when this amount falls for unspecified reasons. In other words, in order to analyse deleveraging, Eggertson & Mehrotra simply assume that it happens, without asking why. As David Beckworth noted on twitter, this is simply assuming what you want to prove. (They go on to show similar effects can occur due to a fall in population growth or an increase in inequality, but again, these changes are modelled as exogenous).

It gets worse. Recall that the idea of secular stagnation is, at heart, a story about how over the last few decades we have not been able to create enough demand with ‘real’ investment, and have subsequently relied on speculative bubbles to push demand to an acceptable level. This was certainly the angle from which Larry Summers and subsequent commentators approached the issue. It’s therefore surprising – ridiculous, in fact – that this model of secular stagnation doesn’t include banks, and has only one financial instrument: a risk-less bond that agents use to transfer wealth between generations. What’s more, as the authors state, “no aggregate savings is possible (i.e. there is no capital)”. Yes, you read that right. How on earth can our model understand why there is not enough ‘traditional’ investment (i.e. capital formation), and why we need bubbles to fill that gap, if we can have neither investment nor bubbles?

Naturally, none of these shortcomings stop Eggertson & Mehrotra from proceeding, and ending the paper in economists’ favourite way…policy prescriptions! Yes, despite the fact that this model is not only unrealistic but quite clearly unfit for purpose on its own terms, and despite the fact that it has yielded no falsifiable predictions (?), the authors go on give policy advice about redistribution, monetary and fiscal policy. Considering this paper is incomprehensible to most of the public, one is forced to wonder to whom this policy advice is accountable. Note that I am not implying policymakers are puppets on the strings of macroeconomists, but things like this definitely contribute to debate – after all, secular stagnation was referenced by the Chancellor in UK parliament (though admittedly he did reject it). Furthermore, when you have economists with a platform like Paul Krugman endorsing the model, it’s hard to argue that it couldn’t have at least some degree of influence on policy-makers.

Now, I don’t want to make general comments solely on the basis of this paper: after all, the authors themselves admit it is only a starting point. However, some of the problems I’ve highlighted here are not uncommon in macro: a small number of agents on whom some rather arbitrary assumptions are imposed to create loosely realistic mechanics, an unexplained ‘shock’ used to create a crisis. This is true of the earlier, similar paper by Eggertson & Krugman, which tries to model debt-deflation using two types of agents: ‘patient’ agents, who save, and ‘impatient agents’, who borrow. Once more, deleveraging begins when the exogenously imposed constraint on the patient agent’s borrowing falls For Some Reason, and differences in the agents’ respective consumption levels reduce aggregate demand as the debt is paid back. Again, there are no banks, no investment and no real financial sector. Similarly, even the far more sophisticated Markus K. Brunnermeier & Yuliy Sannikov - which actually includes investment and a financial sector – still only has two agents, and relies on exogenous shocks to drive the economy away from its steady-state.

Whither macroeconomics?

Why do so many models seem to share these characteristics? Well, perhaps thanks to the Lucas Critique, macroeconomic models must be built up from optimising agents. Since modelling human behaviour is inconceivably complex, mathematical tractability forces economists to make important parameters exogenous, and to limit the number (or number of types) of agents in the model, as well as these agents’ goals & motivations. Complicated utility functions which allow for fairly common properties like relative status effects, or different levels of risk aversion at different incomes, may be possible to explore in isolation, but they’re not generalisable to every case or the models become impossible to solve/indeterminate. The result is that a model which tries to explore something like secular stagnation can end up being highly stylised, to the point of missing the most important mechanics altogether. It will also be unable to incorporate other well-known developments from elsewhere in the field.

This is why I’d prefer something like Stock-Flow Consistent models, which focus on accounting relations and flows of funds, to be the norm in macroeconomics. As economists know all too well, all models abstract from some things, and when we are talking about big, systemic problems, it’s not particularly important whether Maria’s level of consumption is satisfying a utility function. What’s important is how money and resources move around: where they come from, and how they are split – on aggregate – between investment, consumption, financial speculation and so forth. This type of methodology can help understand how the financial sector might create bubbles; or why deficits grow and shrink; or how government expenditure impacts investment. What’s more, it will help us understand all of these aspects of the economy at the same time. We will not have an overwhelming number of models, each highlighting one particular mechanic, with no ex ante way of selecting between them, but one or a small number of generalisable models which can account for a large number of important phenomena.

Finally, to return to the opening paragraph, this paper may help to illustrate a lesson for both economists and their critics. The problem is not that economists are not aware of or never try to model issue x, y or z. Instead, it’s that when they do consider x, y or z, they do so in an inappropriate way, shoehorning problems into a reductionist, marginalist framework, and likely making some of the most important working parts exogenous. For example, while critics might charge that economists ignore mark-up pricing, the real problem is that when economists do include mark-up pricing, the mark-up is over marginal rather than average cost, which is not what firms actually do. While critics might charge that economists pay insufficient attention to institutions, a more accurate critique is that when economists include institutions, they are generally considered as exogenous costs or constraints, without any two-way interaction between agents and institutions. While it’s unfair to say economists have not done work that relaxes rational expectations, the way they do so still leaves agents pretty damn rational by most peoples’ standards. And so on.

