A reminder from Berlin

January 22, 2021 10 comments

from Peter Radford

Sorting out my old bookshelves I came across an old Isaiah Berlin Essay “The Pursuit of the Ideal”.  At the risk of being boring here is a very long extract, he begins the essay this way:

“There are, in my view, two factors that, above all others, have shaped human history in this century.  One is the development of the natural sciences and technology, certainly the greatest success story of our time — to this, great and mounting attention has been paid from all quarters.  The other, without doubt, consists in the great ideological storms that have altered the lives of virtually all mankind: the Russian Revolution and its aftermath — totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and the explosions of nationalism, racism, and, in places, of religious bigotry, which, interestingly enough, not one among the most perceptive social thinkers of the nineteenth century had ever predicted.

When our descendants, in two or three centuries’ time (if mankind survives until then), come to look at our age, it is these two phenomena that will, I think, be held to be the outstanding characteristics of our century, the most demanding of explanation and analysis.  But it is as well to realize that these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads: ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be; and to realize how they came to be transformed in the name of a vision of some supreme goal in the minds of the leaders, above all the prophets with armies at their backs.  Such ideas are the substance of ethics …”

Yes indeed.

The substance of ethics.

The ideas that have dominated the minds and actions of our leaders over these past few decades, those that produced the day-to-day world we live in, those that resulted in the inequality and inequity of our modern western societies, those that created a giant rift in society between the mass and the few, and those that now need urgent reconsideration and change, those ideas are in sore need of an ethical reckoning.

High on the list of those ideas are those that came to dominate economics starting in the mid-twentieth century. Read more…

On the difference between econometrics and data science

January 22, 2021 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Causality in social sciences can never solely be a question of statistical inference. Causality entails more than predictability, and to really in depth explain social phenomena require theory. The analysis of variation can never in itself reveal how these variations are brought about. First when we are able to tie actions, processes or structures to the statistical relations detected, can we say that we are getting at relevant explanations of causation.

Most facts have many different, possible, alternative explanations, but we want to find the best of all contrastive (since all real explanation takes place relative to a set of alternatives) explanations. So which is the best explanation? Many scientists, influenced by statistical reasoning, think that the likeliest explanation is the best explanation. But the likelihood of x is not in itself a strong argument for thinking it explains y. I would rather argue that what makes one explanation better than another are things like aiming for and finding powerful, deep, causal, features and mechanisms that we have warranted and justified reasons to believe in. Statistical — especially the variety based on a Bayesian epistemology — reasoning generally has no room for these kinds of explanatory considerations. The only thing that matters is the probabilistic relation between evidence and hypothesis. That is also one of the main reasons I find abduction — inference to the best explanation — a better description and account of what constitute actual scientific reasoning and inferences. Read more…

Marilyn & the Goats: A new solution to an old problem

January 21, 2021 2 comments

from Asad Zaman

Introduction: In a previous lecture, we gave a New Definition of Probability. In this lecture, we will show how this definition enables us to resolve the massive amount of controversy which surrounds an apparently simple probability puzzle, known as the Monty-Hall problem. The book The Power of Logical Thinking, quotes cognitive psychologist Massimo Piattelli Palmarini: “No other statistical puzzle comes so close to fooling all the people all the time [and] even Nobel physicists systematically give the wrong answer, and that they insist on it, and they are ready to berate in print those who propose the right answer.” Before proceeding to discuss this problem, we review the key features of our new definition:

  1. Probability is a feature of external reality, not an aspect of our ignorance/knowledge.
  2. Probability exists PRIOR to occurrence of random event.
  3. Probability is EXTINGUISHED after event occurs.  Read more

Lessons from the Moonshot for fixing global problems

January 21, 2021 2 comments

from Jayati Ghosh

The World Health Organization appointed economist Mariana Mazzucato to head its Council on the Economics of Health for All in 2020. She is one of the architects of the biggest international research-funding scheme in the world, Horizon Europe, which launched this month. Her book Mission Economy is a timely and optimistic vision of how to fix the world’s “wicked problems” through directed public and private investment.

