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Basics

September 2, 2016 7 comments

from Peter Radford

For a variety of reasons I pulled Olivier Blanchard’s macroeconomics textbook off my shelf yesterday — I have the fifth edition which dates back to 2007. Or at least that’s how he begins his opening paragraph, he says he’s writing in mid-2007. So it would be easy to plunge into the book and start to look for evidence that Blanchard’s version of economics led us all to expect or predict the crisis that unfolded only a year later.

But that’s no what caught my eye. No I was interested in another aspect of the book: it has no introduction to what an economy is.

I find that strange. Very strange.

This is supposed to be a textbook about macroeconomics. The subject matter of macroeconomics is the economy, or, rather, aspects of the economy, but there’s no attempt to describe the economy. Instead it plunges in as if we all know what an economy is and that it is uncontroversial. It begins thus:

When macroeconomists study an economy, they first look at three variables:

  • Output — The level of production of the economy as a whole — and its rate of growth

  • The unemployment rate — The proportion of workers in the economy who are not employed and are looking for jobs

  • The inflation rate –the rate at which the average price of the goods in the economy is increasing over time”

So when macroeconomists study an economy they dive right in and study some variables. Do those variables describe what an economy is? They are clearly important, but why these three?  Read more…

Valuing Education?

August 30, 2016 1 comment

from Peter Radford

Ben Casselman at fivethirtyeight.com throws us some back to school numbers. They make for depressing reading. America is not committed to education, far from it. Priorities seem to be elsewhere. And short term thinking dominates. Here are a few key highlights:

  • The US had roughly 8.4 million teachers back in 2008. Now it has 8.2 million
  • This is despite adding about 1 million new students
  • So student/teacher ratios have risen back to levels last seen in the 1990’s
  • School funding has fallen 6.6% at the sate level, and 1% at the local level [local governments supply about 45% of all school funding]
  • Federal funding has increased but not by enough to prevent a total decline in funding of about 2.4% in real terms
  • Fifteen states cut funding between 2000 and 2014 by more than 10%, with Arizona leading the way by cutting around 25%
  • Some states have increased spending – oil boom rich North Dakota doubled spending between 2008 and 2014
  • Weekly wages for teachers have declined 5% over the last five years, causing teaching to become even less attractive as a career for college educated people
  • Things are about to get worse: baby boom retirement will put pressure on local and state budgets as health care costs rise and retirement costs need to be funded

Read more…

Open Ended [A note to myself]

August 23, 2016 21 comments

from Peter Radford

One of the major reasons, perhaps the major reason, economics is oftentimes irrelevant to our understanding of economies is that it fails to notice a rather salient fact: economies have no end. They have no beginning either. Or, rather, the choice of an ending or a beginning are merely arbitrary selections by an analyst needing to close up the system for analytical purposes. But this act of closure destroys the validity of any results from the subsequent analysis.

Why?

Precisely because economies have no end. They have no end as in purpose. They have no end as in time. They just are. They emerge from the myriad interactions of however many people exist at any point in time, they are channeled along a path highly dependent upon whatever happened recently, they are in constant turmoil and evolution, and they are driven by the availability of information and energy sufficient to do work and create local order. That’s it.

They don’t inevitably move towards equilibrium because it is impossible ever to reach such a point. Let me put that differently: even were the economy miraculously to arrive at some sort of equilibrium no one would know because the task of calculating whether or not it was is impossibly complex. So an equilibrium is unrecognizable. Besides, given the inexorable change, any possible equilibrium is so ephemeral as to be irrelevant. Instead of moving an economy towards equilibrium the twin pressures of supply and demand simply contrive to move it into tomorrow. Whatever that is. The economy is a process or a perpetual unfolding without end. It is in a constant state of becoming, but never actually of being.

Read more…

The Paradox of People

August 15, 2016 3 comments

from Peter Radford

Last week I stirred up a certain curiosity as to why I had lumped Peter Drucker into the same bag as both von Mises and Hayek.

Well, simply put, the three of them, along with Karl Popper and Joesph Schumpeter, had an enormous, even oversized, impact on modern economics. Yes economics. Let’s not fall into the same trap as economists do when they, with a sweep of their hands, dismiss business theory as not an aspect of economics. Of course it is. After all if business is not an aspect of the economy, what is?

