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Macroeconomic aspirations

October 30, 2014 1 comment

from Lars Syll

Oxford macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis has a post up on his blog on the use of labels in macroeconomics:

EPAreadlabelLabels are fun, and get attention. They can be a useful shorthand to capture an idea, or related set of ideas … Here are a couple of bold assertions, which I think I believe, and which I will try to justify. First, in academic research terms there is only one meaningful division, between mainstream and heterodox … Second, in macroeconomic policy terms I think there is only one meaningful significant division, between mainstream and anti-Keynesians …

So what do I mean by a meaningful division in academic research terms? I mean speaking a different language. Thanks to the microfoundations revolution in macro, mainstream macroeconomists speak the same language. I can go to a seminar that involves an RBC model with flexible prices and no involuntary unemployment and still contribute and possibly learn something.

Wren-Lewis seems to be überjoyed by the fact that using the same language as real business cycles macroeconomists he can “possibly learn something” from them.

Hmm …

Wonder what …

I’m not sure Wren-Lewis uses the same “language” as James Tobin, but he’s definitely worth listening to: Read more…

Students, INET and “Repressive Tolerance”

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

As a follow-up to Rethinking Economics rejects INET’s “Core Curriculum” here is an excerpt from a Rethinking Economics blog post back in August by David Wells.

. . .  just before the final keynote address, a short video was played in which Robert Johnson, the President of INET, sent his best wishes to the conference and congratulated the organisers – but also suggested at one point that the students should be ‘guided’ by INET.

This is strange. Why should the students be ‘guided’ by INET? Why not the other way around? After all, it is the students who are the instigators of this revolution and who are at the front line, manning the barricades. INET are very active in their own way – the CORE curriculum project is especially interesting – and they supply invaluable funding, including for this conference*, but they are essentially secondary actors on the stage. The protagonists are the students, not just in the UK but all over the world: the ISIPE now has (at least) 65 member associations in 30 countries.

Read more…

The role of influence

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

from Neva Goodwin

Herbert Simon received the Nobel Prize in 1978. This fact had little or no influence on subsequent economics textbooks, which sometimes mentioned bounded rationality, but did not reduce their dependence on the old rationality postulate as the foundation for deducing all human behaviour.

Simon was not the first critic to be so dismissed. Decades before behavioral economics came into fashion “alternative” economists were complaining about the unrealism of the neoclassical view of humanity. They especially focused on the fact that, as Smith had so well recognized, people are social animals. Relatively few of our actions are taken completely without regard for what we have seen other people do, or what we expect that other people will think. Even popular books on finance refer to the “herd instinct” in reference to the way investors follow fads and fashions of thought. There appears to be an inborn tendency for people to act as part of some kind of human collective, rather than in isolation. Yet this had no place in the neoclassical understanding of human behaviour.

Read more…

Lies that economics is built on

October 18, 2014 1 comment

from Lars Syll

Peter Dorman is one of those rare economists that it is always a pleasure to read. Here his critical eye is focussed on economists’ infatuation with homogeneity and averages: Read more…

Modern macroeconomics and the perils of using ‘Mickey Mouse’ models

October 15, 2014 12 comments

from Lars Syll

The techniques we use affect our thinking in deep and not always conscious ways. This was very much the case in macroeconomics in the decades preceding the crisis. The techniques were best suited to a worldview in which economic fluctuations occurred but were regular, and essentially self correcting. The problem is that we came to believe that this was indeed the way the world worked.

To understand how that view emerged, one has to go back to the so-called rational expectations revolution of the 1970s … These techniques however made sense only under a vision in which economic fluctuations were regular enough so that, by looking at the past, people and firms (and the econometricians who apply statistics to economics) could understand their nature and form expectations of the future, and simple enough so that small shocks had small effects and a shock twice as big as another had twice the effect on economic activity. The reason for this assumption, called linearity, was technical: models with nonlinearities—those in which a small shock, such as a decrease in housing prices, can sometimes have large effects, or in which the effect of a shock depends on the rest of the economic environment—were difficult, if not impossible, to solve under rational expectations.