However, the specific examples are not important. It seems increasingly clear that economists’ methodology, while it is at least superficially capable of including everything from behavioural economics to culture to finance, severely limits their ability to engage with certain types of questions. If you want to understand the impact of a small labour market reform, or how auctions work, or design a new market, existing economic theory (and econometrics) is the place to go. On the other hand, if you want to understand development, historical analysis has a lot more to offer than abstract theory. If you want to understand how firms work, you’re better off with survey evidence and case studies (in fairness, economists themselves have been moving some way in this direction with Industrial Organisation, although if you ask me oligopoly theory has many of the same problems as macro) than marginalism. And if you want to understand macroeconomics and finance, you have to abandon the obsession with individual agents and zoom out to look at the bigger picture. Otherwise you’ll just end up with an extremely narrow model that proves little except its own existence.

 

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Gems in The General Theory

I’ve recently been re-reading John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory (TGT), along with some other tweeps, and thought I’d collect up quotes which struck me as particularly insightful. Obviously, there many such quotes in TGT, some of them quite well-known, so I’ve opted for ones you don’t see reproduced as much, and which those have not fully read TGT may not have seen before.

As an aside: I don’t know why TGT has such a reputation for being difficult to read. There are surely some difficult sections: chapter 6, the list of points on Say’s Law, the fact that Keynes insists on describing diagrams instead of just bloody drawing them. But the rest is merely a mixture of: well-known economic theories, expressed verbally; passages of (wonderful) intuitive observatory prose that even someone with no economics training could understand; basic concepts and ideas which Keynes introduces (like liquidity preference), some of which may require mulling over but none of which are particularly taxing. My hunch is that those who complain that they can’t understand it simply set out not to understand it in the first place, and are all the poorer for it.

Anyway, onto the quotes. After inquiring on Twitter, I’ve decided to retain the length of the quotes, but I’ve bolded what I see as the absolutely crucial parts.

1. In Chapter 4, in a passage about how to measure depreciation, Keynes speaks about the aggregation of capital and seems to touch on some of the points raised much later on in the Cambridge Capital Controversies:

The difficulty is even greater when, in order to calculate net output, we try to measure the net addition to capital equipment; for we have to find some basis for a quantitative comparison between the new items of equipment produced during the period and the old items which have perished by wastage. In order to arrive at the net National Dividend, Professor Pigou deducts such obsolescence, etc., “as may fairly be called ‘normal’; and the practical test of normality is that the depletion is sufficiently regular to be foreseen, if not in detail, at least in the large.” But, since this deduction is not a deduction in terms of money, he is involved in assuming that there can be a change in physical quantity, although there has been no physical change; i.e. he is covertly introducing changes in value. Moreover, he is unable to devise any satisfactory formula to evaluate new equipment against old when, owing to changes in technique, the two are not identical. I believe that the concept at which Professor Pigou is aiming is the right and appropriate concept for economic analysis. But, until a satisfactory system of units has been adopted, its precise definition is an impossible task. The problem of comparing one real output with another and of then calculating net output by setting off new items of equipment against the wastage of old items presents conundrums which permit, one can confidently say, of no solution.

Clearly, these arguments about capital had been floating around for some time before they came to a head in the 1950s/60s – in Chapter 11, Keynes notes that even Alfred Marshall was aware of them. Then, in Chapter 14, Keynes explicitly states the point that you cannot measure the ‘productivity’ of capital independent of its price:

Nor are those theories more successful which attempt to make the rate of interest depend on “the marginal efficiency of capital”. It is true that in equilibrium the rate of interest will be equal to the marginal efficiency of capital, since it will be profitable to increase (or decrease) the current scale of investment until the point of equality has been reached. But to make this into a theory of the rate of interest or to derive the rate of interest from it involves a circular argument, as Marshall discovered after he had got half-way into giving an account of the rate of interest along these lines. For the “marginal efficiency of capital” partly depends on the scale of current investment, and we must already know the rate of interest before we can calculate what this scale will be. The significant conclusion is that the output of new investment will be pushed to the point at which the marginal efficiency of capital becomes equal to the rate of interest; and what the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital tells us, is, not what the rate of interest is, but the point to which the output of new investment will be pushed, given the rate of interest.

Clearly, this was part of Keynes’ reason for formulating a theory of the rate of interest independent of considerations about productivity, time-preference and so forth.

2. In Chapter 6, Keynes articulates the Kalecki profit equation - the idea that investment effectively ‘creates its own savings’ – years before Kalecki did (formally, at least):

The equivalence between the quantity of saving and the quantity of investment emerges from the bilateral character of the transactions between the producer on the one hand and, on the other hand, the consumer or the purchaser of capital equipment.Income is created by the value in excess of user cost which the producer obtains for the output he has sold; but the whole of this output must obviously have been sold either to a consumer or to another entrepreneur; and each entrepreneur’s current investment is equal to the excess of the equipment which he has purchased from other entrepreneurs over his own user cost. Hence, in the aggregate the excess of income over consumption, which we call saving, cannot differ from the addition to capital equipment which we call investment. And similarly with net saving and net investment. Saving, in fact, is a mere residual. The decisions to consume and the decisions to invest between them determine incomes. Assuming that the decisions to invest become effective, they must in doing so either curtail consumption or expand income. Thus the act of investment in itself cannot help causing the residual or margin, which we call saving, to increase by a corresponding amount.

