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The U.S. economy is not the world’s largest

August 24, 2019 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

I know that reality often has little place in our political debates, but is there any way we can the New York Times and other news outlets to stop saying that the U.S. economy is the world’s largest? It happens not to be true.

According to the I.M.F., using purchasing power parity measures, which most economists view as the best measure, China passed the United States in 2015 and is now more than 25 percent larger. Maybe reporters and editors get a kick out of saying that the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, but since it happens not to be true, it would be good if they stopped saying it.

Marginal productivity theory — a dangerous thought virus

August 23, 2019 3 comments

from Lars Syll

execThe marginal productivity theory of income distribution was born a little over a century ago. Its principle creator, John Bates Clark, was explicit that his theory was about ideology and not science. Clark wanted show that in capitalist societies, everyone got what they produced, and hence all was fair:

“It is the purpose of this work to show that the distribution of the income of society is controlled by a natural law, and that this law, if it worked without friction, would give to every agent of production the amount of wealth which that agent creates. (John Bates Clark in The Distribution of Wealth)”

Clark was also explicit about why his theory was needed. The stability of the capitalist order was at stake! Here’s Clark again:

“The welfare of the laboring classes depends on whether they get much or little; but their attitude toward other classes—and, therefore, the stability of the social state—depends chiefly on the question, whether the amount that they get, be it large or small, is what they produce. If they create a small amount of wealth and get the whole of it, they may not seek to revolutionize society; but if it were to appear that they produce an ample amount and get only a part of it, many of them would become revolutionists, and all would have the right to do so. (John Bates Clark in The Distribution of Wealth)”

So the neoclassical theory of income distribution was born as an ideological response to Marxism. According to Marx, capitalists extract a surplus from workers, and so workers get less than what they deserve. Clark’s marginal productivity theory aimed to show that this was not true. Both capitalists and workers, Clark claimed, got what they deserved.

The message of Clark’s theory is simple: workers need to stay in their place. They already earn what they produce, so they have no right to demand more.

Blair Fix

Read more…

China did not trick the US — Trade negotiators served corporate interests

August 23, 2019 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The New York Times ran an article last week with a headline saying that the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders faced a serious problem: “how to be tougher on trade than Trump.” Serious readers might have struggled with the idea of getting “tough on trade.” After all, trade is a tool, like a screwdriver. Is it possible to get tough on a screwdriver?

While the Times’s headline may be especially egregious, it is characteristic of trade coverage which takes an almost entirely Trumpian view of the topic. The media portray the issue of some countries, most obviously China, benefiting at the expense of the United States. Nothing could be more completely at odds with reality.

China has a huge trade surplus with the United States, about $420 billion (2.1 percent of GDP) as of 2018. However, this doesn’t mean that China is winning at the expense of the United States and because of “stupid” trade negotiators, as Trump puts it.

The U.S. trade deficit with China was not an accident. Both Republican and Democratic administrations signed trade deals that made it easy to manufacture goods in China and other countries, and then export them back to the United States. Read more…

Wren-Lewis trying to cope with ideology

August 22, 2019 5 comments

from Lars Syll

Simon Wren-Lewis has also commented on the study by Mohsen Javdani and Ha-Joon Chang — on economics and ideology — that I wrote about earlier today. Says Wren-Lewis:

scI also, from my own experience, want to suggest that in their formal discourse (seminars, refereeing etc) academic economists normally pretend that this ideological bias does not exist. I cannot recall anyone in any seminar saying something like ‘you only assume that because of your ideology/politics’. This has one huge advantage. It means that academic analysis is judged (on the surface at least) on its merits, and not on the basis of the ideology of those involved.

The danger of doing the opposite should be obvious. Your view on the theoretical and empirical validity of an academic paper or study may become dependent on the ideology or politics of the author or the political implications of the results rather than its scientific merits. Having said that, there are many people who argue that economics is just a form of politics and economists should stop pretending otherwise. I disagree. Economics can only be called a science because it embraces the scientific method. The moment evidence is routinely ignored by academics because it does not help some political project economics stops being the science it undoubtedly is.