In any case, the general point is that there is a distinct Austrian flavor to modern economic/business theory that can be traced back to the work of that group. More importantly, the influence of that group, particularly Hayek, was to emphasize the terrors and the tyranny of socialism to a degree that precludes social democracy as well. In the hands of their various followers that emphasis became exaggerated eventually emerging as doctrinaire anti-government theory.

We thus end up with a profound ideological stance as we enter economic thought: anything the government does almost invariably dilutes or pollutes the so-called perfection of the market. So deeply is this stance accepted that most economists fail to realize its political import: that the democratic expression of the people’s will through their elected representatives is viewed negatively automatically in economic thinking. What economists are saying is that the people are entirely rational in their economic dealings, thus producing the perfection of markets, but are irrational in their political dealings thus mucking up that same perfection. The contradiction is exquisite. The paradox unresolved. Read more…

Trump, denial and the end of normal

August 11, 2016 6 comments

from Peter Radford

Shocking is an understatement. Donald Trump is unfit for public office, be it town clerk or president of the US. He’s an unbalanced egomaniac. He’s a racist. He’s an immature misogynist. He’s many other awful things. Presidential, he is not.

How did we get here?

Failure. But a particular kind of failure. Failure dressed as success. A success so sweeping and deep that we hardly recognize the extent of the change that it wrought. Naturally I am speaking of the victory of neoliberal thought. Perhaps you were thinking of something else.

For a brief moment after World War II, for a generation and a bit, the western world basked in a quiescence of steady growth, political solidarity, industrial calm, and rising living standards. That much of this was an illusion, or rather a reflection of the prior chaos of the spasmodic ending of the elongated nineteenth century, we ignored. Instead we imagined that a new normal had emerged. Economic depressions had been defeated. Western Europe had settled its ancient scores. And America had emerged as a beacon of democratic freedom, albeit one willing to exert quasi-imperial tendencies in its foreign dealings. Compared with the authoritarian alternative of the Marxist east, America’s heavy hand was tolerable for a generation able to recall the terrors of 1914 through 1945.

This period, though, was bound to end. Within its fabric was an unrest bound to tear at the fragility of the apparent unity. Read more…

Spot the Crisis

July 24, 2016 7 comments

from Peter Radford

We hear it all the time. It is a relentless drum beat on the left. Capitalism, we are told, is in crisis. This crisis is manifested in all sorts of ways. We – meaning those of us on the left – need to prepare. We need to counter attack. We need to seize this moment and retrieve from the mess whatever we can. Democracy, in various forms depending on who is writing, is our way forward. Only through democracy can we save society from the crisis in capitalism.

Really?

Where, exactly is this crisis?

This occurs to me because at the same time leftist writers are proclaiming the existence of crisis they are often, simultaneously, proclaiming the ever increasing divide in social inequality as defined by income or wealth. Capitalists are doing quite nicely I would imagine if these concerns over inequality are correct. Which they are.

So, where, exactly, is this crisis?

If capitalists are taking and ever increasing share of the national income, if they are accumulating an ever increasing proportion of the national wealth, and if they have managed to wrestle effective control of the ship of state from the majority of ordinary folks, how can they be in crisis? I would argue that things look pretty dandy if you’re one of them.

There is no crisis in capitalism if you are a capitalist. You’re on a winning roll. You are loving life.

It’s the rest of us that have a problem. We are the ones mired in crisis. We don’t have a crisis of capitalism. We have a crisis because of capitalism. That’s a big difference.  Read more…

Partying like it’s 1848

July 18, 2016 11 comments

from Peter Radford

This is not a time to dwell on the inconsistencies and even contradictions of the recent uprising of populism in the western world. Treat it as a fact. It just is. For there can be no mistaking the trend: people, large numbers of people, in a large swathe of Europe and America really are unhappy with their lot in life. Really unhappy. Fully 52% of Republican supporters of Donald Trump tell pollsters that they are angry with the way the country is going. Not just unhappy or disappointed, but angry. Anger leads to really bad political decision making. It is not a constituent of reasoned argument. It leads too quickly to rash thought and even to hatred.

