Why testing axioms is necessary in economics

July 21, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Of course the more immediate target of Davidson in his formulation of the argument in the early 1980s was not Samuelson, but Lucas and Sargent and their rational expectations hypothesis … This was indeed the period when new classical economics was riding at its highest point of prestige, with Lucas and Sargent and their rational expectations assumption apparently sweeping the boards of any sort of Keynesian theories. Curiously, they did not seem to care whether the assumption was actually true, because it was “an axiom,” something that is assumed and cannot be tested …

requirements-based-testing-13-728This matter of “testing axioms” is controversial. Davidson is right that Keynes was partly inspired by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity that was based on a relaxation of the parallel axiom of Euclid. So, Davidson argued not unreasonably that he would also be inclined to wish to relax any ergodic axiom. However, of course, the rejection of the parallel postulate (or axiom) did come from empirical tests showing that it does not hold in space-time in general due to gravity curving it. So, the empirical testing of axioms is relevant, and the failure of the rational expectations axiom to hold empirically is certainly reasonable grounds for rejecting it.

J. Barkley Rosser Jr

On this Einstein and Keynes are of course absolutely right. Economics — in contradistinction to logic and mathematics — is an empirical science, and empirical testing of ‘axioms’ ought to be self-evidently relevant for such a discipline. For although the economist himself (implicitly) claims that his axiom is universally accepted as true and in now need of proof, that is in no way a justified reason for the rest of us to simpliciter accept the claim.   Read more…

Piketty et al. and Trumpism

from Edward Fullbrook

It seems generally agreed that populism tends to rise up after a prolonged period in which governing elites have blocked from public discussion the declining economic welfare of a significant proportion of the population. These declines take two forms, usually simultaneously and interdependently:

  1. A decline of income and wealth in absolute terms and/or relative to the elites and their agents.
  2. A decline in key characteristics of employment through time (quality, security, real and relative wage levels) creating persistent high level of unemployment.

Though the latter is interdependent with the former, the real level of unemployment can be hidden. Elected elites and their patrons have a strategic interest in holding back public awareness and discussion of both declines for fear of losing elections and for fear that the upward redistributions of income and wealth will be stopped or even reversed.

Until three years ago the ruling elites in the United States were extremely successful at keeping the severe upward income and wealth redistribution that had been “progressing” since the early 1970s out of public view. GINI coefficients and graphs showing from 1970 onwards median income levels and relative shares of the bottom 90% and bottom 50% were never part of public discussion and but rarely of economics. Instead income discussion focused tightly on GDP and GDP per capita, which with rare exceptions increased year by year.   Read more…

Economics as religion?

July 21, 2017 6 comments

from David Ruccio


Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.   Read more…

Adam Smith & the Invisible Hand

July 21, 2017 1 comment

from Asad Zaman

In response to a comment by David Chester regarding Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand, I am reproducing the section in the paper which deals with this issue. This answers his question about how what is attributed to Adam Smith differs from what he actually said.
[Excerpt from the paper: Failures of the Invisible Hand]

Section 6: Recent Vintage of the Invisible Hand

The main goal of this section is to show that the modern interpretation of the IH is relatively recent. The idea that Mankiw (together with other modern economists) attributes to Smith is not actually present in Smith’s writings. In fact, modern writers borrow the authority of Adam Smith to provide weight to a very dubious idea of recent coinage.

We first note that modern interpretation of the “IH” is radically different from any interpretation of this concept that existed before the second half of the twentieth century. There is a growing body of literature (e.g., Grampp, 2000; Minowitz, 2004) which insists that the metaphor used by Smith was never meant to be anything more than a metaphor, and that the meanings inferred from Smith’s idea of IH by the modern economists support only their own interpretation of economic policies. Kennedy (2009) shows that three leading modern economists laud the IH as the “profoundest” and “most influential” contribution of Adam Smith. Nonetheless, their interpretation of the term and its significance is not supported either by Adam Smith or by readers of Adam Smith until the late nineteenth century.

In a corpus of over a million words, the terms IH appears only twice in the economic writings of Adam Smith. It is used only once in the Wealth of Nations in very limited and narrow context. Rothschild (1994) analyses the controversy surrounding the meaning of IH and concludes that what Smith meant by this metaphor was only a “mildly ironic joke.” Blaug (2007) also shows that Adam Smith cannot be blamed for these ideas. He cites other references which state that:  read more

Are methodological discussions risky?

