Axioms — things to be suspicious of

October 18, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll

miracle_cartoonTo me, the crucial difference between modelling in physics and in economics lies in how the fields treat the relative role of concepts, equations and empirical data …

An economist once told me, to my bewilderment: “These concepts are so strong that they supersede any empirical observation” …

Physicists, on the other hand, have learned to be suspicious of axioms. If empirical observation is incompatible with a model, the model must be trashed or amended, even if it is conceptually beautiful or mathematically convenient.

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud

The Republican tax plan to slow growth

October 17, 2017 2 comments

from Dean Baker

In the speech where President Reagan launched his push for the last major tax reform in 1986, he criticized a tax code that “treats people’s earnings, similar incomes, much differently regarding the tax that they pay; and… causes some to invest their money, not to make a better mousetrap but simply to avoid a tax trap.” He was right to make these criticisms.

Unfortunately the current Republican plan goes in the opposite direction in two important areas: the treatment of the income from “pass-through” businesses and the taxation of the foreign earnings of U.S. corporations. By creating more opportunities for tax avoidance, the Republicans will be doing exactly what Reagan condemned, creating opportunities to make money through tax avoidance schemes rather than work and productive investment. For this reason, it could actually impede growth rather than being the promised boost to a slow growing economy.

The issue with income from pass-through corporations is straightforward. Pass-through corporations pay zero tax; all their profits are passed through to their owners who currently pay tax on them at the ordinary income tax rate.

The Republicans are proposing to change this system by having a special 25 percent maximum tax rate on income from pass-through corporations. Under their plan, a high income person who got their money from their job would face a 35 percent marginal tax rate, whereas a person who got the same income from a pass-through corporation would only pay a 25 percent rate.

Read more…

Tackle this!

October 16, 2017 8 comments

from David Ruccio

Inequality

The latest IMF Fiscal Monitor, “Tackling Inequality,” is out and it represents a direct challenge to the United States.

Read more…

AM02: Supply & Demand

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

from Asad Zaman

2nd Lecture (90min) on Advanced Microeconomics at PIDE, (14 Sep 2017). While planning to teach a heterodox micro course, I was faced with the dilemma of choosing a suitable textbook. Interestingly, there are many options available, but I was not happy with most of them. Some were too mathematical for my taste, some made too many concessions to conventional micro while being critical of it, and some were simply not suitable for use as texts. Eventually, I decided to use Rod Hill and Tony Myatt’s: The economics anti-textbook: a critical thinker’s guide to microeconomics. Zed Books Ltd., 2010. I am very pleased with this choice. It provides contact with conventional micro that we need, together with a critique that is easy to understand, and can be used as a basis for construction of good alternative approaches.

I started the course (first lecture was preliminary introduction to methodology and approach) by covering Chapter 3: How Markets Work (In an imaginary world) of the H&M anti-textbook. This chapter attacks the central Supply and Demand model which is at the heart of mainstream micro in a beautiful and elegant way. I am impressed! I have myself written what I thought (and still think) is a very good critique (see The Conflict between General Equilibrium and the Marshallian Cross). I have also seen other critiques (like Sraffa). But H&M pointed out an angle that I had not considered before. They survey conventional textbooks to pick out the main message being conveyed in the S&D model and its policy implications. Then they show that the S&D model is heavily dependent upon the assumptions of perfect competition, which require small price-taking firms, full information and zero transaction costs. All conclusions of S&D and policy implications fail when firms have market power, and the reverse policy ocnclusions can be easily derived.   read more

Thaler and behavioural economics — some critical perspectives

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Although discounting empirical evidence cannot be the right way to solve economic issues, there are still, in my opinion, a couple of weighty reasons why we perhaps shouldn’t be too excited about the so-called ’empirical revolution’ in economics.

behBehavioural experiments and laboratory research face the same basic problem as theoretical models — they are built on often rather artificial conditions and have difficulties with the ‘trade-off’ between internal and external validity. The more artificial conditions, the more internal validity, but also less external validity. The more we rig experiments to avoid the ‘confounding factors’, the less the conditions are reminiscent of the real ‘target system.’ The nodal issue is how economists using different isolation strategies in different ‘nomological machines’ attempt to learn about causal relationships. One may have justified doubts on the generalizability of this research strategy since the probability is high that causal mechanisms are different in different contexts and that lack of homogeneity and invariance doesn’t give us warranted export licenses to the ‘real’ societies or economies.   Read more…

The New Paradigm that emerged in economic s after WWII

October 14, 2017 15 comments

from Robert Locke

As an historian, I am somewhat appalled at the inability of economists, including those on this blog to get the history of their own discipline straight.  The obsession has been with neoclassical economic’s attempt to turn economics into a physico-mathematical discipline as Walras phrased it, and the economists usually discuss this attempt within the historical context of their discipline pre-1945, with references, to  Walras, Marshall, Keynes, and others.