One theme that emerges from this populist moment is the identification of immigration as a source of concern. No, not just concern, but of deep unease. People in both the UK and the US can be heard demanding that they “get their country back”. Leaders in both nations have lamentably failed to identify the importance of immigration as a lightening rod for malaise. Nor have they reacted with anything sensible as policy.

Here in America the reason most often given for the failure to deal with immigration is the gridlock in Washington. It is impossible to begin a conversation about immigration policy because the pre-existing political positions are so well laid out and well established that any talk leads immediately to a conformation of gridlock. So stasis abounds and people get more and more impatient.

The same goes for economic policy. This is what interests me most of course. The failure of economics is breath-taking.  Read more…

Gordon, McCloskey and growing pains

June 3, 2016 3 comments

from Peter Radford

I try to take my own advice: when you have nothing to say, don’t say anything. Thus, for the best part of a month I have busied myself doing other things and staying away from here. It’s been a nice break, and here I am still convinced that there’s not much to say.

The economy is where it was. Economics is where it was. Politics is where it was. The three intermingle, mix, merge, separate and go their different ways in the same manner as before. The same complaints and criticisms are made. The same critics say the same things. Nothing it seems changes.

I think this is what equilibrium must feel like.

Now all I need is some exogenous event to come along and shake things up. You know, like someone being human and changing their mind.

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy. Far from it. I dived deeply into growth. Or, as it turns out, the undergrowth, since the entire topic seems infested with weeds and a tangle of interwoven branches that can easily ensnare the unwary.  Read more…

Why Trump?

from Peter Radford  and  the WEA Newsletter

I have become so enmeshed in political activity here that I rarely have time to reflect on the strangeness of it all. Why Trump? Why now? But I was prompted to think a little harder about it when I re-read the following in Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”:

“Market society was born in England – yet it was on the Continent that its weaknesses engendered the most tragic complications. In order to comprehend German fascism, we must revert to Ricardian England.”

Now I don’t want to plunge into a detailed re-capitulation of inter-war history – that is not my point. I want to focus our attention on the analogy Polanyi brings to mind, and especially how deeply ideas can scar a society when they are applied with religious ferocity without regard to their flaws.

Nor do I want to re-litigate the entire argument about neoclassical economics. Frankly I am tired of wasting my time. If the preponderance of economists want to disconnect from reality, then who am I to argue? Let them. And ignore them. Their ignorance of the real world is both willful and necessary for the alternative world in which they think to cohere. So be it.

But…  Read more…

Market Reflex

April 28, 2016 12 comments

from Peter Radford

There are a few thoughts or words in a normal economics discourse that trigger what I call my ‘market reflex’.  Asad Zaman just triggered it. Of course he didn’t mean to, and the sentence in question is in an article I agree with. Further, the sentence, on the surface, looks and sounds so innocuous. Here it is:

“Free market economists believe that markets work best when left alone, and any type of government intervention to help the economy can only have harmful effects”

See what I mean? Innocuous. Asad is totally correct, they do think that. Worse: they mean it. And even more worse: they teach it.

Which gets me truly bothered.

The entire enterprise of contemporary economics, aside from its fringes, is built on this shady and unsubstantiated premiss.  It’s shady because it is laden with ideological bias, and it’s unsubstantiated because, well, its unsubstantiated.

Which gets me even more annoyed.  Read more…

Too expensive?

April 25, 2016 9 comments

from Peter Radford

Some things get too expensive. When they do, people tend to buy less. Duh. This quite simple and intuitive observation sits at the heart of all that fancy math we call economics. We don’t need the math to understand the relationship between the cost of, and the demand for, something, but having lots of complicated looking equations gives us comfort: there is a universal law lurking in the intuition. With exceptions of course. This is, after all, economics. There are always exceptions.

One of the things that is getting too expensive, if it hasn’t already arrived there, is higher education. The cost of going to college is becoming prohibitive. Sooner or later the cost of college will cut into the demand for education.

Just as it ought.

In our contemporary economy we are accustomed to being told that ever higher levels of education are not just desirable, but they are essential. One idea endlessly tossed about, especially on the right in politics, is that our workers are insufficiently skilled to compete with their foreign peers, and so the nation is at risk of losing its competitive edge. This is then twisted into the follow-up idea that we need a higher percentage of our population at college.