In two brilliant and accessible books published over the past decade, Mazzucato has established herself as a pre-eminent thinker, debunking myths about how markets function and offering options for more equitable economies. In 2013’s The Entrepreneurial State, she demolished the perception of governments as bureaucratic, corrupt and unwieldy when compared with the supposedly dynamic, nimble and innovative private sector. All that makes a smartphone ‘smart’ was the result of government-funded research, she pointed out; private agents invest in new areas only after governments have made the risky long-term investments. In 2017’s The Value of Everything, Mazzucato challenged how we consider benefit. Corporations trading financial instruments, data, food or oil might present themselves as value creators but, in reality, many are extractors destroyers, even of true value. Read more…

Trump crazy and intellectual crazy

January 20, 2021 2 comments

from Dean Baker

– the ways in which the economy has been structured to redistribute income upward

It’s hard not to be appalled and scared by the reality denial of Donald Trump’s followers. Their willingness to insist an election was stolen, with no evidence whatsoever, is difficult to understand for those of who like to think that people respond to facts and logic.

I don’t have any easy answers to get these people to start thinking clearly, but I will point out that it is not just ignorant and/or crazed Trumpers who have trouble dealing with reality. Many of our leading intellectuals and our major media outlets have similar difficulty dealing with reality when it doesn’t fit their conceptions of the world.

In particular, I am referring to my standard complaint about the unwillingness to acknowledge the ways in which the economy has been structured to redistribute income upward. I will focus on the two simplest routes, which are often described as “technology” and “globalization.”

The Technology and Inequality Lie

Sorry to get harsh on this, but after what we saw on January 6th, I am not in a mood for being polite. I realize that it is very convenient for people who are doing relatively well in the current economy to believe that it is just a result of the way that technology happened to develop. In this story, it just happened to turn out that the progress in areas like software, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have made advanced skills in science and math more valuable and less-skilled physical labor less valuable.

This line is repeated endlessly in media outlets and academic circles with zero reflection. Read more…

Leontief’s devastating critique of econom(etr)ics

January 19, 2021 5 comments

from Lars Syll

Much of current academic teaching and research has been criticized for its lack of relevance, that is, of immediate practical impact … I submit that the consistently indifferent performance in practical applications is in fact a symptom of a fundamental imbalance in the present state of our discipline. The weak and all too slowly growing empirical foundation clearly cannot support the proliferating superstructure of pure, or should I say, speculative economic theory …

004806Uncritical enthusiasm for mathematical formulation tends often to conceal the ephemeral substantive content of the argument behind the formidable front of algebraic signs … In the presentation of a new model, attention nowadays is usually centered on a step-by-step derivation of its formal properties. But if the author — or at least the referee who recommended the manuscript for publication — is technically competent, such mathematical manipulations, however long and intricate, can even without further checking be accepted as correct. Nevertheless, they are usually spelled out at great length. By the time it comes to interpretation of the substantive conclusions, the assumptions on which the model has been based are easily forgotten. But it is precisely the empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire exercise depends.

What is really needed, in most cases, is a very difficult and seldom very neat assessment and verification of these assumptions in terms of observed facts. Here mathematics cannot help and because of this, the interest and enthusiasm of the model builder suddenly begins to flag: “If you do not like my set of assumptions, give me another and I will gladly make you another model; have your pick.” …

But shouldn’t this harsh judgment be suspended in the face of the impressive volume of econometric work? The answer is decidedly no. This work can be in general characterized as an attempt to compensate for the glaring weakness of the data base available to us by the widest possible use of more and more sophisticated statistical techniques. Alongside the mounting pile of elaborate theoretical models we see a fast-growing stock of equally intricate statistical tools. These are intended to stretch to the limit the meager supply of facts … Like the economic models they are supposed to implement, the validity of these statistical tools depends itself on the acceptance of certain convenient assumptions pertaining to stochastic properties of the phenomena which the particular models are intended to explain; assumptions that can be seldom verified.