Thinking about macroeconomics was largely shaped by those assumptions. We in the field did think of the economy as roughly linear, constantly subject to different shocks, constantly fluctuating, but naturally returning to its steady state over time …

From the early 1980s on, most advanced economies experienced what has been dubbed the “Great Moderation,” a steady decrease in the variability of output and its major components—such as consumption and investment … Whatever caused the Great Moderation, for a quarter Century the benign, linear view of fluctuations looked fine.

Olivier Blanchard

Read more…

Behavioral economics

October 4, 2014 3 comments

from Neva Goodwin

Neoclassical economics claims to be based entirely on a view of human nature which is not only morally repugnant, but which also both leaves out a great deal about how people actually do operate, while it brings in seriously contrary-to-fact assumptions about what people are capable of. The latter have included assumptions about consistency (including that preferences change slowly, if at all, and that if A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C, then C cannot be preferred to A); about information (people are able to act as if they have perfect information); about self-knowledge (people know what they want, and are best served by getting what they want); and about influence, or power. The last of these assumptions includes the idea that human wants and preferences are endogenous, generated entirely from within; it ignores the extent to which people’s choices and decisions may be manipulated by those who have an interest in persuading the public to buy certain things, or vote in certain ways. It ignores the reality that market economies are rife with powerful actors who do have such an interest, in both the economic and the political spheres.  Read more…

Eric Holder: The reason Robert Rubin isn’t behind bars

October 2, 2014 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.

Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.

In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings.  Read more…

Categories: corruption

new issue of Economic Thought

October 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Economic Thought - History, Philosophy, and Methodology
An open access, open peer review journal from the World Economics Association

Vol 3, No 2, 2014     Download issue 

J.M. Keynes, F.A. Hayek and the Common Reader
Constantinos Repapis          1          abstract

Reconciling Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage with Smith’s Productivity Theory
Jorge Morales Meoqui          21         abstract

The Theory of the Transnational Corporation at 50+
Grazia Ietto-Gillies          38          abstract

A commentary on Grazia Ietto-Gillies’ paper
John Cantwell           58          abstract

Reply to John Cantwell’s Commentary on Grazia Ietto-Gillies’ paper
Grazia Ietto-Gillies          67          abstract

If ‘Well-Being’ is the Key Concept in Political Economy...
Claudio Gnesutta          70          abstract

Wittgenstein’s Silence?

September 30, 2014 7 comments

from Peter Radford

Because it is pointless adding to an already over stuffed vacuum.

Economics as currently construed is a discussion about a small percentage of all economic activity. It is therefore incapable of making a contribution to improve the daily lives and/or prosperity of people whose lives are not totally included within the purview of its theorized domain.

Herbert Simon estimated that approximately 80% of all economic activity takes place outside of anything resembling the markets that economics talks about. The vast majority of transacting and economic interaction takes place either in the home or at work. These two places are where people come across economic activity more frequently than in markets. They are also two territories that economists rarely, if ever, explore.

And when people do enter a space that looks like a market they do so more often than not as a complete price taker. When was the last time you haggled over the price of toothpaste?

So the stylized markets that so besot economists are merely the edge of economic reality, not the center.  Read more…

The psychological “foundations” for neoclassical economics

September 27, 2014 14 comments

from Neva Goodwin

When I was beginning my studies in this field economist Robert Solow commented to me that the great strength of economics is that it is fully axiomatized; the entire edifice can be deduced from the basic rationality axiom, which says that rational economic man maximizes his utility. The origin of this axiom is often traced back to Smith, whose most widely quoted phrase comes from a passage in which Smith approvingly notes that merchants take what, today, we would call, a protectionist position – doing so, not with any thought for the good of society, but because their security and profit is tied to domestic industry. Thus, he says, the merchant “is in this as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is no part of his intention.”[1] Excerpts such as this have been used as a justification for the 20th century economic model’s vision of an ideal world in which a society comprised of entirely self-interested economic actors would make the society as a whole better off, and the idea that pursuit of self-interest is the only thing that is done by rational economic actors – and that anything else is irrational. Read more…

A problem that legions of mainstream academic economists have simply ignored (5 charts)