July 20, 2017 2 comments

from Lars Syll

Most mainstream economists are reluctant to have a methodological discussion. They usually think it’s too ‘risky.’

Well, maybe it is. But on the other hand, if we’re not prepared to take that risk, economics can’t progress, as Tony Lawson forcefully argues in his Essays on the Nature and State of Modern Economics:

Twenty common myths and/or fallacies of modern economics

1. The widely observed crisis of the modern economics discipline turns on problems that originate at the level of economic theory and/or policy.

onedoesIt does not. The basic problems mostly originate at the level of methodology, and in particular with the current emphasis on methods of mathematical modelling.The latter emphasis is an error given the lack of match of the methods in question to the conditions in which they are applied. So long as the critical focus remains only, or even mainly, at the level of substantive economic theory and/or policy matters, then no amount of alternative text books, popular monographs, introductory pocketbooks, journal or magazine articles … or whatever, are going to get at the nub of the problems and so have the wherewithal to help make economics a sufficiently relevant discipline. It is the methods and manner of their use that are the basic problem.

Read more…

Apologies not accepted

July 20, 2017 4 comments

from Peter Radford

OK, let me get back to it:

I have just read a set of short papers over at a journal aptly named Democracy. The papers are held together under the banner:Symposium: has Economics Failed Us?

Naturally that question was sufficient to get my attention, but reading through the material was so depressing.


Because there was Jason Furman offering a defense that has all the hallmarks of an economics profession steadfastly denying its own reality.

Dean Baker was brilliant in laying down the gauntlet: his analogy was perfect. He suggested that economics has become akin to an incompetent firefighting team. They sort of have useful ideas about how to put out fires, but fail spectacularly when called upon to do so because they are burdened by too much irrelevant or wrongheaded other ideas.

Worse Baker cites an example of how convoluted and inward looking economics has become: he tells us about a paper that ended up being published by Brookings only after his collaborators [Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman] added sufficient, and irrelevant, complexity to it that editors could take it seriously.

Form, it seems, wins over function every time. Someone is not a serious economist without the right accoutrements no matter whether all that dazzling complexity is relevant. Professional advancement, prestige, and success have to be bought by ensuring that even the simplest insight is made inscrutable to outsiders. Ultimately this leads, and has led, to self-delusion. Economics deserves to be laughed at precisely because it has become laughable. The sad part is that its practitioners, most of whom are honestly toiling away at something they love, do not understand what there profession looks or sounds like from the outside. They are reduced, by their well-meant self-belief, to defend what is an increasingly indefensible exercise.   Read more…

Inequality and climate change

July 19, 2017 4 comments

from David Ruccio

The effects of climate change are, as we know, distributed unequally across locations. Therefore, the damages from climate change—in terms of agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor—are expected to increase world inequality, by generating a large transfer of value northward and westward from poor to rich countries.

What about within countries—specifically, the United States?

A new report, published in Science, predicts the United States will see its levels of economic inequality increase due to the uneven geographical effects of climate change—resulting in “the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history,” according to Solomon Hsiang, the study’s lead author.   Read more…

Economics as a religion

July 19, 2017 3 comments

from Lars Syll

rapleyContrary to the tenets of orthodox economists, contemporary research suggests that, rather than seeking always to maximise our personal gain, humans still remain reasonably altruistic and selfless. Nor is it clear that the endless accumulation of wealth always makes us happier. And when we do make decisions, especially those to do with matters of principle, we seem not to engage in the sort of rational “utility-maximizing” calculus that orthodox economic models take as a given. The truth is, in much of our daily life we don’t fit the model all that well.

For decades, neoliberal evangelists replied to such objections by saying it was incumbent on us all to adapt to the model, which was held to be immutable – one recalls Bill Clinton’s depiction of neoliberal globalisation, for instance, as a “force of nature”. And yet, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent recession, there has been a turn against globalisation across much of the west …

Read more…

Women at work: global highlights

from Maria Alejandra Madi

The roots of gender and poverty studies began with Pearce (1978) who coined the expression ‘feminization of poverty’. Pearce considered female-headed families, excluding poor women who live in male- headed families, based on the argument that the proportion of families headed by women among the poor has been  increasing since the 1950s. In her opinion, women have become poorer because of their gender.