Wassily Leontief

A salient feature of modern mainstream economics is the idea of science advancing through the use of “successive approximations” whereby ‘small-world’ models become more and more relevant and applicable to the ‘large world’ in which we live. Is this really a feasible methodology? Yours truly thinks not. Read more…

Even in the face of coup attempt, NYT continues propaganda for upward redistribution through trade

January 19, 2021 2 comments

from Dean Baker

I have repeatedly raised the point that media accounts routinely use the term “free trade” when they can more accurately say simply “trade” or trade policy. It is amazing to me that this practice continues.

We saw it yet again in a NYT article on how many Republicans continue to be faithful to Trump even after last week’s coup attempt. The article told readers:

“Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative, described Ms. Cheney and other Republicans who voted for impeachment as ‘artifacts,’ saying they were out of step in a party that has embraced a more populist platform opposed to foreign interventions and skeptical of free trade.”

As I have pointed out endlessly, we do not have a policy of “free trade.” We do not allow foreign trained professionals, such as doctors and dentists, to freely practice in the United States. Our trade policy has been focused on reducing barriers to trade in manufactured goods, while leaving in place the barriers that protect the most highly paid professionals.

This has the effect of putting U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. This has the predicted and actual effect of lowering the pay of manufacturing workers in the United States. Since manufacturing has historically been a source of relatively high-paying jobs for workers without college degrees, the loss of good-paying jobs in manufacturing has put downward pressure on the pay of non-college educated workers more generally. This distributional impact has nothing to do with “free trade,” it is due to a policy of selective protectionism.

In the same vein, much of our trade policy has been focused on making our patent and copyright protections longer and stronger and imposing these rules on our trading partners. These protections are 180 degrees at odds with free trade, they are government granted monopolies. They also have the effect of redistributing income upward, to drug and software companies and people with skills in the relevant fields. Very few dishwashers and custodians benefit from patent rents or royalties from copyrights.

It would be helpful if the NYT and other media outlets could stop trying to pretend that the upward redistribution from globalization was some sort of natural process involving free trade. That is a Trumpian lie and it would be good if the media stopped repeating it.

Memo to self

January 18, 2021 14 comments

from Peter Radford

This is short:

I have been accused recently of mis-using the word “coup” when I discuss the events of January 6th.  Worse, I have been called ignorant.

Here is what the dictionary says:

Coup = a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.

Perhaps my critics would feel safer with “insurrection” which seems to be the preferred word in the media.

Here is what the dictionary says:

Insurrection = a violent uprising against an authority or government.

The subtlety of the difference between the two words seems to revolve around the first being seizure of power, whilst the second is an uprising against those in power.  Beyond that they are both a reference to violence and an attempt to unseat, or change government.  Presumably a failed coup implies that power was not wrested from the government despite the attempt.

Let’s review January 6th: Read more…

Prepare for a surge in global inequality

January 17, 2021 2 comments

from C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh

The United States prepares for moving out of the Trump era with the incoming President promising more rounds of stimulus spending to revive an economy ravaged by Covid-19. Other members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, a predominantly rich nation’s club, have also been generous with their spending and signalled that they are willing to keep their wallets open to spend more if necessary. The evidence clearly is that the Covid-crisis has upended the fiscal conservatism that has been the hallmark of the neoliberal era since the 1980s.

However, not all nations seem to display this ability to depart from the prevailing orthodoxy. Where this weakness is most visible is the developing world, where governments, with very few exceptions, have not been loosening their purse strings to deal with the health emergency, throw out a safety net to protect devastated citizens, and stall and reverse the recession to restore livelihoods and normal economic activity.

Estimates from the World Bank in the January 2021 edition of its flagship Global Economic Prospects (GEP) report point to stark differences across countries at different levels of development in the level of fiscal support governments have provided in the wake of the Covid-shock (Chart 1). Read more…

Fooled by randomness

January 16, 2021 4 comments

from Lars Syll

A non-trivial part of teaching statistics to social science students is made up of learning them to perform significance testing. A problem yours truly has noticed repeatedly over the years, however, is that no matter how careful you try to be in explicating what the probabilities generated by these statistical tests — p-values — really are, still most students misinterpret them.

