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1937

December 30, 2017 2 comments

from Peter Radford

Hayek says this:

“The problem which we pretend [to] solve is how the spontaneous interaction of a number of people, each possessing only bits of knowledge, brings about a state of affairs in which prices correspond to costs, etc., and which could be brought about by deliberate direction only by somebody who possesses the combined knowledge of all those individuals … “

This is from his essay ‘Economics and Knowledge’ which was published in 1937.

Hayek’s thrust is, of course, to demolish the notion that an economy can be centrally planned to any degree of efficiency. His argument is simplicity itself: the body of knowledge that exists within an economy is so asymmetrically distributed, so extensive, and so diverse, that it is not possible for anyone sitting at the center to know whether their proposals and policies are the “best” solution to whatever problem is being solved.

The “we” in that first sentence is the economics profession — his essay is based on his 1936 presidential address to the London Economic Club, so he addressing an audience of economists and attacking their assumption that everyone knows everything, which is really an assumption to make modeling more tractable rather than an effort to understand the world.

And I think he’s correct.

Knowledge is scattered about the economic landscape. It is clumpy rather than smoothly available to everyone. People hoard and protect knowledge in order to extract value from it. A pictorial representation of the spread of knowledge would look decidedly granular.

But having made this point, Hayek then goes on to commit an error:  Read more…

Consistency is the …

December 12, 2017 14 comments

from Peter Radford

Well, at least I am being consistent. Whether that’s being a good thing or not I will leave to you to figure out.

David Brooks set me off on a rant a few days ago, and he’s doing it again. I have to stop reading his columns. Last time it was about the rotting Republican Party: Brooks is one of those people who realized way too late that the GOP of yore disappeared long ago and has been replaced by a mash-up of far right cause driven groups smeared together with a good dose of corporatism. A good example being Trump who managed to win the last election by appealing to enough disgruntled and disaffected voters with exhilarating visions of smashing up the ossified Washington consensus and replacing it with something more responsive to everyday voter needs. Except, as we now know, Trump is every inch a corporatist and has absolutely no intention of following through on his promises. I must admit I admire the loyalty of his supporters who have yet to realize the extent of his betrayal of their support. It must be that they mistake the cloud of dust raise by his myopic corporate driven incompetence for the tearing down of what was there before. Even the giveaway of the tax plan hasn’t shaken made the message sink in: Trump is out for himself, not them.

In any case, back to Brooks.  Read more…

Real tax reform?

December 7, 2017 3 comments

from Peter Radford

OK, let’s all calm down. The Republican tax plan is now in its last stages of design. The two versions that exist need to be stitched together and then the compromise version passed in both houses of Congress.

The law as we currently know it is a classic piece of plutocratic largesse. It will fail in its supposed intentions: it will not do much at all for the economy. It gives rich people and large corporations big dollops of cash and a slew of new loopholes to feather their respective nests. It does nothing for the middle class, except for its upper reaches in the rise enclaves around our biggest cities where it will raise rather than lower taxes. And it raises the possibility, but not the certainty, of cost to social programs down the road when the deficit grows and the far right can start shouting about the lack of affordability of those programs.

Beyond that? Poof!

Nothing.

The law will not destroy the economy. It will not destroy anything at all.

I know I am one who has complained about it loudly, but that’s because of its class basis. The reality is that the law is ineffective as tool of permanent class war simply because it leaves untouched a great deal of what we need to protect the poor, workers, the elderly, and the sick. Even in this more extreme hour the Republicans haven’t summoned up the courage to tilt full force at things like Social Security and Medicare.   Read more…

Doomed to repeat?

November 19, 2017 8 comments

from Peter Radford

One of the great pleasures of living here in southern Vermont is that we have a terrific local bookshop. I go there simply to absorb that book shop vibe unattainable in the bits and bytes of Amazon. And like all good bookshops this one throws up surprises. About three weeks ago I was browsing the small business and economics section and found a book by Heinz Kurz. It’s his “Economic Thought, A Brief History” I recommend it for all of you who want to understand the predicament of modern economics.

Now I admit I am a sucker for reading about the history of economics. It’s a great parallel story to the broader social history of the past few centuries. Economics as it weaves back and forth from one emphasis to another is a much more humble adventure than the arrogance of the overly formal neo-mathematics that is has become nowadays. There was a time when it attempted to explore reality, when it included lumpy and vague concepts, when it allowed for collective action, and when it related to experience: how different from today’s pseudoscientific axiomatically self-determining oddity.