Quite frankly I have to admit to being at a loss here. Of course, you never hear anyone at our seminars telling the lecturer that the assumptions on which his models are built are only made for ideological reasons. Read more…

Who is to blame for Argentina’s economic crisis?

August 22, 2019 21 comments

from Mark Weisbrot

Argentines remember the role the IMF played in the last depression. They also remember the improvement in their lives under Kirchnerism.

What are we to make of Argentina’s surprise election results on August 11, which jolted pollsters and analysts alike, and roiled the country’s financial markets? In the presidential primary for the country’s October election, the opposition ticket of Alberto Fernández trounced President Mauricio Macri by an unexpected margin of 15.6 percent.

The Fernández coalition attributes its victory to Mr. Macri’s failed economic policies, blaming him for the current economic crisis, recession and high inflation. Mr. Macri, by contrast, blames the fear of a future government of Kirchnerism — his label for the opposition — for the postelection financial turbulence as well as the problems of the economy since he took office more than three and a half years ago. He argues that both the markets and the people have everything to fear from such an outcome.

This disagreement is not just an academic argument, nor one specific to Argentina. It is a recurring, almost archetypical debate during economic crises that spill over into political contests. In recent years — in Britain, Spain, France, Greece and other countries where failed economic policies faced left-of-center challengers — Mr. Macri’s refrain was a frequent line of attack by incumbents. Read more…

Coming apart

August 21, 2019 16 comments

from David Ruccio

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American capitalism is coming apart at the seams.

Truth be told, it’s been coming apart for decades now—and that trend has only continued during the recovery from the worst crash since the 1930s.

Read more…

We need more redistribution

August 20, 2019 13 comments

from Lars Syll

Income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient rose by about 36% in the 1980s under Thatcher, but the real story is the share of income that goes to people at the very top:

According to Greg Mankiw … in the United States the 1%’s share of total income, excluding capital gains, rose from about 8 percent in 1973 to 17 percent in 2010. Between 2010 and 2015 it’s risen from 17% to 22%!!

inequalityIt’s incredibly concentrated even among the super-rich. The top 0.01%’s share of national income – this is just 16,000 people in a country of 330 million – rose from 0.5% in 1973 to 3.3% in 2010 to 5% in 2015. Their share of income quadrupled in just 35 years …

Just giving people money is fine if you don’t mind them playing video games all day – but many people themselves would tell you that they don’t have the willpower to go back to school or find new work, even if they could do so in theory.

There’s a big role for government to direct investment towards these places, using the money we’ve taken from the winners from globalisation, either to support private industry or just set up our own industries to employ people the private sector won’t …

The super-rich are eating a bigger and bigger slice of the pie, for no good reason, and there are lots of things we could use that money for to make ordinary people’s lives better.

Sam Bowman

Mainstream economics textbooks usually refer to the interrelationship between technological development and education as the main causal force behind increased inequality. Read more…

Economics and ideology

August 19, 2019 9 comments

from Lars Syll

Mainstream (neoclassical) economics has always put a strong emphasis on the positivist conception of the discipline, characterizing economists and their views as objective, unbiased, and non-ideological …

Ronald_Reagan_televised_address_from_the_Oval_Office,_outlining_plan_for_Tax_Reduction_Legislation_July_1981Acknowledging that ideology resides quite comfortably in our economics departments would have huge intellectual implications, both theoretical and practical. In spite (or because?) of that, the matter has never been directly subjected to empirical scrutiny.