But what happens when we arrive at saturation? What is saturation? What is the value of a college degree when everyone, or nearly everyone, has one? Do we all then need to go on and get a post-graduate education? And once we all have PhD’s, then what?

Clearly there is something amiss in the thinking.  Read more…

Hope 101?

April 23, 2016 1 comment

from Peter Radford

A nice way to end the week:

I overheard a conversation between two high school students this morning.

The first person was asking about which classes the second was going to take next. One of those mentioned was microeconomics.

“Oh, that’s easy” said the first, “You just have to remember that its all rubbish – they want you to believe that people are rational, and that there’s all this perfection in the world.”

“Really?” responded the second, “That’s really dumb. I wonder why they do that?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s economics”

“Well maybe I’ll take history instead, at least I might learn something useful.”

And, yes, this was the conversation.

A small ray of hope?

 

101 or Not 101- Uber Knows?

April 22, 2016 4 comments

from Peter Radford

Paul Krugman has this in his blog today:

The name is a takeoff on Noah Smith’s clever writing about “101ism”, in which economics writers present Econ 101 stuff about supply, demand, and how great markets are as gospel, ignoring the many ways in which economists have learned to qualify those conclusions in the face of market imperfections. His point is that while Econ 101 can be a very useful guide, it is sometimes (often) misleading when applied to the real world.

My point is somewhat different: even when Econ 101 is right, that doesn’t always mean that it’s important – certainly not that it’s the most important thing about a situation. In particular, economists may delight in talking about issues where 101 refutes naïve intuition, but that doesn’t at all mean that these are the crucial policy issues we face.

So why is 101 what it is?

Read more…

New York stops the revolution in economics too?

April 21, 2016 5 comments

from Peter Radford

Yesterday’s election result in New York State effectively ended Bernie Sander’s tilt at the Democratic windmill. Here’s what I wrote to a friend who was intent on parsing the numbers:

And, the point is?

We can analyze all we want. It doesn’t alter the result. It provides nice fodder for coffee shop talk, but doesn’t help anyone.

It’s time to move on. Bernie will keep going. Clinton will become even more annoyingly patronizing. Her surrogates [like Krugman] will gloat. She will likely win in November. And America will struggle on regardless.

Clearly 2016 is not the year of change. It is a year of upheaval on the right, complacency in the center, and only the beginnings of rebirth on the left.

I never imagined that the Democrats would be the party of centrist corporate establishment thought. Or that it would be the Democrats enforcing the wishes of big business over and above those of the working people. But that’s where we are.

I suppose none of this is a surprise. The total dominance of social/cultural issues as a defining line in politics has obscured the equally powerful dominance of right wing economics across the board. Neoliberalism is the monotone ideology of both parties.

The revolution will have to wait.

Buried in there is my attitude towards economics. By enabling neoliberal ideology, and following the lead of Hayek and Friedman, economics debases the role of liberal democracy and representative government. This casts a long dark shadow across the subject.

Read more…

Pre-existence

April 19, 2016 2 comments

from Peter Radford

One of the mysteries of economics is its contemporary willingness to ignore everything around it. Economists act as if the economy they study is easily isolated from its surroundings and thus immune to the trends, problems, and changes that go on in those surroundings. Indeed this isolationism is a key component of economics because it allows the profession to preserve and bolster its pretense to being scientific.  It allows economists to chat away blithely without concern for the web of entanglement within which actual economies reside. Instead they can pretend to have discovered timeless regularities that allow the ‘system’ to glide smoothly and effortlessly towards a singularity, unsullied by the nastiness of the self-same system’s attachment to other social realities.

It is thus that economists indulge in their fantasies of social physics, and consign anything that interrupts the aforementioned smooth glide to the horrible non-economic netherworld known as ‘exogenous’ forces.

A netherworld which you and I refer to as ‘life’.