3. In Chapter 7, Keynes offers an argument against the Hayekian Natural Rate of Interest. This is not a comprehensive critique, but it sums up my thoughts on ABCT quite adequately: the naturalistic fallacy, along with implicit appeals to neoclassical equilibrium concepts, lurk in the background and leave some crucial points vague or undefined:

Thus “forced saving” has no meaning until we have specified some standard rate of saving. If we select (as might be reasonable) the rate of saying which corresponds to an established state of full employment, the above definition would become: “Forced saving is the excess of actual saving over what would be saved if there were full employment in a position of long-period equilibrium”. This definition would make good sense, but a sense in which a forced excess of saving would be a very rare and a very unstable phenomenon, and a forced deficiency of saving the usual state of affairs.Professor Hayek’s interesting “Note on the Development of the Doctrine of Forced Saving” shows that this was in fact the original meaning of the term. “Forced saving” or “forced frugality” was, in the first instance, a conception of Bentham’s; and Bentham expressly stated that he had in mind the consequences of an increase in the quantity of money (relatively to the quantity of things vendible for money) in circumstances of “all hands being employed and employed in the most advantageous manner”. In such circumstances, Bentham points out, real income cannot be increased, and, consequently, additional investment, taking place as a result of the transition, involves forced frugality “at the expense of national comfort and national justice”. All the nineteenth-century writers who dealt with this matter had virtually the same idea in mind. But an attempt to extend this perfectly clear notion to conditions of less than full employment involves difficulties.

David Glasner has previously covered this in far more depth. See also Sraffa (1932).

4. In the excellent Chapter 19, in which Keynes refutes the idea that sticky wages are responsible for recessions, he concludes a section by sarcastically noting that if sticky wages were the cause of recessions, we should want “monetary management by the trade unions”:

If, indeed, labour were always in a position to take action (and were to do so), whenever there was less than full employment, to reduce its money demands by concerted action to whatever point was required to make money so abundant relatively to the wage-unit that the rate of interest would fall to a level compatible with full employment, we should, in effect, have monetary management by the Trade Unions, aimed at full employment, instead of by the banking system.

What say you, libertarians?

5. At the very beginning of Chapter 21, Keynes notes the tension between monetarist reasoning based on the Quantity Theory of Money and conventional microeconomic theory. The former assumes a smooth, mechanistic relationship between the stock of money and the price level, but the latter teaches us that prices depend on microeconomic ‘fundamentals’ such as preferences and technology:

So long as economists are concerned with what is called the Theory of Value, they have been accustomed to teach that prices are governed by the conditions of supply and demand; and, in particular, changes in marginal cost and the elasticity of short-period supply have played a prominent part. But when they pass in volume II, or more often in a separate treatise, to the Theory of Money and Prices, we hear no more of these homely but intelligible concepts and move into a world where prices are governed by the quantity of money, by its income-velocity, by the velocity of circulation relatively to the volume of transactions, by hoarding, by forced saving, by inflation and deflation et hoc genus omne; and little or no attempt is made to relate these vaguer phrases to our former notions of the elasticities of supply and demand.

Keynes then goes on to anticipate Joan Robinson‘s simple but (IMO) rather damning critique of the QToM and the velocity of money as a concept:

But the “income-velocity of money” is, in itself, merely a name which explains nothing. There is no reason to expect that it will be constant. For it depends, as the foregoing discussion has shown, on many complex and variable factors. The use of this term obscures, I think, the real character of the causation, and has led to nothing but confusion.

So, there we have it: in a relatively small set of quotes, Keynes has forcefully critiqued neoclassical theories of capital and the rate of interest, the Quantity Theory of Money, the Natural Rate of Interest, the idea that sticky wages are responsible for recessions, and the idea that savings create investment. Then there’s the rest of the book, where he sort of invents macroeconomics (I know, I know - but he does bring it together far more effectively than anyone else before, and adds a lot along the way). There’s a reason books like this catch on.

 

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Pieria: Unlearning the History of Capitalism

I have a new, long overdue post on Pieria, following up on the argument over capitalism and communism which was recently reignited by Jesse Myerson:

Imagine if every time somebody expressed support for capitalism, they were immediately screamed down with death tolls from Colonial India, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the worst of US foreign policy. Those who argued against them, rather than engaging any of their arguments directly, informed them that they were “psychotic“, heartless apologists for some of the worst crimes in history, then proceeded to catalogue these crimes as if that settled the debate. Perhaps the incredulous anti-capitalists would go so far as to tell the capitalist that they were insulting the victims of these crimes, and even that if they ever met those victims, they’d probably get beaten up or something. Sound stupid? Well, this is where debates about communism lie today.

…it is entirely possible for somebody to support communism or socialism as an idea but not support specific governments or movements that carry its banner. Which supporter of capitalism supports every (or any) capitalist politician, country, business leader, political party or other major capitalist institution? Presumably none, and for good reason: there are significant differences within movements and systems as well as between them; there are bad policies or mistakes; there are harsh historical circumstances from which we should be careful of drawing general inferences about a system. Endorsing an idea doesn’t mean you endorse any interpretation of it, or everything done in its name, under any circumstance. People understand this when they’re talking about capitalism: we have social democracy, both left and right neoliberalism, anarcho-capitalism, minarchist libertarianism, European union-business alliance capitalism, and many more specific iterations of these. Yet when Myerson defended communism in general, he was immediately accused of arguing the USSR was a “utopia”, despite doing nothing of the sort.

As you might expect, I go on to discuss the history of capitalism – in particular US foreign policy – and respond briefly to Mark Harrison on the history of communism. (FWIW, I also responded to him at the time in the comments, saying much the same thing and also highlighting some of the other points he made, most of which I considered pretty weak, such as responding to the charge that McCarthyism was ridiculous by saying “no. McCarthyism was ridiculous”).