The recent dynamics of the global labour market has reinforced the precariousness of women’s employment and working conditions. Among other issues, the recent global highlights about the participation of women in the labour markets are listed below:

Unemployment: Women are more likely to be unemployed than men, with global unemployment rates of 5.5 per cent for men and 6.2 per cent for women

Informal Work:      In 2015, a total of 586 million women were own-account or contributing family workers. Many working women remain in occupations that are more likely to consist of informal work arrangements

Wage and salaried jobs: Moreover, 52.1 per cent of women and 51.2 per cent of men in the labour market are wage and salaried workers.

Jobs and occupations by economic sectors:  Globally, the services sector has overtaken agriculture as the sector that employs the highest number of women and men. In the period between 1995 and 2015, women are employed in the services sector: since 1995, women’s employment in services has increased from 41.1 per cent to 61.5 per cent.

High-skilled occupations: High-skilled occupations expanded faster for women than for men in emerging economies where there is a gender gap in high-skilled employment in women’s favour.

Part-time jobs: Globally, women represent less than 40 per cent of total  employment, but make up 57 per cent of those working on a part-time basis.

Hours of work: Across the global labour scenario, one fourth of women in employment (25.7 per cent) work more than 48 hours a week, mainly in Eastern , Western and Central Asia, where almost half of  women employed work more than 48 hours a week.

Gender wage gap: Globally, women earn 77 per cent of what men earn. 

Indeed, although women have been increasing their participation rate in the labor market in the last decades, they worked in more precarious occupations. This situation characterized by precarious jobs, mainly based on short-term contracts, enhances the vulnerability of workers, mainly women, as the financialization of management strategies turns out to be subordinated to economic efficiency targets, that shape employment relations, overwhelmed by longer working hours, job destruction, turnover and outsourcing. Workforce displacement and loss of rights could also be part of the spectrum of management alternatives aimed at cost reduction. In addition to the wage gap, women’s participation is stronger in the services sector where working hours are longer and wages lower.    read more

Modern economists: The Inept Firefighters’ Club

July 18, 2017 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Suppose that our fire department was staffed with out-of-shape incompetents who didn’t know how to handle a fire hose. That would be really bad news, but it wouldn’t be obvious most of the time because we don’t often see major fires. The inadequacy of the fire department would become apparent only when a major fire hit and we were left with a vast amount of unnecessary death and destruction. This is essentially the story of modern economics.

The problem is not that modern economics lacks the tools needed to understand the economy. Just as with firefighting, the basics have been well known for a long time. The problem is with the behavior and the incentive structure of the practitioners. There is overwhelming pressure to produce work that supports the status quo (i.e. redistributing to the rich), that doesn’t question authority, and that is needlessly complex. The result is a discipline in which much of the work is of little use, except to legitimate the existing power structure. In terms of the poor quality of work, it is easy to point to the failure to recognize the size and risks posed by the housing bubble in the last decade. This failure has been unbelievably costly to the United States and the rest of the world. If we compare the most recent estimates of the potential GDP of the U.S. economy from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with the projections made in 2008, before the severity of the crash was recognized, the difference is $1.8 trillion. This is an annual figure; it implies a loss of $18 trillion over the course of the decade. This amount averages out to more than $54,000 for every person in the country. Other countries have seen even larger losses.   Read more…

Rocking the boat

July 18, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio

As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.   Read more…

Why not even Paul Krugman is a real Keynesian

July 18, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll

Keynes’s insights have enormous practical importance, according to Lance Taylor and Duncan Foley …

But isn’t Keynes now mainstream? No, say Foley and Taylor. The mainstream still sees economies as inherently moving to an optimal equilibrium … It still says demand causes short-run fluctuations, but only supply factors, such as the capital stock and technology, can affect long-run growth.

EVEN PAUL KRUGMAN, a self-described Keynesian, Nobel laureate, and New York Times columnist, writes in the 2012 edition of his textbook: “In the long run the economy is self-correcting: shocks to aggregate demand affect aggregate output in the short run but not in the long run” …

KeynesUpsidedownKrugman does point to one exception: If interest rates are nearly zero, as during the financial crisis, markets lose restorative force. But, Taylor asks, what’s the logic?

Keynes saw capitalism’s general state as allowing almost arbitrary unemployment: hence his “General Theory.” Full employment was a lucky exception.