Is betting random? | Analysing randomness in bettingA couple of years ago I gave a statistics course for the Swedish National Research School in History, and at the exam I asked the students to explain how one should correctly interpret p-values. Although the correct definition is p(data|null hypothesis), a majority of the students either misinterpreted the p-value as being the likelihood of a sampling error (which of course is wrong, since the very computation of the p-value is based on the assumption that sampling errors are what causes the sample statistics not coinciding with the null hypothesis) or that the p-value is the probability of the null hypothesis being true, given the data (which of course also is wrong, since it is p(null hypothesis|data) rather than the correct p(data|null hypothesis)). Read more…

Corporate reckoning

January 15, 2021 14 comments

from Peter Radford

The aftermath of a coup attempt is one of those moments when a nation gets a really serious insight into its values.  Do, for instance, its politicians rally around some higher set of principles, or do they slide quickly back into the day-to-day argy-bargy of political positioning and infighting?

Ours are perilously close to the latter.  And this after their own place of work was invaded and trashed while they hid and cowered in sundry hiding places.  Profiles in courage are few and far between right now within our politics class.

The reason is obvious: one of major political parties is complicit in the ruin of democracy and in the rise of a far right version of populism based on white supremacy, nativism, and grievances of various sorts.  Perhaps this was the inevitable consequence of forty years of false doctrine and anti-social agitation during which the very word government became reviled and scorned by those swept along by that doctrine.  Perhaps it was the inevitable consequence of the highly planned and disciplined attack on democracy orchestrated by the panoply of right wing think tanks and media outlets established during the late 1970s for the specific purpose of ruining the ability of the middle class to protect itself from our oligarchs and big corporate interests.  Or, perhaps, it was Read more…

Debt and deficits, yet again

January 14, 2021 6 comments

from Dean Baker

With a Democrat in the White House, the season of the deficit hawk has returned. So, it’s worth going through the old arguments just to remind everyone that the best response to these people is ridicule.

It looks like President Biden will propose a robust stimulus package of well over $1 trillion. According to press accounts, the package is likely to include another check for $2,000. (I believe it is supposed to $1,400 above the $600 in the last package.) It is likely to include a refundable child tax credit that will do much to reduce child poverty.

It will also include money to state and local governments to make up massive pandemic induced shortfalls. There will also be money for mass transit and a down payment on green new deal programs. Biden also plans to increase the subsidies provided in the Affordable Care Act, to make its insurance more affordable. And, he is likely to ask for a reduction in the age of Medicare eligibility.

In other words, this will be a really big deal. And, it will cost money. Biden will propose tax increases on the rich and corporations, but there is little doubt there will be a large increase in the deficit and the debt. So should we be worried? Read more…

Garbage-can econometrics

January 14, 2021 15 comments

from Lars Syll

When no formal theory is available, as is often the case, then the analyst needs to justify statistical specifications by showing that they fit the data. That means more than just “running things.” It means careful graphical and crosstabular analysis …

garbageWhen I present this argument … one or more scholars say, “But shouldn’t I control for every-thing I can? If not, aren’t my regression coefficients biased due to excluded variables?” But this argument is not as persuasive as it may seem initially.

First of all, if what you are doing is mis-specified already, then adding or excluding other variables has no tendency to make things consistently better or worse. The excluded variable argument only works if you are sure your specification is precisely correct with all variables included. But no one can know that with more than a handful of explanatory variables.

Still more importantly, big, mushy regression and probit equations seem to need a great many control variables precisely because they are jamming together all sorts of observations that do not belong together. Countries, wars, religious preferences, education levels, and other variables that change people’s coefficients are “controlled” with dummy variables that are completely inadequate to modeling their effects. The result is a long list of independent variables, a jumbled bag of nearly unrelated observations, and often, a hopelessly bad specification with meaningless (but statistically significant with several asterisks!) results.

Christopher H. Achen

This article is one of my absolute favourites. Why? Because it reaffirms yours truly’s view that since there is no absolutely certain knowledge at hand in social sciences — including economics — explicit argumentation and justification ought to play an extremely important role if purported knowledge claims are to be sustainably warranted. As Achen puts it — without careful supporting arguments, “just dropping variables into SPSS, STATA, S or R programs accomplishes nothing.”