The further I get into this debate, the further I realise how specious the whole obsession with Stalin and Mao actually is, and also how well obfuscated the history of our own countries is. Sadly, since Myerson’s critics are the kind of people who actually think the Vietnam War should have continued, I doubt there’ll be much progress with this debate any time soon. Still, it’s good to have a narrative that is neither Stalinist nor ‘true communism’, as both of those require a lot of hand waving and have resulted in the self-destructive left we see today. The historical context argument allows us to acknowledge the obvious failings of existing communist regimes, but still endorse the ideas behind socialism and understand how they could work under different circumstances. I sincerely hope that this – rather than accusations of Stalin apologetics – is what people will take away from the piece.

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Yes, The Cambridge Capital Controversies Matter

I rarely (never) post based solely on a quick thought or quote, but this just struck me as too good not to highlight. It’s from a book called ‘Capital as Power’ by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, which challenges both the neoclassical and Marxian conceptions of capital, and is freely available online. The passage in question pertains to the way neoclassical economics has dealt with the problems highlighted during the well documented Cambridge Capital Controversies:

The first and most common solution has been to gloss the problem over – or, better still, to ignore it altogether. And as Robinson (1971) predicted and Hodgson (1997) confirmed, so far this solution seems to be working. Most economics textbooks, including the endless editions of Samuelson, Inc., continue to ‘measure’ capital as if the Cambridge Controversy had never happened, helping keep the majority of economists – teachers and students – blissfully unaware of the whole debacle.

A second, more subtle method has been to argue that the problem of quantifying capital, although serious in principle, has limited practical importance (Ferguson 1969). However, given the excessively unrealistic if not impossible assumptions of neoclassical theory, resting its defence on real-world relevance seems somewhat audacious.

The second point is something I independently noticed: appealing to practicality when it suits the modeller, but insisting it doesn’t matter elsewhere. If there is solid evidence that reswitching isn’t important, that’s fine, but then we should also take on board that agents don’t optimise, markets don’t clear, expectations aren’t rational, etc. etc. If we do that, pretty soon the assumptions all fall away and not much is left.

However, it’s the authors’ third point that really hits home:

The third and probably most sophisticated response has been to embrace disaggregate general equilibrium models. The latter models try to describe – conceptually, that is – every aspect of the economic system, down to the smallest detail. The production function in such models separately specifies each individual input, however tiny, so the need to aggregate capital goods into capital does not arise in the first place.

General equilibrium models have serious theoretical and empirical weaknesses whose details have attracted much attention. Their most important problem, though, comes not from what they try to explain, but from what they ignore, namely capital. Their emphasis on disaggregation, regardless of its epistemological feasibility, is an ontological fallacy. The social process takes place not at the level of atoms or strings, but of social institutions and organizations. And so, although the ‘shell’ called capital may or may not consist of individual physical inputs, its existence and significance as the central social aggregate of capitalism is hardly in doubt. By ignoring this pivotal concept, general equilibrium theory turns itself into a hollow formality.

In essence, neoclassical economics dealt with its inability to model capital by…eschewing any analysis of capital. However, the theoretical importance of capital for understanding capitalism (duh) means that this has turned neoclassical ‘theory’ into a highly inadequate took for doing what theory is supposed to do, which is to further our understanding.

Apparently, if you keep evading logical, methodological and empirical problems, it catches up with you! Who knew?

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Teaching Economics? Start with Key Contested Ideas

How economics is taught has been the subject of a lot of debate recently. Although there have been a lot of good points made, in my opinion Andrew Lainton‘s recent blog post hits the nail on the head: we need to begin economics education with a discussion of key, contested ideas.

Starting with contested ideas has a few major benefits. First, it immediately shows students what economics is: a subject where there is a lot of disagreement, and where key ideas are often not well understood, even by the best. Second, it allows students to grapple with the kinds of critical questions that, in my experience, people generally have in mind when they think of ‘economics’: where do growth, profits come from? How do things ‘work’? Third, it allows us to intertwine the teaching of these concepts with economic history and the history of thought.

Lainton’s key contested idea is savings: how naive national accounting might make you believe that saving instantly create investment; how Kalecki and Keynes showed that it’s closer to the other way around; and onto modern debates that add nuances to these simplified expositions. Naturally, this would also tie in with debates about the banking system, loanable funds and endogenous versus exogenous money. On top of ‘savings’, I can think of quite a few other important economic ideas that are not agreed upon, but are central to the discipline:

Decision making and expectations

How do people make decisions? This question is clearly central to economics, as any economic model that explicitly includes agents must make some assumption about what drives these agents’ decisions. In modern economics, an agent’s decision rule generally rests on seeking some form of ‘gain’, whether subjective satisfaction or simply units of money. Economists themselves have also, to their credit, pushed behavioural and even neurological investigations into decision making. However, much of this has yet to filter down to the main models/courses, even though it should really be at the forefront of economic modelling.

All too often, the most mathematically tractable models such as utility maximisation and rational expectations are simply assumed, perhaps with caveats, but not with any real discussion of whether they represent human behaviour. Well established psychological characteristics and behavioural heuristics/biases are ignored, even though they may alter the analysis of choice in fundamental ways. Public officials are often assumed to follow behaviour that creates their personally preferred outcome, despite important evidence to the contrary. It is assumed the public understands the fundamentals of the economy, even though a lot of evidence suggests this is way, way off. Decisions in the workplace that concern morale, hierarchy and norms are often disregarded, despite evidence that they are of utmost importance.

However, my point isn’t necessarily about which models are right or wrong. It’s that these debates about how people act, and based on which motives and expectations, are not only incredibly interesting but are incredibly important. Such debates could also tie in with a comprehensive discussion of the Lucas Critique – not as a binary phenomenon that can be solved with microfoundations, but as an ongoing problem that requires us to evaluate the way the parameters of the economy change over time and with policy, culture and so forth. This would allow students to see how the economy evolves, and how its behaviour depends on fundamental questions about human behaviour.