To Taylor, calling full employment the general state and allowing one unlucky exception turns Keynes upside down.

Jonathan Schlefer

Iy is difficult not to agree with Taylor and Foley. To a large degree one does get the impression that Krugman thinks he is a Keynesian because he is a stout believer in John Hicks IS-LM interpretation of Keynes.  Read more…

(Modified) Irish national income Q1, 2017.

Update 18-7-2017: see also, much more extensive and in depth but along the same lines, the Financial Times.

To circumvent the internationally approved rules of national accounting, irish economists developed new national income indicators: Modified Gross National Income and Modified Total Domestic Demand. They were right to do this. And these are not minor changes. Modified Income is almost a third (a third!) lower than ‘normal’ income. AlsoIn today’s quarterly results, the modified Total Domestic Demand indicator decreased by 2.7% in Quarter 1 2017, while the traditional indicator decreased by 17.3%’. Wow.

What are the differences between the indicators and why did the Irish statisticians do this? First, a quote from the press release of Irish National Income in Q1, 2017:

Modified GNI (or GNI*) is defined as GNI less the effects of the profits of re-domiciled companies and the depreciation of intellectual property products and aircraft leasing companies.  This new indicator of the level of the Irish economy will be a useful additional input to debt ratio analysis.

Modified Total Domestic Demand is defined as Total Domestic Demand less the effects of the trade in aircraft by aircraft leasing companies and the imports of intellectual property.  This modified indicator gives insight into the activity within the domestic economy and is designed to be more closely related to employment growth as it is focuses on the physical capital used to produce domestic output

Read more…

How rich would Bill Gates be without his copyright on Windows?

July 17, 2017 5 comments

from Dean Baker

Suppose we lived in a world where Bill Gates could not get copyright or patent protection for Windows and other Microsoft products. Anyone who wanted could duplicate these products without charge, sending Bill Gates a thank you note, if they were so inspired.

In that world, Bill Gates would certainly not be the world’s richest human with a fortune of more than $70 billion. Even without copyright protection Mr. Gates would probably still be doing fine — he seems reasonably bright, works hard and comes from a wealthy family — but he would not have amassed his huge fortune if he could not get government granted monopolies on his software.

This simple and obvious point matters because it is popular in many circles to claim that income inequality is just an inevitable, even if unfortunate, result of technology and globalization. In fact, there is nothing inevitable about patent and copyright protection; these monopolies exist as a result of government policy. The fact that Bill Gates and many others have gotten hugely rich as a result of these protections is a result of government policy, not an inevitable outcome of technological progress.  Read more…

‘Money as electricity’ – redux

July 17, 2017 4 comments

Morris_A__CopelandThe heterodox heritage of economic statistics is underestimated. Too often I encounter the idea that heterodox economics does not provide an alternative to mainstream economics, let alone economic measurement. Ahem. Instead of ignoring (data on) unemployment (Robert Lucas!) or ignoring (data on) money and the monetary system (more on this below), it were heterodox economists who set out to measure it. To quite an extent, economic statistics are the heterodox alternative people want to see, surely when it comes to macro-economics . If alone because unlike mainstream macro it does carefully define variables – modern science! The mainstream equivalent of the tedious statistical manuals which economic statistics use to do this is entirely absent! One example of such data are the Flow of Funds. Read more…

Technology, employment, and distribution

July 17, 2017 2 comments

from David Ruccio

New technologies—automationroboticsartificial intelligence—have created a specter of mass unemployment. But, as critical as I am of existing economic institutions, I don’t see that as the issue, at least at the macro level. The real problem is the distribution of the value that is produced with the assistance of the new technologies—in short, the specter of growing inequality.

David Autor and Anna Salomons (pdf) are the latest to attempt to answer the question about technology and employment in their contribution to the recent ECB Forum on Central Banking. Their empirical work leads to the conclusion that while “industry-level employment robustly falls as industry productivity rises. . .country-level employment generally grows as aggregate productivity rises.”

To me, their results make sense. But for a different reason.