It is as if the economy was plopped pristine into a pre-existing reality, with the shape of that pre-existence fitted perfectly to conform with the analytical demands of economics.   Read more…

Flat Earth Rules (chart)

April 2, 2016 5 comments

from Peter Radford

Economists, especially mainstream economists, often like to ignore the real world consequences of their theories. Instead they prefer to hide away pretending that their conversations and ideas leave no imprint on society, and that their simple little models are just representations designed to cut through the tangle of reality to get at some core truth. Only in the grand world of macroeconomics is this not true. There, economists love to strut about as if they hold the keys to universal insights untroubled by the somewhat ambiguous results their ideas appear to inflict on the rest of us.

The fact that there are economists on all three sides of any two sided argument ought be sufficient to let us know that their insights are a little vague, and highly dependent on each individual economists worldview. Economics, it seems sometimes, is little more that highly formalized opinion. Read more…

Am I an economist?

March 14, 2016 9 comments

from Peter Radford

Who knows?

If measured by the standards of the current elite of the subject, then clearly not. I am apostate. I am an outsider.

Let me explain: I had the good fortune to attend The London School of Economics – I only mention this because it is important later in the story. It was too long ago for me to recall all that I studied there, but my concentration was what was then called Diplomatic History. What they call it now I have no idea. The only course in economics that I took was the common first year class for those who were not going on to become economists. I can, at this distance, only assume that the class was designed to be less specialized. Somehow I dimly recall the name Alchian. I do remember, however, getting stuck in the elevator with Lord Robbins as we both were on our way to his history of economics class. The book based on that class – although produced much later – still has pride of place on my book shelf.

Now this does not mean that I wasn’t interested in economics. My decisions back then were much more driven by my greater affinity for history rather than a distaste for what economics was, or was about to become.

Read more…

Why Trump?

March 13, 2016 13 comments

from Peter Radford

I have become so enmeshed in political activity here that I rarely have time to reflect on the strangeness of it all. Why Trump? Why now? But I was prompted to think a little harder about it when I re-read the following in Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”:

“Market society was born in England – yet it was on the Continent that its weaknesses engendered the most tragic complications. In order to comprehend German fascism, we must revert to Ricardian England.”

Now I don’t want to re-litigate the entire argument about neoclassical economics. Frankly I am tired of wasting my time. If the preponderance of economists want to disconnect from reality, then who am I to argue? Let them. And ignore them. Their ignorance of the real world is both willful and necessary for the alternative world in which they think to cohere. So be it.

But.

For those of us who value economics as an understanding of a critical part of social reality we must insist that those inhabiting that alternative world take full responsibility for the outcome of their ideas if, and when, those ideas are allowed to seep into actual policy making. They must be blamed. And we ought to demand an explanation as to why the imposition of fanciful ideas onto an unsuspecting world, with the core consequences now becoming apparent, is at all ethical.

Read more…

Trumped?

March 2, 2016 5 comments

from Peter Radford

My head hurts this morning. I don’t know why I would be so disoriented by Trump’s continued rise to power, it was, after all very predictable once he entered the race, but it still hurts.

And, yes, it was predictable.

The Republican party has steadily vanished into a haze of obstreperous religious business driven drivel from which only a far right populist could ever emerge with any coherence. One of the great laughs anyone can have in this current peculiar electoral season is to listen to a Republican claim that Trump doesn’t belong in the party of Lincoln.

That’s true. He doesn’t. But the Republicans are not the party of Lincoln. They co-opted the name and perverted it. In most ways they are now the exact opposite. Especially when you take the scarcely veiled racism of their state level activists into account. We only have to look at the many local efforts to limit access to the polls – all in the pure name of being opposed to voter fraud – that disproportionately affect African-American voters. Guess which states those efforts are most advanced. I’ll give you a one word clue: Confederacy.

Read more…

What would Smith say?

February 25, 2016 16 comments

from Peter Radford

Sometimes I pity poor Adam Smith. I really do. He’s an accidental icon of all that’s wrong in economics. And let’s face it that’s a lot of wrong to be an icon of. How many times have we all been reminded that his metaphorical reference to an invisible hand performing some wild and strange magic is the root of most modern economics? And how often are we reminded that he used those words just once in a book of over eight hundred pages?

The invisible hand was just not that important to Smith. He didn’t mean to launch economics into a century or more of quixotic and ever more bizarre search for something that he meant as a passing reference to the superficial order he saw around him.

Smith spent no more time on the invisible hand metaphor than he did on other phrases that are much more concrete. How about this one: Read more…