Posts Tagged Economic Policy

The Crisis & Economics, Part 4: Masters of the Universe?

This is part 4 in my series on economics and the crisis, which asks whether economics is really responsible for policy, and if so, how these policies may have contributed to the financial crisis. Here are parts 1, 2 & 3.

Argument #4: “Mainstream economics cannot be blamed for politicians inflating housing bubbles/pursuing austerity/deregulating the financial sector; our models generally go against this. Clearly, we do not have that much influence over policy.”

This defence really raises two questions. The first is whether or not economic theory has had a major influence on policy. The second is whether or not this influence, if it exists, is culpable in creating the financial crisis.

The first is, in my opinion, easily answered in the affirmative. While it’s entirely understandable that the majority of academic economists would scoff at the idea that they effect policy, this doesn’t have to be the case for economic theory itself to hold sway among governments. After all, economics graduates are highly sought after and employed in policymaking positions. Famous economists lunch with the president; textbooks and macroeconomic papers are full of policy discussions; prize-winning economists such as Bob Shiller acknowledge that a “problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy, rather than discovery of fundamentals.” It’s hard to imagine powerful institutions such as Central Banks, the World Bank or the IMF functioning with advice from any but economists, and government organisations are even set up based on new ideas coming out of economics. Economics is the language in which the media discuss policy: demand, stimulus, markets, etcetera. I could go on.

However, as economists like to remind us, there’s no reason to believe that advice based on mainstream economic theory should have led to the types of ‘free market’ policies typically implicated in the financial crisis and its aftermath. Even a basic economics education will leave you with an awareness of things like information asymmetry, moral hazard and externalities, and few economists support wanton deregulation of the financial sector. Modern macroeconomics is loosely pro-stimulus,  not pro-austerity. So what’s going on?

First, it should be noted that not only ‘free market’ thinking was implicated in the crisis. Central Banks around the world used inflation targeting, based on the New Keynesian idea that this would be sufficient to achieve macroeconomic stability, which blinded them to problems brewing in the financial sector. What’s more, the approach to regulation favoured by economics was, not atypically, quite narrow and didn’t favour systemic thinking. For example, I have previously spoken about Value at Risk (VaR) regulation, which forces firms to sell off assets when markets are volatile and hence increase their insurance against risk. However, while this looks good from the perspective of individual firms, it worsens systemic risk because the asset sell-offs result in increased volatility. Overall, the reductionist nature of economic theory tended to blind policymakers to systemic problems and made them focus on the wrong variables, things they might not have done if they’d been familiar with more holistic viewpoints.

Having said this, it’s clear that at the heart of the financial crisis were lax regulatory policies, justified by a belief in the self-stabilising power of financial markets. And while a majority of individual economists may not endorse such a view, theoretical frameworks or ‘ways of thinking‘ came out of economics which were used to justify this deregulation. Whether or not efficient markets, perfect competition, rational expectations and other theories which imply financial markets will run smoothly are endorsed by most economists, the fact that they are common knowledge in economics (and usually the benchmark for more complex analysis) is significant. As I’ve argued before, familiarity with economic theory lends itself to a pro-market view, even if a lot of modern work is done pushing the core framework away from this. And as I’ve argued before, the nuances of this work are often lost in popular translation, as the elegance of the most Panglossian theories proves too tempting when economists speak to the public. Alternative theories which use different starting points for analysis, such as input-output matrices, sectoral balances, or class struggle, would help to combat the deeply ingrained nature of the neoclassical theories.

This issue does not necessarily fit into a narrow ‘government versus market’ policy perspective. Instead, the point is that acknowledging different approaches in economic theory can give us a different way of thinking about policy, illuminating rather than obfuscating debates. A key complaint about economics graduates is that they have overly narrow, abstract tools, so the enemy is not so much any particular approach as it is one sided thinking. Providing both economics students and professional economists with an awareness of  different theories, as well as making economics more politically, historically and ethically engaged, would hopefully at least temper the zeal and enthusiasm with which pet policies are recommended, and partially dislodge whatever pedestal economics currently sits on as a rationale for policy.

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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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A Question for Economists

Sincerely: do you believe your discipline has earned a status as a decider of policy? Which successes would you point to in order to highlight this? And how have non-economists fared in the policy arena compared to you?

Justin Wolfers recently tweeted to the effect that although economics is not perfect, it is the best existing way to formulate policy. Yichuan Wang has also defended economists’ record in the real world. Bryan Caplan has notoriously argued that voters do not know enough economics and therefore cannot be trusted with policy. In general, economists are always willing to trot out policy prescriptions – often at the end of mathematical papers that are largely incomprehensible to the public – on the grounds that they are scientifically determined solutions to social and economic problems. But does economists’ record formulating policies justify this? I’m skeptical: as far as I’m aware, economists’ record shows few successes, many failures, and a lot of ambiguity.