It is clear that, in many sectors—perhaps especially in manufacturing—the growth in output (the red line in the chart above) is due to the growth in labor productivity (the blue line) occasioned by the use of new technologies, which in turn has led to a decline in manufacturing employment (the green line).   Read more…

The deadweight economy

July 16, 2017 4 comments

Is there a decoupling of economic growth and use of materials? On the national scale: sometimes. On the global scale: absolutely not. From The Journal of Industrial Ecology:

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 global material extraction and trade covering 40 years of global economic activity and natural resource use. This new data set is becoming the standard information source for decision making at the UN in the context of the post-2015 development agenda, which acknowledges the strong links between sustainable natural resource management, economic prosperity, and human well-being. 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. In this paper, we summarize the key findings of the assessment study to make the IE research community aware of this new global research resource. 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. This acceleration has occurred at a time when global population growth has slowed and global economic growth has stalled. The global surge in material extraction has been driven by growing wealth and consumption and accelerating trade. A material footprint perspective shows that demand for materials has grown even in the wealthiest parts of the world. Low-income countries have benefited least from growing global resource availability and have continued to deliver primary materials to high-income countries while experiencing few improvements in their domestic material living standards. Material efficiency, the amount of primary materials required per unit of economic activity, has declined since around 2000 because of a shift of global production from very material-efficient economies to less-efficient ones. This global trend of recoupling economic activity with material use, driven by industrialization and urbanization in the global South, most notably Asia, has negative impacts on a suite of environmental and social issues, including natural resource depletion, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and uneven economic development.

A new perspective on microfoundations

July 16, 2017 1 comment

from Lars Syll

Defenders of microfoundations and its rational expectations equipped representative agent’s intertemporal optimization often argue as if sticking with simple representative agent macroeconomic models doesn’t impart a bias to the analysis. I unequivocally reject that unsubstantiated view, and have given the reasons why here.

These defenders often also maintain that there are no methodologically coherent alternatives to microfoundations modeling. That allegation is of course difficult to evaluate, substantially hinging on how coherence is defined. But one thing I do know, is that the kind of microfoundationalist macroeconomics that New Classical economists and “New Keynesian” economists are pursuing, are not methodologically coherent according to the standard coherence definition (see e. g. here). And that ought to be rather embarrassing for those ilks of macroeconomists to whom axiomatics and deductivity is the hallmark of science tout court.


The fact that Lucas introduced rational expectations as a consistency axiom is not really an argument to why we should accept it as an acceptable assumption in a theory or model purporting to explain real macroeconomic processes (see e. g. here). And although virtually any macroeconomic empirical claim is contestable, so is any claim in micro (see e. g. here).

On this issue I think Paul Krugman comes closer to truth than his “New Keynesian” buddies with his remark that  Read more…

A job-killing robot for rich people

July 16, 2017 3 comments

from Dean Baker

In the last couple years, the financial transactions tax (FTT) has moved from a fringe idea to a policy proposal treated seriously by even the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The decision by Senator Bernie Sanders to make it a central part of his presidential campaign certainly helped, but a number of members of Congress, including Keith Ellison and Peter DeFazio, have also pushed FTT proposals for many years.

The FTT is also gaining momentum overseas. There’s a push to enact an FTT in the eurozone. And in England, an expanded FTT — the London stock exchange has long levied a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades — was included in the Labour Party’s platform in the recent election.

But while the idea of taxing financial transactions is growing more popular, even many of its proponents don’t realize its full benefits. An FTT is usually seen as a way to raise large amounts of revenue (in the US, it could possibly generate as much as $190 billion a year, or 1 percent of GDP). Or it is viewed as a means to limit speculative trading in the financial sector, potentially making markets less volatile.

The best argument for an FTT, however, is that it can sharply reduce some of the highest incomes in the economy by curtailing the trading that makes those incomes possible. As a result, it can play a large role in reversing the upward redistribution of income that we’ve seen over the last four decades.

Investors …   Read more…

‘Til debt do us part

July 15, 2017 2 comments

from David Ruccio

fredgraph (1)

Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire capitalism’s ingenuity.

It’s able to make profits twice over. First, capitalists know that, when they keep workers’ wages down—even when there’s “full employment”—they can make spectacular profits. And, second, they can make additional profits by loaning money to those same workers, who are desperate to purchase goods and services and send their children to college, thereby financing the demand for the goods and services industrial capitalists need to sell to realize their profits.

Thus, as we can see in the chart at the top of the post, the amount of consumer credit is once again soaring to record highs. In relation to personal income, consumer credit fell after the Great Recession (to just under 20 percent in December 2012)—as households “deleveraged”—and then it began to rise once again, reaching 23.3 percent four years later.  Read more…