Value

Theories of value underlie economic theories, whether economists like it or not –  in fact, it’s pretty difficult (impossible?) to judge the “performance” of the economy without a theory of value. Classical economics was built on the Labour Theory of Value (LTV), and distinguished between the price of an object (exchange-value) and its value to whomever used it (use-value). Marginalist economics is built on the Subjective Theory of Value (STV), which tends to combine use and exchange value into mathematically ordered preferences. GDP calculations simply measure ‘value added’ as a monetary quantity. There are also other, albeit less popular, theories of value, such as those based on agriculture and energy.

A crucial point here is that the concept of ‘value’ is not necessarily well-defined, and each theory of value generally has something slightly different in mind when they use it. For the (Marxist) LTV,value refers to an objective quality: the total productive ‘value’ in the economy, which is expressed as an exchange relationship between commodities, and originates solely from labour. For the STV , value refers to the subjective ‘surplus’ gained from transactions, which neoclassical theory seeks to optimise to maximise social welfare. For theories of value based on the natural sciences, value refers to more physical qualities, such as how energy is transformed in production and the limits to this process. However, the common ground between theories is the question of how we create more than we had – and what to do about it.

I expect a lot of economists would regard the STV as largely obvious and not up for debate, but if it’s so obvious and important that’s even more reason to study it explicitly – after all, Newton’s Law’s are not tucked away underneath classical physics: they are explicit, and their empirical relevance is frequently demonstrated to students. Clearly, we can’t demonstrate the empirical relevance of a theory of value (hey, it’s almost as if economics is not a science!) but we can discuss it in depth and how it is  a relevant and necessary backdrop to formulating theories about utility, surplus and profit.

What is economics?

It’s a testament to how contested the field of economics is that even the definition is not agreed upon. Open a ‘pop‘ economics book and you’ll find a definition such as “the study of how people respond to incentives”. Another popular mainstream definition is “the allocation of scarce resources” or even “satisfying unlimited wants with scarce resources“. Classical economics – and more recently, Sraffians – considers economics the study of how society reproduces itself. Austrians might give you a definition that says something about human action and the market system.  The definition given by Wikipedia is “the study of production, distribution and consumption”. I’m sure there are many more out there.

Agreeing on a definition of economics would put the discipline on surer footing. Right now it occupies a space where it is simultaneously used as an all encompassing worldview, and as a very narrow toolkit that only investigates one or two things at a time (I expect many economists would basically consider themselves applied statisticians or econometricians). I sometimes even find that economists fall back on defining economics by “what economists do”, which is a rather weak (and circular) definition. Given that we are not even sure which problems economic theories are designed to understand and solve, is it any wonder people can’t agree on which ones to use?

This post is by no means exhaustive. Off the top of my head, some other relevant contested ideas might be: capital; money; how to measure the economy; different economic systems; institutions; policy and economists’ relationship with it. This kind of approach is surely better for furthering students’ understanding than simply teaching a set of abstract theories which are labelled ‘economics’, often with little critical engagement. It would open students’ minds to the kinds of difficult and relevant questions that are currently either shied away from, or only open to those who have completed an Economics PHD. I expect many would also leave with an understanding of economics closer to what students currently expect (and do not really get) from an economics education.

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2013: Year In Review

Since posts have been scant recently (I have things coming up, promise!) I thought I’d do a standard “most popular posts” post. I’ll look at the 5 most popular posts of 2013 on this blog, as well as the 5 posts I most enjoyed writing and the 5 other blogs I’ve enjoyed reading this year. The first list is ranked from highest page-views to lowest, but the others aren’t in any particular order.

Most Popular Posts on This Blog

18 Signs Economists Haven’t the Foggiest (12,857) An off-the-cuff polemic response to Chris Auld’s similar list, this attracted a lot of attention (and ire). I stand by all 18 points in one way or another, although I’ll grant that some (such as 10) are far less common than others (such as 1).

The Dangers of Thinking Like an Economist (10,333) Due largely to a link from Hacker News, this blog post was widely read (apparently by climate change deniers). I actually feel like I didn’t flesh out the analysis as fully as I could have, but the basic points about the ‘economic way of thinking’, and the subjects I highlighted are, in my opinion, important examples of how limiting an economics education can be when discussing social problems.

Yes, Libertarians Really Are Lazy Marxists (6,851). I’m not the first to refer to libertarians as lazy marxists, but I’ve never seen somebody actually write about it in depth. Apparently this struck a chord with a lot of marxists and so was linked to from various commie websites. This surprised me, as I’m not great at political philosophy, but clearly that’s not a necessary condition for being able to criticise libertarianism.*

Sorry, Economists: The Crisis is a Huge Problem for Your Discipline (4,676). Giles-Saint Paul’s exercise in special pleading, attempting to relieve economists from the burden of actually being able to describe the real economy, was one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen written by an economist, which is quite a feat, and it deserved fisking.

Mankiw to the Rescue (of the 1%) (3,545). Another fisking (and another one of the silliest things ever written by an economist), this post concerned Mankiw’s universally derided defence of the top 1% of earners, with its questionable grasp of the facts, 15 year old political philosophy and inconsistent use of economic theory. While it probably wasn’t necessary for me or anyone else to point out the stupidity in Mankiw’s paper explicitly, it was still a lot of a fun to do so.

NB: my FAQ actually got 4,799 views in 2013, but since it was written in 2012 I didn’t count it (and it has the unfair advantage of being linked to in my About section). I’ve also been posting on the website Pieria this year, and though I don’t have access to the views for those posts, a handful of my posts there were on their ‘top 20′ list.