Many of you, of course, will be completely familiar with such a history. Most of you will have your own heroes and villains as the story unfolds. Reading the Kurz book reminds me of mine.  Read more…

Taxes: 1970’s Redux?

November 16, 2017 2 comments

from Peter Radford

Taxes. What a problem.

I was going to start by saying something about our current national debate about taxes, but that would have been an untruth. We are not having a debate. Instead we are all sitting on the sidelines whilst the Republican Party desperately tries to cobble together a tax plan in order to fulfill one of the promises it made during last year’s election. That this would be the only major promise thus fulfilled we can ignore for now.

Instead, I think I will start with an observation I have made many times before: the American tax code is ridiculously complex and inefficient. It is also rigged, although the real extent of the rigging only comes into focus when we take a look at the budget that the tax code nestles within.

One of the sneaky ways that politicians of both parties communicate about government spending is to talk only in terms of programs funded out of revenues. That’s obviously a sensible thing to do. So we hear all about such-and-such a program costing $xx billion or trillion dollars which is invariably then presented as YY% of the total budget.

This is sneaky because it immediately creates a framework for conversation about programs and policies. In particular it opens up programs to easy public scrutiny and criticism of their expense. The most oft attacked programs — things like welfare and poverty amelioration activities — are easy targets when their cost is presented in clear dollar amounts or as shares of total revenues.

Indeed anything that is a line item in the budget becomes an easily understood and vulnerable target.

But here’s the really sneaky part:  Read more…

Speculation

October 27, 2017 8 comments

from Peter Radford

Robert Locke’s excellent discussion of the different perspective presented by a tacit-knowledge rather than explicit-driven driven enquiry into economic matters prompts me to reprise my understanding of the purpose of a business firm.

Put briefly: a business firm exists to translate what is often called tacit knowledge in to what is called explicit knowledge. An alternative wording would be that firms take the ad hoc and various and make them into the codified and uniform. In my own thought I use the words “secondary knowledge” to refer to the kind of knowledge that tackles ad hoc or unexpected circumstances. I use the words “primary knowledge” to refer to the codified knowledge that allows us to tackle the usual and/or repetitive circumstances. It is phraseology I borrowed from evolutionary psychology.

Why do firms do this?

Because that’s how they extract value.

Firms succeed when they control a process in order to produce something. Such processes are constructed from a variety of roles and routines whereby knowledge is combined with energy and physical resources, with the outcome being something for sale. Since establishing a process is a risky proposition — it takes up both space and time and so is susceptible to uncertainty on two fronts — control becomes the key component. And, in order to make the process most profitable, firms want to establish maximum control over the outcome: products must be both qualitatively and quantitatively predictable. How best to do that? By eliminating the ad hoc and various and limiting production to the codified and uniform.   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…

Las Vegas

October 5, 2017 35 comments

from Peter Radford

So we go through it all again.

We go through the constant call for payers. The incessant search for reasons; the outpouring of emotion; the interviews; the graphics; the enumeration of mayhem; the grief of families; the interviews with experts; and the silence of the voices lost.

There are never, however, efforts to deal with the problem.

America is obsessed with guns. It adores them It worships them. It is sick with guns.

Blame it on the foolishness of the second amendment. Or, more pointedly, blame it on the truly stupid interpretation of that foolish amendment.

And blame it on a nation that clings stubbornly to the illusion that a few men a couple of hundred years ago would endorse the twisted version of their vision that the second amendment has become. They surely would not. They would move on, just as America today refuses to move on. The need for a well-armed militia is hardly relevant in today’s world. It is an artifact of history. Our contemporary problem is not the need for a militia, it is our need to rein in the gun lobbyists and the gun makers who peddle death.