September 24, 2014 11 comments

from David Ruccio

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The Wall Street Journal uses this chart to illustrate a story on a new report issued by Morgan Stanley on “Inequality and Consumption.”* Read more…

Mainstream economics teaching in the late 20th Century

September 20, 2014 12 comments

from Neva Goodwin

There are some true and useful things to be learned in standard 20th century economics, such as the basic concepts of supply and demand intersecting to create wages and prices. However if you ever took an economics course you may have since discovered that many other things also affect prices, such as advertising, or consumers’ lack of information. And wages involve even more complicated human interactions, habits and expectations. These complexities and exceptions don’t get much hearing in introductory courses – and, surprisingly, they get even less at the upper levels, where, instead, progressively more mathematics are imposed on a progressively more abstract picture of an economy. Meanwhile the students are also being taught a lot that is dangerous. Here are some of the take-aways from the standard economics course: Read more…

Revealed preference theory — redundant fuss about almost nothing

September 18, 2014 2 comments

from Lars Syll

Twenty years ago, yours truly had an article in History of Political Economy (no. 25, 1993) on revealed preference theory.

Paul Samuelson wrote a kind letter and informed me that he was the one who had recommended it for publication. But although he liked a lot in it, he also wrote a comment — published in the same volume of HOPE — saying:

Between 1938 and 1947, and since then as Pålsson Syll points out, I have been scrupulously careful not to claim for revealed preference theory novelties and advantages it does not merit. But Pålsson Syll’s readers must not believe that it was all redundant fuss about not very much.

I came to think about this little episode when, prepairing for a lecture on the law of demand, I re-read Stanley Wong’s  minor classic on Samuelson’s revealed preference theory. And I have to admit I still find the theory much fuss about not very much. Read more…

The myth that sold the financial bailout

September 17, 2014 4 comments

from Dean Baker

If there had been political support for massive spending in these areas, the Depression could have ended in 1931 instead of 1941.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The investment bank’s bankruptcy accelerated the financial meltdown that began with the near collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns in March 2008 (saved by the Federal Reserve and JPMorgan) and picked up steam with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac going under the week before Lehman’s demise. The day after Lehman failed, the giant insurer AIG was set to collapse, only to be rescued by the Fed.

With the other Wall Street behemoths also on shaky ground, then–Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson ran to Capitol Hill, accompanied by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner. Their message was clear: The apocalypse was nigh. They demanded Congress make an open-ended commitment to bail out the banks. In a message repeated endlessly by the punditocracy ever since, the failure to cough up the money would have led to a second Great Depression.

The claim was nonsense then, and it’s even greater nonsense now.  Read more…

Krugman and Mankiw on loanable funds — so wrong, so wrong

September 16, 2014 12 comments

from Lars Syll

Earlier this autumn yours truly was invited to participate in the New York Rethinking Economics conference. A busy schedule didn’t allow me to “go over there.” Fortunately some of the debates and presentations have been made available on the web, as for example here . Listening a couple of minutes into that video one can hear Paul Krugman strongly defending the loanable funds theory.

Unfortunately this is not an exception among “New Keynesian” economists.

Neglecting anything resembling a real-world finance system, Greg Mankiw — in the 8th edition of his intermediate textbook Macroeconomics — has appended a new chapter to the other nineteen chapters where finance more or less is equated to the neoclassical thought-construction of a “market for loanable funds.”

On the subject of financial crises he admits that Read more…

Why work became so bad for so many?

September 15, 2014 2 comments

from  Maria Alejandra Madi and the WEA Pedagogy Blog

Global business has been overwhelmed by the financialisation of wealth. Beyond financial and “rationalization” strategies, social conflicts and tensions have been strengthened as labor relations need to be adjusted to capital mobility and short-run returns.  In this historical setting, it is worth noting that, in spite of the enormous literature on financial development and inequality, few attempts have been successful in rethinking the intersection between contemporary financial and labor markets in Economics Curriculum.