It  became clear to me over thirty years ago, that the neoclassical  effort to turn economics into a prescriptive science had failed before WWII.  I based this on good authority, when I read the following in the foreword to John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s now classic book published at Princeton UP in 1944, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior:

“The concepts of economics are fuzzy but even in those parts of economics where the descriptive problems have been handled more satisfactorily, mathematical tools have seldom been used appropriately. Mathematical economics has not achieved very much.”

If the mathematics of preWWII neoclassical economics had not achieved very much as a prescriptive science, then why study their work?  That is what Neumann and Morgenstern were asking.  The mathematics in Game theory, e.g., matrix theory and probability theory were not part of the mathematical toolkit of neoclassical economists prior to WWII.  Read more…

The International Monetary Fund’s world economic outlook in theory and practice

October 13, 2017 2 comments

from Mark Weisbrot

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its biannual “World Economic Outlook” (WEO) today, presenting a 300-page overview of the world economy and where it might be going. The Fund is one of the most powerful and influential financial institutions in the world. Despite the fact that this flagship publication, and the Fund’s hundreds of PhD economists, missed the two biggest asset bubbles in US and world history (the stock market bubble in the late 1990s and the housing bubble that triggered the Great Recession), the WEO is taken very seriously and contains much valuable data and analysis.

The fall WEO is relatively upbeat for the world economy in the short run but is more worried about downside risks in the medium term. It lists a number of concerns that anyone who cares about social or economic justice, or progress, would be concerned with, such as:

the recent surprisingly slow growth of nominal wages, which reinforces a longer trend of stagnant median wages, rising income inequality, and job polarization such that middle-skill but well-paying jobs have become increasingly scarce.

And the Fund argues that “governments should also consider correcting distortions that may have reduced workers’ bargaining power excessively” and “promote an environment conducive to sustainable real wage growth” as well as  Read more…

Keynes — the first behavioural economist

October 13, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

To-day, in many parts of the world, it is the serious embarrassment of the banks which is the cause of our gravest concern …

[The banks] stand between the real borrower and the real lender. They have given their guarantee to the real lender; and this guarantee is only good if the money value of the asset belonging to the real borrower is worth the money which has been advanced on it.

It is for this reason that a decline in money values so severe as that which we are now experiencing threatens the solidity of the whole financial structure. Banks and bankers are by nature blind. They have not seen what was coming. Some of them … employ so-called “economists” who tell us even to-day that our troubles are due to the fact that the prices of some commodities and some services have not yet fallen enough, regardless of what should be the obvious fact that their cure, if it could be realised, would be a menace to the solvency of their institution. A “sound” banker, alas! is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.   Read more…

Kevin Warsh as Fed Chair: The art of marrying rich and falling upward

October 12, 2017 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Since the dawn of time men have married into prominent families as a way to improve their career prospects, but as Jared Kushner can attest, the returns to marrying well have never been greater. We may see further proof of this proposition if Donald Trump selects Kevin Warsh to replace Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

Like Kushner, Warsh’s secret to success seems to rest largely on the family he married into. Warsh’s father-in-law is the billionaire Ronald Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and a major Republican Party donor. 

If Warsh were picked his background would provide a sharp contrast to that of Janet Yellen. Yellen developed a reputation as a highly respected academic economist, having taught at both Berkeley and Harvard, and published dozens of articles in top journals. She went to Washington to become a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors under President Clinton and then served as the chair of his Council of Economic Advisers. She then served as president of the San Francisco Fed district bank, before being appointed as vice-chair by President Obama. She was elevated to chair in 2013 after Ben Bernanke completed his second term.

She not only has held top positions, but she has had a good track record in her performance in these positions. Notably, she began to be concerned about the fallout from the collapse of the housing bubble in early 2007.  Read more…

Nobel economics: the behaviorism of economic decisions and its secret

October 12, 2017 11 comments

from David Ruccio

Lots of folks have been asking me about the significance of the so-called Nobel Prize in economics that was awarded yesterday to Richard Thaler.

They’re interested because they’ve read or heard about the large catalog of exceptions to the usual neoclassical rule of rational decision-making that has been compiled by Thaler and other behavioral economists.