Economics has a concept called “revealed preference”. Like it or not we can apply it to yesterday’s sickening violence. Because preferences are inscrutable to analysts — they are hidden within the minds of consumers — economists are forced to rely on what people actually purchase in order to define them. The assumption being that consumers reveal their preferences in their purchasing behavior. That there may be a million other causes for why people act as they do, but economists zero in own what they can measure. The immeasurable is ignored.  Read more…

The Workplace — a few charts

October 4, 2017 19 comments

from Peter Radford

I have tried to use diagrams to explain the vast impact that the never ending search for higher shareholder value has had on the American workplace. Here is my attempt to show what the old workplace looked like in terms of the benefits to a worker …

Read more…

Tax Fog

October 2, 2017 2 comments

from Peter Radford

Whenever we are told about a Trump plan we have to use the word “plan” very carefully. Thus far Trump’s various plans have been more vague suggestions, hints, clues to what’s inside his head, or varieties of “what a plan were to look like were Trump to have an actual plan, but he doesn’t”.

This week’s ballyhooed tax plan is no exception.

It has been introduced as a framework. A skeleton. A coat hanger upon which Congress will need to hang actual policy in order to legislate. It isn’t a plan, that’s for sure.

So what is it?

Much like Trump’s other initiatives — I use the word lightly — the tax plan is a series of items that now need to be stitched together. In other words the really hard part lies ahead. More importantly it lies ahead in waters teeming with lobbyist sharks waiting to pounce and defend privileges that sundry clients want preserved.

The American tax code needs thorough overhaul. It is riddled with special interest privileges, it is incomprehensible, bloated, and really bad at the one thing it needs to do which is to raise taxes to fund government activity. Let’s not forget why the tax code exists: the government needs cash. And that cash comes from you and me.

Now I don’t want to get into discussions about the interesting idea that the government can fund itself simply by printing money. That’s for another day. Let’s stay focused on the here and now by looking at the latest Trump tax “plan”.  Read more…

Ugly and Uglier

September 27, 2017 13 comments

from Peter Radford

One reason I have not been very communicative in the past two months is my disgust at the state of the nation. America is simply not the place I came to live in back in the late 1970’s. It is a tired, aging, and deeply unsettled country grappling with an identity crisis and its steady loss of economic energy.

America as a myth was always built around the notion that it was a “land of opportunity”. That opportunity was open to as many interpretations as there were people thinking about it, but that was, I think part of the point. Most often opportunity meant, or at least implied, that citizens of the US has a better chance of personal success, of achieving financial security, and of being able to pass that along to future generations than people elsewhere. This was, post-war, largely myth: other countries were rapidly catching up and were building their own versions of the myth, such that the American exceptionalism people here are so proud of was deeply diminished if not eradicated by the latter end of the last century.

Freedom and opportunity abounded in the industrial west, it wasn’t just concentrated here.

Not only this but because of the politics of America since 1980 American reality and American myth parted company. The ability of the elite to speak of a “rising tide lifting all boats” began to sound very hollow, if not being an outright lie, as it became more and more obvious that certain parts of our citizenry were being tossed overboard to fend for themselves. Eventually, as we all now know, that part being tossed overboard constituted the majority and America became tightly controlled by and governed on behalf of a privileged few.  Read more…

Same Old

September 26, 2017 4 comments

from Peter Radford

Allow me to break my silence for a moment and comment on David Brook’s latest apology for the status quo. I realize others have already done so, but I feel compelled to add to the discussion.

First: by way of explanation for my absence. I have been busy elsewhere, and especially busy looking at the future of the workplace.

Second: it is because of this detour that I want to take a shot at Brooks.

Let’s recapitulate Brook’s argument. He takes a look at the last couple of years and extrapolates. He want to debunk that argument that the American economy faces a crisis of distribution, and replace that problem with another: America has a productivity problem.

Why is this important?

Because has become a totem of both right and left sided populists that the economy is failing to generate opportunity, income, and security for the vast middle class. It has become commonplace for us to read about the decline and/or disappearance of that famous center of economic and social gravity. This is especially true in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, and the subsequent glacial pace of recovery.

If it is true that the economy has been rigged in favor of a few — the much criticized 1% and big business — then populists of all stripes have a good case and the debate becomes one of how to divide the spoils of growth more equitably.

If, on the other hand, distribution is not the issue, but the problem is the deeper one of growth itself then the debate can be shifted by the likes of Brooks back onto their preferred territory.  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.

Why?

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…

Economics 10Whatever

June 28, 2017 80 comments

from Peter Radford

I have been less vexed about economics recently precisely because I have been focused on other, and more urgent, topics. The politics of our age are wondrously absorbing, if not a little disturbing. In any case I do try to keep an eye on what economists are up to. In that endeavor I came across a short article by Diane Coyle on the website “Project Syndicate”. If you want to know what is occupying the establishment it’s a good place to visit periodically.