Indeed, in the current context of “institutionalized short-termism”, the expansion of global finance contributes to the redefinition of labor relations. Investors and managers have enlarged profits in the context of a  business model that favors downsizing and cost reduction at the expense of employment. As labor costs are frequently considered large expense items, corporations must tightly managed and documented those costs in order to minimize risk of non-compliance, particularly public companies. Accordingly the Global Labor Union IUF,  the current global business scenario fosters changing working conditions that result from:  read more

How we got here: Adam Smith minus Karl Marx; Keynes tortured by Samuelson

September 13, 2014 6 comments

from Neva Goodwin

Adam Smith, generally regarded as the begetter of modern economic theory, stressed issues of growth and distribution, based on an image of smoothly functioning markets. The pieces of Smith’s legacy that remained significant for what I will refer to as 20th century economics (though I will focus especially on the second half of the past century) were the emphasis on growth, and admiration for markets. This truncated legacy greatly reduced the emphasis on distribution, while also missing Smith’s concern that markets might not always function optimally. He especially pointed to monopolistic behavior as a problem, and supported various kinds of government intervention to keep the market on track. Ignoring these caveats, 20th century economists pursued the optimistic program of modeling a world in which perfect markets lead to optimum social outcomes.

The classical economists – those holding the stage approximately until Marshall’s time – also included Karl Marx, whose concerns for inequality and class conflict were shared by Smith (though they expressed themselves very differently).  Read more…

Krugman on Minsky

September 11, 2014 3 comments

from Lars Syll

Paul Krugman has often been criticized by people like yours truly and other Minskyites for getting things pretty wrong on  the economics of Hyman Minsky.

When Krugman has responded to the critique, by himself rather gratuitously portrayed as about “What Minsky Really Meant” or “What Keynes Really Meant,” the over all conclusion is — “Krugman Doesn’t Care.”

The reason given for this rather debonair attitude seems to be that history of economic thought may be OK, but what really counts is if reading Minsky — or Keynes — give birth to new and interesting insights and ideas. Economics is not religion, and to simply refer to authority is not an accepted way of arguing in science.

Although I have a lot of sympathy for Krugman’s view on authority, there is a somewhat disturbing and unbecoming coquetting in his attitude towards the great forerunners he is discussing  — as his rather controversial speech at Cambridge, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Keynes’ General Theory, bears evidence of.

Sometimes — and this goes not only for children — it is easier to see things if you can stand on the shoulders of elders and giants. If Krugman took his time and really studied Keynes and Minsky, I’m sure even he would learn a lot. Read more…

The content of standard introductory economics courses

September 8, 2014 7 comments

Economics textbooks are not only written for students. At two critical points in the history of economic thought textbooks have played significant roles in defining the field, not only for what is taught, but more importantly (in terms of real world outcomes) for the understanding of the economy that is used by politicians, policy makers, and the public, when it votes its approval or disapproval of how the government is affecting the economy.

This started in the 1890s, when Alfred Marshall wrote the first edition of his text, called Principles of Economics. It went through 8 editions, the last being published in 1920. For a large part of the English-speaking world Marshall’s textbook continued to define the field (especially the microeconomics basics) until the middle of the 20th century, when it was replaced by Paul Samuelson’s Economics (first published in 1948). That set the standard for about the next 60 years.

Read more…

The Arrow-Debreu obsession

August 31, 2014 22 comments

from Lars Syll

I’ve never yet been able to understand why the economics profession was/is so impressed by the Arrow-Debreu results. They establish that in an extremely abstract model of an economy, there exists a unique equilibrium with certain properties. The assumptions required to obtain the result make this economy utterly unlike anything in the real world. In effect, it tells us nothing at all.what if So why pay any attention to it? The attention, I suspect, must come from some prior fascination with the idea of competitive equilibrium, and a desire to see the world through that lens, a desire that is more powerful than the desire to understand the real world itself. This fascination really does hold a kind of deranging power over economic theorists, so powerful that they lose the ability to think in even minimally logical terms; they fail to distinguish necessary from sufficient conditions, and manage to overlook the issue of the stability of equilibria.

Mark Buchanan

Almost a century and a half after Léon Walras founded neoclassical general equilibrium theory, economists still have not been able to show that markets move economies to equilibria. Read more…

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