A new definition of “probability”

January 13, 2021 4 comments

from Asad Zaman

An article by Alan Hajek in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists six major categories of definitions. Many more are possible if causality is also taken into account. These definitions conflict with each other, and face serious problems as interpretations of real-world probabilities. The basic definition of probability we will offer in this lecture falls outside all of these listed categories. Before going on to present it, we briefly explain why there is such massive confusion about how to define probability.  read more 

Under pressure

January 13, 2021 5 comments

– the vital difference between a “firm” and a “corporation”

from Peter Radford

I am learning that it takes a while to come to terms with the trauma of an attempted coup.

Various people are reacting differently depending on their state of mind prior to the attempt.  What catches my eye, given my own perspective on the role of business in society, is the pressure emerging on our large corporations.  Having spent the past few years busily ignoring the moral corruption and ineptitude of the Trump regime business leaders are suddenly trying to appear pious.  Many of them are suspending their support for political groups and individuals.  Others are suspending social media platforms that were used to organize insurrection and ferment violence.

This is all too little too late.

The equivocation that allowed major corporations to support Trump whilst overlooking his manifest moral failings simply so that they could benefit from tax cuts and reduced regulation stains those corporations forever.  It is an example of the transactional thinking produced by a rigid application of the flawed notion of shareholder value permeating the business world.

Let’s set the record straight: corporations are wards of the state.  They exist because the state says they can exist.  That’s what obtaining a corporate charter implies.  Actually it is an explicit, not implicit, relationship.  In return for being given a charter a firm, which then becomes a corporation, commits to providing socially beneficial services.  It is a classic example of a state/private sector partnership.  The charter brings with it a variety of benefits available only to corporations.  So as firms accept those privileges they surrender their market purity: they become hybrids, they become agents of the state. Read more…

Misleading economic signals

January 12, 2021 Leave a comment

from C. P. Chandrasekhar

It’s a paradox that has periodically recurred in recent times. Financial indicators are hugely favourable from the point of view of those who benefit from them, even when the performance of the real economy is poor or dismal. In this Covid-afflicted year, that paradox has manifested itself with greater intensity. And with a difference. Even while the real economy remains in contractionary mode, not only have stock market returns exploded, but India’s stock of foreign exchange reserves, considered a measure of the country’s economic health from Independence to the balance of payments of crisis of 1991, have registered record-breaking increases.

While stock markets are no indicators of economic health, news that the BSE Sensex breached the 48,000 mark on January 4 had to be acknowledged as significant. The figure not only reflected a huge 85 per cent rise relative to the low the Sensex touched in March 2020, when the devastating economic consequences of Covid pandemic had begun to be felt, but is also significantly higher than the pre-pandemic peak of a little over 41,500. More importantly, India’s central bank has been accumulating foreign exchange reserves at an astounding pace. India’s foreign reserves rose by $105 billion between 27 March and 25 December 2020, to touch $580 billion. That increase was more than double the increment of $46 billion recorded in a comparable period of the previous year (29 March to 27 December 2019). Read more…

Econometrics and the challenge of regression specification

January 11, 2021 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Most work in econometrics and regression analysis is — still — made on the assumption that the researcher has a theoretical model that is ‘true.’ Based on this belief of having a correct specification for an econometric model or running a regression, one proceeds as if the only problem remaining to solve have to do with measurement and observation.

aWhen things sound too good to be true, they usually aren’t. And that goes for econometric wet dreams too. The snag is, of course, that there is pretty little to support the perfect specification assumption. Looking around in social science and economics we don’t find a single regression or econometric model that lives up to the standards set by the ‘true’ theoretical model — and there is pretty little that gives us reason to believe things will be different in the future.

To think that we are being able to construct a model where all relevant variables are included and correctly specify the functional relationships that exist between them, is  not only a belief without support, but a belief impossible to support. Read more…

JANUARY 6, 2021

January 11, 2021 1 comment

from Peter Radford

The crisis lingers on.