One of my favorites is the “ultimatum game,” in which a player proposes an allocation of an endowment (say $5) and the second player can accept or reject the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, both players get paid according to the proposal; if the proposal is rejected, both players get nothing. What Thaler and his coauthors found is that most of the second players would reject proposals that would give them less than 25 percent of the endowment—even though, rationally, they’d be better off with even one penny in the initial offer. In other words, many individuals are willing to pay a cost (i.e., get nothing) in order to punish individuals who make an “unfair” proposal to them. Such a notion of fairness is anathema to the kind of self-interested, rational decision-making that is central to neoclassical economic theory.  Read more…

Microeconomics: an Islamic approach

October 11, 2017 8 comments

from Asad Zaman

At the heart of modern economic theory is the micro-economic model of homo economicus, who is cold, calculating and callous. This picture of humans as heartless rational robots is what leads to “Poisoning the Well: How Economic Theory damages our moral imagination” (Julie Nelson). I have provided a thorough critique of neoclassical utility theory in my paper:  The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Review of the Literature,” International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2012, pp. 366-414. However, as Thomas Kuhn noted, paradigms cannot be changed by critiques; they can only be changed by providing an alternative paradigm. Thus to oppose neoclassical utility theory, we need an alternative model for human behavior. For western theorists, a natural alternative is the secular humanist model, which allows for a wide range of cognitive and emotive functions not captured in economics. For my purposes, Islam provide a more relevant model of human beings as having spiritual, emotional and rational dimensions. This model speaks directly to my audience.

It is also true that, regardless of how we try, it is impossible to do economics without notions of morality, justice, equity and fair-play. Currently economics pretends to be positive, which means that it sneaks in very questionable (indeed, poisonous) value judgments (like that of Gauthier) into the framework, without explicit discussion. I have explained how the apparently objective concept of scarcity is actually built upon hidden foundations of three major value judgments about exogeneity of tastes, sacredness of property rights, and the idea that (unobservable) human welfare directly corresponds to  (observable) human choice behavior:; see  the normative foundations of scarcity.real-world economics review, issue no. 61. 22. Again to oppose neoclassical micro, we must introduce an alternative ethical and moral framework. Here again it suits my purpose and my audience to use an Islamic framework for this purpose.

Below, I provide a link to a summary of the first lecture I gave, in a unique course on Microeconomics.  read more

Nudges, individual behavior and neoliberalism

from Maria Alejandra Madi

The concept of nudge became popular after the publication of the 2008 book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, written by Cass Sunstein and the most recent Nobel Laureate, Richard Thaler.  According to the authors, nudge refers to “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not” (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).

In a previous paper, Thaler and Sunstien (2003) highlighted the paternalistic intention and the libertarian tone that overwhelm the concept. As a result, while policymakers shape contexts of individual choice towards optimal policy goals, individuals are free to choose.

Currently, nudges are used to foster social policy goals, such as the so called consumer protection. The aim of the nudge approach is both to test non-coercive alternatives to traditional regulation and to enhance cooperation between the public and the private sector.  Indeed, after 2008, a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was created in the UK and in many others countries – like Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, U.S. and Qatar. Since 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the UK has been exploring and testing policy options by means of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Taking into account the American experience, the Obama’s administration stimulated the introduction of nudges in new regulations to generate welfare with cost effectiveness.

Considering this background, the relevant question is: which are the reasons that explain the increasing acceptance of the nudge approach to public policy?      read more

Nobel Committee making a colossal fool of itself

October 10, 2017 3 comments

from Lars Syll

In its ‘scientific background’ description on the 2017 ‘Nobel prize’ in economics, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences writes (emphasis added):

dumstrut-317x330In order to build useful models, economists make simplifying assumptions. A common and fruitful simplification is to assume that agents are perfectly rational. This simplification has enabled economists to build powerful models to analyze a multitude of different economic issues and markets.

 

badluck

What absolute nonsense! Writing this and at the same time giving the prize to an economist that has devoted his whole career to show how utterly wrong this modelling strategy is, is truly an amazing case of having bad luck when thinking …

Richard Thaler gets the 2017 ‘Nobel prize’

October 10, 2017 13 comments

from Lars Syll

150511_tbq_thaler_portraitToday The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that it  has decided to award The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2017 to Richard Thaler.

A good choice for once!

To yours truly Thaler’s main contribution has been to show that one of the main building blocks of modern mainstream economics — expected utility theory — is fundamentally wrong.

If a friend of yours offered you a gamble on the toss of a coin where you could lose €100 or win €200, would you accept it? Probably not. But if you were offered to make one hundred such bets, you would probably be willing to accept it, since most of us see that the aggregated gamble of one hundred 50–50 lose €100/gain €200 bets has an expected return of €5000 (and making our probabilistic calculations we find out that there is only a 0.04% risk of losing any money).

Unfortunately – at least if you want to adhere to the standard neoclassical expected utility maximization theory – you are then considered irrational! A mainstream neoclassical utility maximizer that rejects the single gamble should also reject the aggregate offer.