Posts on This Blog I Enjoyed Writing

Economists Say The Funniest Things. ‘Economic Imperialism’ never fails to delight and amuse, and although this post required quite a lot of research, it was probably one of the most rewarding posts I’ve done. Admittedly I was a bit unfair to Irving Fisher in the first draft, but it’s still silly to suggest that workers become socialists largely because of changes in the money supply.

Reconsidering the Labour Theory of Value. The straw man of the LTV that many are willing to refer to as  “discredited” may well be untenable. But the actual theory endorsed by Marx, along with its implications about capitalist crises, is far better for understanding the business cycle than any mainstream economic theory I’ve come across. This post was a thumbnail sketch of said theory.

Whig Theories of the History of Thought. As much as everybody hates Paul Krugman posts, as a blogger you unavoidably find yourself having to do one every so often. Here I tried to counter popular myths about naive Keynesianism and how its practitioners were unaware of the possibility of stagflation (as well as the Lucas Critique). Sadly, this caricature of events is often endorsed by both left and right economists.

In Praise of Econometrics. Since a lot of ‘economists’ are mostly asking specific, relatively boring empirical questions, I thought it would be worth clarifying that most of my criticisms are not directed at this kind of work, which is in my opinion of quite a different nature to the pure theoretical aspects of economics. It is true that problematic theoretical concepts (like production functions) are sometimes used in these empirical estimations, but I think  that is a problem of application rather than something more fundamental.

Against Friedman: Why Assumptions Matter. Although it’s not news to anybody except the most dyed-in-the wool economist that the assumptions of a theory must be carefully scrutinised, it was good to compile a comprehensive argument for exactly why this is the case.

My Favourite Blogs of 2013

Matt Bruenig. While there aren’t necessarily any stand-out posts (although this recent smackdown of Ezra Klein is amusing), I never fail to delight in Bruenig’s effortless dismissals of libertarian theories of…well, everything. He also does some good policy analysis (including a basic income calculator), and blogs in a similar vein over at Demos.

Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). There should probably be a rule against including Chris Dillow on lists like this – everyone can just agree that he’s a Really Good Blogger. His unique mixture of marxist, behavioural and mainstream economic reasoning makes him both endlessly interesting and frustratingly hard to disagree with, even when he is casually tearing your pet beliefs to pieces. Oh, and his sidebar ‘top blogging’ is always worth a look.

Noah Smith (Noahpinion). Despite the fact that Noah’s dismissive attitude toward heterodox economics irritates me, there’s no denying that he is an excellent and consistent blogger. Naturally, I enjoy his posts on macroeconomics, but he also writes interesting things about Japan, has good overviews of economics debates and makes a lot of interesting political/miscellaneous posts.

‘Lord Keynes’ (Social Democracy for the 21st Century: a Post-Keynesian Perspective). This blog has always been a great source of, among other things, post-Keynesian theories and criticisms of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. However, this year LK pushed the boat out with relentless attacks on both marginalist theories of pricing and Mises’ a priori philosophy. An excellent resource for heterodox economists.

David Glasner (Uneasy Money). I expect most people would agree with me that Glasner is one of the best economic bloggers around. Just a glance at the top right hand corner of his blog undoubtedly reveals a handful of must-read posts. He also wrote one of my favourite blog posts of 2013, That Oh So Elusive Natural Rate of Interest, and did an interesting series on the presumably underrated Ralph Hawtrey’s book ‘Good and Bad Trade‘.

Honorable mentions: Corey Robin, whose blogging and book are both excellent, if a little jargon-filled; Robert Vienneau, who posts consistently interesting stuff on economic theory; Left Outside, who is a great follow and whose series on Karl Polanyi and Beijing is a must-read (even if he does support NGDP targeting); Fuck Yeah, Piero Sraffa! who posts a lot of interesting material, although the blog does some to be a bit on and off.

Happy New Year!

I’m happy to say that I’ve had a few blog posts this year that were viewed as much as the top posts on much more popular blogs like naked capitalism, and also that I made the list of top 200 most influential economics blogs. I had 227,037 views in 2013, which was a massive improvement over 2012. I’m not entirely sure how all of this compares to other blogs overall, but in any case I’m glad to have had a continuous rise in readers/commenters relative to where I was before. Here’s hoping 2014 is just as successful.

What did you enjoy reading this year?

*I know, cheap shot. Sorry.

11 Comments

Pieria: How Conservative is Mainstream Economics?

I have a new article in Pieria, arguing that the image of mainstream economists as rabid free-marketeers is not entirely without foundation:

There is quite a disconnect between mainstream economics as seen in the public eye and as seen by economists themselves. A lot of media criticism of economics – and the Guardianseems to be going mad on this recently  - paints mainstream economic theory as supporting a ‘free market’ or ‘neoliberal’ worldview, possibly in cahoots with the elites, and largely unconcerned with human welfare. Economists tend to switch off in the face of such criticisms, arguing that the majority of them, along with their theories, do not support such policies…

…Yet I think there is a good  argument to be made, not that mainstream economics necessarily implies particular policies, but that it is easily utilised to push a certain worldview, based on which questions it asks and how the answers are modeled and presented. This worldview is what the public and journalists all too frequently encounter as ‘economics’, which is why they often conflate neoclassical with neoliberal ideas.

An interesting question – which I do not explore in the article, but have written about before, as has Peter Dorman – is the disparity between ‘econ101′ rhetoric and what economics actually implies. ‘Economics’ in the public image is generally used to justify counterintuitive or unpalatable ideas like the minimum wage and austerity, even though arguing unambiguously for them – particularly the latter – is a position that is actually quite ignorant of ‘economics’ as a field.