One would think, although we are now in an odd world, that abetting, instigating, and applauding an attack on Congress would result in more than a gentle rebuke.  Apparently not.  The wheels of American politics move extremely slowly and the perpetrator of the crime still is hunkered down in the White House bloviating, no doubt, about how he was robbed of his victory in November’s election.  Perhaps there will be enough spine amongst those who were attacked to exact appropriate revenge.  Perhaps not.

For, already, the political calculation that infects everything done in Washington is slowing and possibly preventing prosecution.  The Republican Party, now terrified of its full complicity and concerned about whatever is left of its public image, is doing its utmost to avoid punishing its soon to be ex-leader.

What do we know?

Congress was invaded with the intention of stopping it from performing its Constitutional obligation to recognize, formally, the November election result

The invasion came at the explicit behest of Donald Trump who ordered the mob at his January 6th rally to march on Congress with that aim in mind.

Several of the more extremest members of the mob had been planning various acts of mayhem for several weeks.

That planning had been overt: many of them had spoken, written, and communicated about their intentions for months.

Many others in the mob had simply fallen for the serial lying of Donald Trump or had fallen prey to various conspiracy theories allowed to float freely on social media platforms that think of themselves as above regulatory control.  This group consisted of people from all over America who believed Trump’s lies concerning the election.  They thought he had been robbed.  That he never, not once, produced evidence to support his claim was not enough to stop them joining in the assault.

Adding these facts together we see something as stark is an insurrection or a coup.  America has just survived an attempt to topple its government through the use of violence. Read more…

Sliding doors: The day US democracy almost died

January 11, 2021 3 comments

from Thomas Palley

It is now four days since the January 6 mob attack on the US Congress which President Donald Trump incited. In a manner akin to a combat situation, the numbness induced by the overwhelming nature of the event is giving way to shock and anger. What is also becoming clear is just how close US democracy came to dying.

Sliding Doors

The film Sliding Doors begins with two different scenarios in which the course of the main protagonist’s life depends on whether or not she catches the subway by milliseconds. The events of January 6 have a Sliding Doors quality to them.

It now seems the attack has backfired for Trump and turned into a political fiasco. That fiasco resonates with Adolf Hitler’s failed 1923 Munich Beer Hall putsch (German for coup) – though lest we get carried away, let us not forget Hitler returned and took power ten years later, and we all know what followed.

Hitler’s failed Munich putsch is one scenario. The other scenario is the Bolshevik Party’s seizure of power in St. Petersburg, Russia in October 1917. That coup succeeded and launched a totalitarian dictatorship that was to last almost seventy-five years.

It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Trump’s mob had been better organized and more ruthless, and in which they had seized Congress and summarily executed Democratic Senators and House members – along with Senator Mitt Romney, who has been heroic in his opposition to Trump. That would have left a rump majority of willing accomplice Republicans, plus a smaller group of Vichyssoise Republicans who meekly towed the line.

In that imagined scenario, Trump would have Read more…

Overconfident economists

January 9, 2021 3 comments

from Lars Syll

Worst of all, when we feel pumped up with our progress, a tectonic shift can occur, like the Panic of 2008, making it seem as though our long journey has left us disappointingly close to the State of Complete Ignorance whence we began …

overconfidenceIt often takes years down the Path, but sooner or later, someone articulates the concerns that gnaw away in each of us and asks if the Assumptions are valid …

It would be much healthier for all of us if we could accept our fate, recognize that perfect knowledge will be forever beyond our reach and find happiness with what we have …

Can we economists agree that it is extremely hard work to squeeze truths from our data sets and what we genuinely understand will remain uncomfortably limited? We need words in our methodological vocabulary to express the limits … Those who think otherwise should be required to wear a scarlet-letter O around their necks, for “overconfidence.”

Ed Leamer

Many economists regularly pretend to know more than they do. Often this is a conscious strategy to promote their authority in politics and among policy makers. When economists present their models it should be mandatory that the models have warning labels to alert readers to the limited real-world relevance of models building on assumptions known to be absurdly unreal. Read more…