Generally, economists favourite policies actually don’t have much evidence behind them. ‘Free trade’ deals have ambiguous effects on growth. The issue of whether the minimum wage produces unemployment is famously controversial, with any of the effects predicted being undeniably small. Estimates of the Keynesian multiplier also vary widely, and are generally easy to predict based on the political biases of who is doing the estimation. There is also a surprising lack of evidence to support the contention that fiscal stimulus alone can ‘kick start’ a flailing economy. Sure: the New Deal created growth, but it didn’t end the Great Depression. Japan has had a lot of monetary and fiscal stimulus but has remained in a ‘lost decade‘. Countries that have used stimulus and done well in the recent crisis generally had strong institutions and financial sectors (Sweden, Germany) or are simply at an earlier stage of development and therefore their growth is far more resilient (China). What’s more, you get as many arguments against stimulus coming from economists as you do for it, so even if it were the case that stimulus were the ‘right’ policy, the discipline hasn’t been a beacon of scientific truth concerning the matter.

What’s more, there are many examples of economists chosen policies clearly failing when applied to the real world. Milton Friedman’s quantity-targeting monetarism failed in 3 different countries in the 1980s. The Black-Scholes formula for pricing financial assets is infamous for its complete inability to do its job properly, and has caused chaos wherever it has been used. The ‘Great Moderation’ was built on inflation targeting and financial deregulation, both of which were pushed by vocal economists, and it culminated in the 2008 financial crisis (no, the two were not unrelated). The IMF’s ‘structural adjustment programs’ – such as those used in the ‘transition’ of the former communist countries, and in sub-Saharan Africa, engineered largely by well known economists like Jeffrey Sachs – were notorious disasters. It’s true that Africa’s economic performance has been better in recent years, but this has less to do with the influence of economists and more to do with commodity booms and a decrease in conflict.

The one major example of macroeconomic success was in the post-World War 2, Bretton-Woods era. The ideas put in place – pioneered by economists John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White – revolved around trade management and stable exchange rates. However, these ideas were quite far from the mainstream and are endorsed by few today; the discipline believes it has moved past them. What’s more, these ‘social democratic’ policies were erected largely because of popular support after the devastation of the depression-war period. In fact, the major aim of Bretton-Woods was to prevent another world war from happening. The whole thing was a more of a social movement based on political dynamics than an example of technocratic economists coming along and working their magic.

However, perhaps there are a few examples of this occurring elsewhere. One of economists’ go-to examples is auctioning off wireless spectrums. However, the evidence on this is actually somewhat mixed. In the UK and US, many of firms who’ve won the auctions have been incapable of utilising the spectrums they have bought and have had to sell them back to the regulatory bodies. Furthermore, since different companies often have to cooperate to prevent disturbances, fierce competition can undermine this process and engineers can be necessary to plan and coordinate things. To be sure, I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to this problem, as it is complex, but it seems that economists don’t have such an answer, either.

Now, there is one clear example of economists toolkit resulting in real world success: recent Nobel Memorial Prize winner Al Roth, whose work on ‘matching’ in kidney markets, schools and more has produced admirable results. It makes sense that this kind of thing would be an example where economics ‘works’: after all, in such situations choices are clear, there are not too many actors and institutional variables, and people have access to all of the information they need. However, this is the only obvious example I can think of.

What about non-economists record with policy? Well, developed countries rose to prominence before economics as a separate discipline really existed. And, as Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out, recently industrialised/industrialising countries such as South Korea, Japan and China have largely relied on bureaucrats and lawyers to form policy (and my sources tell me that the economists in China are inclined towards Sraffian economics). Different countries have benefited from highly disparate approaches to policy: in keeping with their history, culture and existing institutions, but without much consideration of ‘economic logic’. To be sure, there are examples of both good and bad policies coming out of the democratic process, but the bad is certainly not worse than economists’ record, and it least it’s accountable to the people it affects. (Incidentally, public choice theory is not a sound argument against democracy, and even if it were, it would also be an argument against economists).

This is only a brief, cursory overview, but even so we should have expected better examples of economists’ successes, and far fewer, less catastrophic failures. In my opinion, if there is a role for economists in advising policy, it’s on small, micro-issues like Al Roth’s auctions, or on specific empirical matters. However, once we get more complex, economists’ pet policies seem to be at best neutral, and they have no empirical reason to prefer their choices to those of the electorate.