And Professor Coyle is decidedly establishment.

Her article is couched as a book review/discussion of what ails economics. In it she attempts to refute the notion that economics is lost in a desert of its own making, as I and many others would suggest, but rather, she argues, it is vibrant and rapidly modernizing. She tries to persuade us that critics, like me, just don’t get what’s going own at the frontier of the discipline. There are, apparently, a load of breakthrough ideas some of which might make it into the textbooks sometime in the future.

Great.

But not great enough.

Two paragraphs towards the end of her article illustrate the issues:  Read more…

Equilibrium: a weed to pull

May 19, 2017 20 comments

from Peter Radford

Just how pejorative must we be in order to get attention? There are silly things in economics that need to be weeded out, so that something better can emerge. Sometimes I just say the whole thing is a waste of time, after all economics is not simply a body of thought, but it is also a social phenomenon, it has its own language, its own self-referential estimate of quality, its own hierarchy, and its own history that locks it tightly along a specific path.

And, frankly, that path has led it astray.

Take this piece of silliness from one of its greats:

” Just as we measure gravity by its effects in the motion of a pendulum, so we may estimate the equality or inequality of feelings by the decisions of the human mind. The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in the price lists of the markets. I know not when we shall have a perfect system of statistics, but the want of it is the only insuperable obstacle in the way of making Economics an exact science.” ~ William Stanley Jevons

Well, we do know about Jevon’s ‘perfect system of statistics’. We will never have it. An economy is too complex to fit neatly into any statistics Jevons could imagine. Maybe he was hinting at that when he called the lack of it an ‘insuperable obstacle’.

In any case, the entire search for equilibrium has bedeviled economics long enough. Those mechanical references to nicely oscillating systems slowly swinging away under the influence of gravity are totally inappropriate for something like an economy. Equilibrium is  a nasty weed. It clutters up our garden. It distracts us from reality. Rip it out!   Read more…

Limits

May 11, 2017 19 comments

from Peter Radford

I don’t understand why people get upset when I say that economics is a waste of time. I suppose it’s because I don’t make a clear enough difference between economics as a general topic and economics as a formal, mainstream, body of knowledge. It’s the latter that is a waste of time. The former is wonderfully interesting.

At its heart economics is a study of human behavior, where that behavior is specific to certain activities. It is thus deeply rooted in psychology, so it is more closely associated with biology than physics. This is not a new idea: some of the greatest economists of the past have argued as much. Trying to transfer in ideas from physics, even metaphorically, therefore tends to lead to dead ends.

Like the notion of efficiency. That’s something of great interest to engineers, but has little to do with economics. You can have an efficient physical system. You cannot have an efficient social system. There’s just too much we don’t know and can never know. Still economists all over the world are obsessed with efficiency. So what do they do? They start to abstract and simplify. They model and fine tune. They test and re-test. And still their ideas run afoul of reality: human beings are not efficiency seeking machines, and so any system filled with humans is likely to be darned near impossible to steer towards efficient outcomes. Nothing daunted economists press on. If humans are unlikely to be efficient the logical next step is to construct a theory to exclude actual humans. That’s what’s happened in economics: the faulty decision to root economics in a physics-like setting rather than in a biology like-setting forced subsequent generations of economists to “refine” their thinking and, eventually, to force real people out of their theoretical world. Voila! Modern economics ends up as a wonderful edifice with extravagant claims as to its ability to understand human behavior precisely by eliminating all contact with humanity. Weird.   Read more…

Channelling Galbraith

May 4, 2017 1 comment

from Peter Radford

Jamie Galbraith’s conclusion in his essay at Dissent magazine:

“The progressive alternative to an economic program of reckless stimulus and real-estate capital gains is a program of full employment, fair wages, and broad investment in social, cultural, and environmental needs, backed by taxes that fall directly on rents, monopoly profits, and on inheritances, thus directly dismantling the dynastic oligarchy that has been running the United States, through both parties, since 1981. How precisely progressive action along these lines can be made to work is a matter for study and argument. But this needs to begin now. Intellectually and politically, the Democratic Party is in ruins. It cannot be rebuilt solely from a defense of past achievements, nor by reacting to disasters that lie just ahead, nor from simple economic models or fragments of a half-baked agenda. It is time, in short, for a left program at least as radical as that about to be enacted by the right.”