In Matthew Rabin’s and Richard Thaler’s modern classic Risk Aversion it is forcefully and convincingly shown that expected utility theory does not explain actual behaviour and choices.  Read more…

Modern macro-economics and the sad truth about decoupling

October 9, 2017 1 comment

Decoupling is the idea that when societies get richer, additional units of GDP will require less physical resources and will produce less carbon dioxide. This seems true when we look at national rich country production data. But it is not true when we look at rich country consumption data – as we outsourced energy and material intensive parts of producing our consumption goods to developing countries. We really have to blame our consumption pattern… Look here for an article of Mir and Storm (2016) about this; importantly they used a new comprehensive international database to derive these results. Schandle et al (2017) derive a somewhat comparable result from another new database (and look here for the present shortage of sand):

The international industrial ecology (IE) research community and United Nations (UN) Environment have, for the first time, agreed on an authoritative and comprehensive data set for globalmaterial extraction and trade covering 40 years of global economic activity and natural resource use… Only if economic growth and human development can become substantially decoupled from accelerating material use, waste, and emissions can the tensions inherent in the Sustainable Development Goals be resolved and inclusive human development be achieved. … The global results show a massive increase in materials extraction from 22 billion tonnes (Bt) in 1970 to 70 Bt in 2010, and an acceleration in material extraction since 2000

Read more…

Inequality and immiseration (4 graphs)

October 9, 2017 3 comments

from David Ruccio

It’s clear that, for decades now, American workers have been falling further and further behind. And there’s simply no justification for this sorry state of affairs—nothing that can rationalize or excuse the growing gap between the majority of people who work for a living and the tiny group at the top.

But that doesn’t stop mainstream economists from trying.

fredgraph

Look, they say, American workers are clearly better off than they were before. Both real weekly earnings (the blue line in the chart) and the median household income (the red line) are higher than they were thirty years ago.   Read more…

Yes, economics has a problem with women

October 8, 2017 3 comments

from Julie Nelson

Yes, economics has a problem with women. In the news recently we’ve heard about the study of the Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) on-line forum. Student researcher Alice H. Wu found that posts about women were far more likely to contain words about their personal and physical issues (including “hot,” “lesbian,” “cute,” and “raped” ) than posts about men, which tended to focus more on academic and professional topics. As a woman who has been in the profession for over three decades, however, this is hardly news.

Dismissive treat of women, and of issues that impact women more than men, comes not only from the sorts of immature cowards who vent anonymously on EJMR, but even from men who probably don’t think of themselves as sexist. And because going along with professional fashion may be necessary for advancement, women economists also sometimes play along with the dominant view.

Consider a few other cases I’ve noticed during my thirty years in the profession:   Read more…

Geography as an Example

October 7, 2017 3 comments

from Peter Radford

Let me be very quick:

Geography is not taught [if it is taught at all] as if there are no rivers, mountains, plains, valleys, coasts, seas, or oceans. Cities, towns, villages and the networks that connect them exist in even the most elementary geography lesson. Geographers don’t begin their lessons by ignoring reality. They dive right in and use the real world as the backdrop for teaching the processes and forces that result in what we actually see.

So why does economics not start this way?

Why does economics begin with the unreal and then make a sequence of adjustments to get closer to reality? Perhaps it’s because geographers cannot hide reality from their students: its all around us everyday. But economists are dealing with something more abstract, so they can get away with beginning with fantasy.

We can argue back and forth over how close economics ever gets to reality, but few would argue that economics 101 is far too simple a view and is far too riddled with unworldly assumptions to be of much value as a description of real economies.  Read more…

Why game theory will be nothing but a footnote in the history of social science

October 6, 2017 15 comments

from Lars Syll

Nash equilibrium has since it was introduced back in the 50’s come to be the standard solution concept used by game theorists. The justification for its use has mainly built on dubious and contentious assumptions like ‘common knowledge’ and individuals exclusively identified as instrumentally rational. And as if that wasn’t enough, one actually, to ‘save’ the Holy Equilibrium Grail, has had to further make the ridiculously unreal assumption that those individuals have ‘consistently aligned beliefs’ — effectively treating different individuals as incarnations of the microfoundationalist ‘representative agent.’

In the beginning — in the 50’s and 60’s — hopes were high that game theory would enhance our possibilities of understanding/explaining the behaviour of interacting actors in non-parametric settings. And this is where we ended up! A sad story, indeed, showing the limits of methodological individualism and instrumental rationality.

Why not give up on the Nash concept altogether? Why not give up the vain dream of trying to understand social interaction by reducing it to something that can be analyzed within a grotesquely unreal model of instrumentally interacting identical robot imitations?  Read more…

Promises, promises (3 graphs)

October 6, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio

They keep promising, ever since the recovery from the Great Recession started more than eight years ago, that workers’ wages will finally begin to increase. But they’re not.

Sure, profits continue to rise. And so is the stock market. But not wages. And mainstream economists can’t come up with an adequate explanation of why that’s the case.

U3-wages

We’ve all heard or read the story. According to mainstream economists, as the unemployment rate falls (the blue line in the chart above), a labor shortage will be created and workers’ wages (the red line) will begin to rise.   Read more…