In a recent study, we do just that. Using a well-known experimental “deception” technique embedded in an online survey that involves just over 2400 economists from 19 countries, we fictitiously attribute the source of 15 quotations to famous economists of different leanings. In other words, all participants received identical statements to agree or disagree with, but source attribution was randomly changed without the participants’ knowledge. The experiment provides clear evidence that ideological bias strongly influences the ideas and judgements of economists. More specifically, we find that changing source attributions from mainstream to less-/non-mainstream figures significantly reduces the respondents’ reported agreement with statements. Interestingly, this contradicts the image economists have of themselves, with 82% of participants reporting that in evaluating a statement one should only pay attention to its content and not to the views of its author … Read more…

What the German government must do now to turn around an unsustainable economy

August 18, 2019 13 comments

from Norbert Häring

Germany’s economic output contracted in the second quarter and most indications point to a worsening in the third quarter, which is just halfway through. The culprit is only superficially Donald Trump with his trade wars. The German economy has been on an unsustainable path in several respects. Now the government is called upon to act courageously and intelligently to ensure that a deep restructuring crisis is avoided.

The German success model was not sustainable because it ignored the limits of the rest of the world’s ability to borrow money to pay for German exports and because it omits the fact that we are already very close to the limits of the ecological resilience of our planet.

As far as economic limits are concerned: In the long run it is not feasible that, in addition to China’s massive economic expansion through exports, rich Germany also tries to increase its prosperity through exports and frugality, resulting every year in a huge trade surplus. The counterpart to the export successes of these two nations is that the rest of the world is building up ever higher foreign debt. The longer this continues, the more countries will reach their debt limits and will no longer want or be able to participate in this game. If Trump hadn’t stood his ground, sooner or later others would have. Or simply more and more nations – including EU countries – would have descended into crises and would no longer have been able to buy German exports. Read more…

Good news: The stock market is plunging

August 17, 2019 7 comments

from Dean Baker

The stock market enjoys a mythological place not only among mainstream media types, but also among many progressives. For some reason this measure of expected future corporate profits is taken as a measure of economic well-being.

The fact that the media obsesses over the stock market hardly needs to be mentioned. If there is one item about the economy that we can be sure will be repeated every day, it is the movement in the Dow or the S&P 500. And, needless to say, an upward movement is good news and a downward movement is bad news.

But the view that the stock market is telling us something about the well-being of the economy goes far beyond just ill-informed media types. In the lead up to the 2016 election, Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economics professor, and a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, had several New York Times pieces arguing that the wise investors in the stock market recognized that Trump would be bad news for the country. He pointed to sharp declines in the market in response to events making a Trump win more likely.

The Wolfers hypothesis suffered a serious setback in the weeks and months immediately following the election. Read more…

Statistics and mathematics — not very helpful for understanding economies

August 16, 2019 11 comments

from Lars Syll

Statistical science is not really very helpful for understanding or forecasting complex evolving self-healing organic ambiguous social systems – economies, in other words.

leamer1 zoomedA statistician may have done the programming, but when you press a button on a computer keyboard and ask the computer to find some good patterns, better get clear a sad fact: computers do not think. They do exactly what the programmer told them to do and nothing more. They look for the patterns that we tell them to look for, those and nothing more. When we turn to the computer for advice, we are only talking to ourselves …

Mathematical analysis works great to decide which horse wins, if we are completely confident which horses are in the race, but it breaks down when we are not sure. In experimental settings, the set of alternative models can often be well agreed on, but with nonexperimental economics data, the set of models is subject to enormous disagreements. You disagree with your model made yesterday, and I disagree with your model today. Mathematics does not help much resolve our internal intellectual disagreements.

Ed Leamer

Indeed. As social researchers we should never equate science with mathematics and statistical calculation. Read more…

Progressive policies may hurt the stock market. that’s not a bad thing.

August 15, 2019 7 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week, we saw the media terrified over a plunge in the stock market following an escalation of Donald Trump’s trade war with China. There are good reasons to be concerned about Trump’s ill-defined trade war and reality TV tactics, but the plunge in the stock market is not one of them.

While the idea that the stock market is a measure of the health of the economy permeates news reporting and popular understanding, it has no basis in economics. The stock market is a measure of the expectations of future profits of companies that are listed in the exchange. It is only coincidental when it provides information about the health of the economy. It is important that the public understand this distinction as the 2020 election draws closer.