Do I blame economists for this? Partly: I think economists should be more worried about their public image, whereas you often get the impression they are more concerned with being enlightened technocrats than anything else. However, politicisation isn’t unique to economics (consider climate change denial or evolution/religion), so it’s a bit unfair to single out economists in that sense. Having said that, 99% of scientists in the former fields are united against the pseudo-scientific caricatures of them in the media, whereas economists are far less able to convey a clear message to the public. In short, perhaps economists should figure things out amongst themselves before they rattle off lists of policy proposals based on their models.

Anyway, enjoy the piece!

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15 Comments

Not Ending the Blog

This is just a quick post to let people know that I am not ending the blog. However, readers might have noticed posting has slowed down a bit recently (4 and 3 posts in September and October respectively, versus 6 and 7 in July and August), and this is essentially just because I feel like I have less to say. The reason I started this blog was to get some sort of critical debate over the state of economics and learn (or unlearn, groan) about economics as a field – in other words, the kind of thing that you simply do not find on an economics degree. The blogosphere has definitely delivered in this area, but since I’ve now gotten what I set out to get, I feel I should focus more on other things.

I still have the same basic opinion as when I started the blog: neoclassical/mainstream economics (which exists, no matter what economists say!) is questionable in terms of relevance, coherence and methodology, and is not the only or best way to do ‘economics’, which itself cannot be thought of as an isolated, separate sphere. My opinions on some things have changed: I think some areas of neoclassical theory – as well as econometrics – are worthwhile, and that heterodox economists get some things wrong (the chief one being repeating the same criticisms over and over). My opinion is now less “neoclassical economics is nonsense!1!!” and more “the research program has reached its limitations and needs to be replaced and/or confined to specific spheres”.

However, I am also more optimistic about the discipline changing than I used to be. Real life discussions about the state of economics simply don’t have the same air of hostility as those on the internet – in my experience it’s not difficult to find mainstream economists who will tell you macroeconomics, undergraduate economics and ‘free market’ economics, as well as other areas, are generally garbage. The difficulty lies in trying to get them to think in any other way than the ‘individual agent faced with choices’, but such alternative theories are being developed, and as awareness of them increases, economists will hopefully be able to see things in other ways.

In any case, announcing that I’m “ending the blog” seems like a larger scale version of where somebody in an internet argument says “right, I’m done here” and then after a short break continues replying. Several people have told me attempting to give up blogging is simply futile, and I cannot guarantee that events or economists will not force me to mouth off (like my last post). There are therefore a few possibilities as to how the blog might change after this point:

  1. I write similar style posts but further apart.
  2. I write longer, more comprehensive posts but at a much lower rate.
  3. I start to write shorter posts that deal with a specific thought or idea, or bounce off another bloggers’ post.

So, yeah, stick around! Posting will probably be more sporadic but it will still be there. I’ll also carry on tweeting, though again perhaps less than before. In the mean time, if anyone reading doesn’t yet read these blogs, then you should start.

PS As you might have guessed, this post is actually quite a non-event; I’m just announcing it so I feel less pressure to post regularly.

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21 Comments

18 Signs Economists Haven’t the Foggiest

I’d like to thank Chris Auld for giving me a format for outlining the major reasons why economists can be completely out of touch with their public image, as well as how they should do “science”, and why their discipline is so ripe for criticism (most of which they are unaware of). So, here are 18 common failings I encounter time and time again in my discussions with mainstream economists:

1. They defer to the idea that “all models are simplifications” as if this somehow creates a fireguard against any criticism of methodology, internal inconsistency or empirical relevance.

2. They argue that the financial crisis is irrelevant to their discipline (bonus: also that predicting such events is impossible).

3. They think that behavioural, new institutional and even ‘Keynesian’ economics show the discipline is pluralistic, not neoclassical.

4. They think that the fact most economic papers are “empirical” shows economists are engaging in the scientific method.

5. They think ‘neoclassical economics‘ doesn’t exist and is just a swear word used by their opponents.

6. When pushed, they collapse their theories and assumptions into ridiculously weak, virtually unfalsifiable claims (such as revealed preference, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, or rationality).

7. They dismiss ideas from the past or comprehensive study of previous thinkers and texts as “not science”.

8. They think positive and normative economics are 100% separable, and their discipline is “value free“.

9. They simply cannot think of any other approach to ‘economics’ than theirs.

10. They believe in an erroneous history that sits well with their pet theories, such as the myths of barter and free trade.

11. They think that microfoundations are a necessary and sufficient modelling technique for dealing with the Lucas Critique.

12. They think economics is separable from politics, and that the political role and application of economic ideas in the real world is irrelevant for academic discussion (examples: Friedman and Pinochet, central bank independence).

13. They think their discipline is going through a calm, fruitful period (based on their self-absorbed bubble).

14. They think that endorsing cap & trade or carbon taxes is “dealing with the environment”.

15. They think making an unrealistic model consistent with one or two observed phenomena makes it sound or worthwhile (DSGE and other models are characterised by this “frictions” approach).

16. They think their discipline is an adequate, even superior, method for analysing problems in other social sciences such as politics, history and sociology.