Exactly.

It is time for the entire neoliberal era to be drawn to a close. Or torn down, whichever is easier. Average people everywhere are being oppressed by the combination of plutocratic corporatism and liberal intellectual indifference. Four decades of this is enough. Surely Trump’s election ought to be sufficient warning that something has to give.  Read more…

Complex Simplicity

April 30, 2017 10 comments

from Peter Radford

Simplification, in the context of an economy, is the eradication of all things of interest. This does not mean that studying an economy is thus doomed to be a pointless recitation of history as it unfolds. It is, rather, the recognition that as an economy moves through time it is never, to paraphrase Heraclitus, possible to see the same thing twice. Each economy is different. Each instance of the same economy is different. Any attempt to generalize eradicates those differences and thus eliminates the very substance we wish to explain. It is the existence of differences that are of interest in economics. Indeed, it is the existence of difference that allows an economy to exist in the first place.

Difference as in the spatial scarcity of resources.

Difference as in the complexity of human agency, motivation, and desire.

Difference as in the application of and resistance to power.

Difference as in variations in access to opportunity.

Difference in the chance bestowed by birth.

Difference as in variable interpretations of information.

And so on …

It is impossible to collapse all these differences into a model and then hope that such a model can capture even a modicum of reality. It couldn’t hope to. No amount of mathematical elegance and rigor can contain all the information needed to describe let alone predict an economy. Such a task is a computational impossibility. Uncertainty condemns a model’s relevance to degrade rapidly through time, if not from the very beginning.  Read more…

Nailed to its perch

April 23, 2017 5 comments

from Peter Radford

I always use some famous Chicago School economist as my representative fool when I am describing mainstream economics to my uninitiated friends. How does one, after all, defend such a ludicrous body of thought? By reference to Monty Python?

Here is Gary Becker explaining why mainstream theory is so ridiculous:

“The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and consistently, form the heart of the economic approach.”

And thus Becker’s economic approach remains firmly nailed to its perch looking for all the world like a dead bird. A very dead bird. It would be funny, indeed hilarious, were it not for the rather dismal fact that people like Becker win prizes and accolades for believing such tripe. There is, apparently, no satire sufficiently cutting, no mirth sufficiently loud, and no critique sufficiently detailed to stop the farce from continuing.

Economics, especially the Becker sort, is dead. It died at its inception. It is a joke that needs sensitive burial so we can move on and look for a real economics that engages real problems and real economies and not the fetid fantasies of the type inhabiting too many professor’s minds.

I often wonder whether economists realize how funny they sound. Or whether they even care about economies. The evidence isn’t reassuring. They press on teaching rubbish as if it were golden. They press on writing ever longer papers riddled with details and mathematics that describe absolutely nothing. They continue to paint pictures that amount to fog. They are, in short, wasting everyone’s time.  Read more…

Notes on the firm

April 20, 2017 2 comments

from Peter Radford

When, for reasons too byzantine to recount here, I decided to re-engage with economics a couple of decades ago I did so through the prism of business. After all I had just finished a stint in banking and was thinking about the way in which the rise of digital technology would change the way in which business is conducted.

The reason for this point of re-entry was that I believed then, and still do, that economies are movements of information as much as, if not more than, anything else. So if digital technologies make information more tractable, abundant, and accessible then they must affect business. My earliest basic assumption was that a business firm is simply a system of thought whose objective is to protect and exploit its information advantage. This brings it into conflict with both its suppliers and its customers who are seeking to overcome the asymmetries of information that occur “naturally” in the landscape. I described the space that firms occupy as “operating space” that is a wedge preventing direct contact between customers [end users] and suppliers [or resources].

That was back in the mid 1990’s and, by and large, since then the disintermediation of operating space that we observe as a consequence of the “digitalization” of the economy has gathered pace.

The most obvious manifestation of this is the steady redesign of business itself. More and more business firms are reducing their operating space by jettisoning  what they consider to be “non-core” activities. The idea being to reduce their logical space only to that in which their information advantage resides, and to allow those aspects of their older form that represent no advantage to go elsewhere to be repurchased at lower cost if, and when, needed.  Read more…