17. They think that the world behaves as if their assumptions are true (or close enough).

18. They think that their discipline’s use of mathematics shows that it is “rigorous” and scientific.

Every above link that is not written by an economist is recommended. Furthermore, here are some related recommendations: seven principles for arguing with economists; my FAQ for mainstream economists; I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time (footnotes!); What’s Wrong With Economics? Also try both mine and Matthjus Krul’s posts on how not to criticise neoclassical economics. As I say to Auld in the comments, I actually agree with some of his points about the mistakes critics make. But I think these critics are still criticising economics for good reasons, and that economists need to improve on the above if they want anyone other than each other to continue taking them seriously.

PS If you think I haven’t backed up any of my claims about what economists say, try cross referencing, as some of the links fall into more than one trap. Also follow through to who I’m criticising in the links to my previous posts. And no, I don’t think all economists believe everything here. However, I do think many economists believe some combination of these things.

Addendum: I have received predictable complaints that my examples are straw men, or at least uncommon. Obviously I provided links for each specific claim – if you’d like to charge that said link is not relevant, please explain why, and if you want more, I’m happy to provide them. However, my general claim is simply that a given article trying to expound or defend mainstream economics will commit a handful of these errors, perhaps excluding the more specific ones such as history or carbon taxes. Here are some examples to show how pervasive this mindset is:

Auld’s original article commits 2, 3, 4, 5 & 12.

This recent, popular defense of economics as a science in the NYT commits 2, 4, 8 & 13 (NB: I forgot “makes annoying and inappropriate comparisons to other sciences”, although both sides do this).

Greg Mankiw’s response to the econ101 walkout commits 8, 9, 12 & 13.

This recent ‘critique‘ of Debunking Economics commits 9, 11, 15 (though, to its credit, it avoids 2).

Stephen Williamson manages 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15 & 16 in his reviews of John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics (in fact, Williamson is a fantastic source of this stuff in general).

Paul Krugman committed 1, 7, 9 & 15 in his debate with Steve Keen

Dani Rodrik, who is probably the most reasonable mainstream economist in the world, committed 3, 4, 13 & 15 in his discussion of economics.

and so on…

(Note that, in the interest of fairness, I have left out the most ridiculous things I’ve seen since the crisis.)

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152 Comments

How Economics Sees Reality

Something has been bothering me about the way evidence is (sometimes) used in economics and econometrics:  theories are assumed throughout interpretation of the data. The result is that it’s hard to end up questioning the model being used.

Let me give some examples. The delightful fellas at econjobrumours once disputed my argument that supply curves are flat or slope downward by noting that, yes, Virginia, in conditions where firms have market power (high demand, drought pricing) prices tend to go up. Apparently this “simple, empirical point” suffices to refute the idea that supply curves do anything but slope upward. But this is not true. After all, “supply curves slope downward/upward/wiggle around all over the place” is not an empirical statement. It is an interpretation of empirical evidence that also hinges on the relevance of the theoretical concept of the supply curve itself. In fact, the evidence, taken as whole, actually suggests that the demand-supply framework is at best incomplete.

This is because we have two major pieces of evidence on this matter: higher demand/more market power increases price, and firms face constant or increasing returns to scale. These are contradictory when interpreted within the demand-supply framework, as they imply that the supply curve slopes in different directions. However, if we used a different model – say, added a third term for ‘market power’, or a Kaleckian cost plus model, where the mark up was a function of the “degree of monopoly”, that would no longer be the case. The rising supply curve rests on the idea that increasing prices reflect increasing costs, and therefore cannot incorporate these possibilities.

Similarly, many empirical econometric papers use the neoclassical production function, (recent one here) which states that output is derived from the labour and capital, plus a few parameters attached to the variables, as a way to interpret the data. However, this again requires that we assume capital and labour, and the parameters attached to them, are meaningful, and that the data reflect their properties rather than something else. For example, the volume of labour employed moving a certain way only implies something about the ‘elasticity of substitution’ (the rate at which firms substitute between labour and capital) if you assume that there is an elasticity of substitution. However, the real-world ‘lumpiness‘ of production may mean this is not the case, at least not in the smooth, differentiable way assumed by neoclassical theory.

Assuming such concepts when looking at data means that economics can become a game of ‘label the residual‘, despite the various problems associated with the variables, concepts and parameters used. Indeed, Anwar Shaikh once pointed out that the seeming consistency between the Cobb-Douglas production function and the data was essentially tautological, and so using the function to interpret any data, even the word “humbug” on a graph, would seem to confirm the propositions of the theory, simply because they follow directly from the way it is set up.

Joan Robinson made this basic point, albeit more strongly, concerning utility functions: we assume people are optimising utility, then fit whatever behaviour we observe into said utility function. In other words, we risk making the entire exercise “impregnably circular” (unless we extract some falsifiable propositions from it, that is). Frances Wooley’s admittedly self-indulgent playing around with utility functions and the concept of paternalism seems to demonstrate this point nicely.

Now, this problem is, to a certain extent, observed in all sciences – we must assume ‘mass’ is a meaningful concept to use Newton’s Laws, and so forth. However, in economics, properties are much harder to pin down, and so it seems to me that we must be more careful when making statements about them. Plus, in the murky world of statistics, we can lose sight of the fact that we are merely making tautological statements or running into problems of causality.

The economist might now ask how we would even begin to interpret the medley of data at our disposal without theory. Well, to make another tired science analogy, the advancement of science has often not resulted from superior ‘predictions’, but on identifying a closer representation of how the world works: the go-to example of this is Ptolemy, which made superior predictions to its rival but was still wrong. My answer is therefore the same as it has always been: economists need to make better use of case studies and experiments. If we find out what’s actually going on underneath the data, we can use this to establish causal connections before interpreting it. This way, we can avoid problems of circularity, tautologies, and of trapping ourselves within a particular model.

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38 Comments

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