The basic logic here is simple. The price of Microsoft, Boeing or Pfizer stock is not going to rise because workers are getting pay increases or they can take longer vacations. The price of these companies’ stocks will rise if investors believe that events will cause their profits to be higher. That’s the end of the story.

This is why the Trump tax cut was good news for the stock market. Investors were not passing judgment on whether lower corporate tax rates would mean more rapid economic growth. They were betting that if companies paid less money in taxes, there would be more money left for shareholders. Read more…

No reality, please. We’re economists!

August 14, 2019 20 comments

from Lars Syll

Mathematics, especially through the work of David Hilbert, became increasingly viewed as a discipline properly concerned with providing a pool of frameworks for possible realities. No longer was mathematics seen as the language of (non-social) nature, abstracted from the study of the latter. Rather, it was conceived as a practice concerned with formulating systems comprising sets of axioms and their deductive consequences, with these systems in effect taking on a life of their own. The task of finding applications was henceforth regarded as being of secondary importance at best, and not of immediate concern.

ffullbrookThis emergence of the axiomatic method removed at a stroke various hitherto insurmountable constraints facing those who would mathematise the discipline of economics. Researchers involved with mathematical projects in economics could, for the time being at least, postpone the day of interpreting their preferred axioms and assumptions. There was no longer any need to seek the blessing of mathematicians and physicists or of other economists who might insist that the relevance of metaphors and analogies be established at the outset. In particular it was no longer regarded as necessary, or even relevant, to economic model construction to consider the nature of social reality, at least for the time being …

The result was that in due course deductivism in economics, through morphing into mathematical deductivism on the back of developments within the discipline of mathematics, came to acquire a new lease of life, with practitioners (once more) potentially oblivious to any inconsistency between the ontological presuppositions of adopting a mathematical modelling emphasis and the nature of social reality. The consequent rise of mathematical deductivism has culminated in the situation we find today.

Tony Lawson

I think the ‘confidence’ mainstream economists have in their own theories and models, basically is a question of methodology. Read more…

Time is running out

August 13, 2019 16 comments

from David Ruccio

fredgraph (1)

Richard Reeves is right about one thing: time is crucial to capitalism’s legitimacy. The premise and promise of capitalism are that the future will be better than the present. And “if capitalism loses its lease on the future, it is in trouble.”

The fact is, things are not getting better for the vast majority of American workers. They’re falling behind. For example, as is clear in the chart above, the labor share in the U.S. nonfarm business sector has fallen more than 13 percent since early 2001—and there’s no indication that trend will be reversed anytime in the foreseeable future.

Time is clearly running out on capitalism.

It’s not as though Americans are unaware of this and other related trends, such as the looming climate crisis.*

Read more…

Yet another New York Times column gets the story on automation and inequality completely wrong

August 13, 2019 16 comments

from Dean Baker

I am a big fan of expanding the welfare state but I am also a big fan of reality-based analysis. For this reason, it’s hard not to be upset over yet another column telling us that the robots are taking all the jobs and that this will lead to massive inequality.

The first part is more than a little annoying just because it is so completely and unambiguously at odds with reality. Productivity growth, which is the measure of the rate at which robots and other technologies are taking jobs, has been extremely slow in recent years. It has averaged just 1.3 percent annually since 2005. That compares to an annual rate of 3.0 percent from 1995 to 2005 and in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973.

In addition, all the official projections from places like the Congressional Budget Office and Social Security Administration assume that productivity growth will remain slow. That could prove wrong, but the people projecting a massive pick up of productivity growth are certainly against the tide here.

But the other part of the story is even more annoying. No, technology does not generate inequality. Our policy on technology generates inequality. We have rules (patent and copyright monopolies) that allow people to own technology.

Bill Gates is incredibly rich because the government will arrest anyone who mass produces copies of Microsoft software without his permission. If anyone could freely reproduce Windows and other software, without even sending a thank you note, Bill Gates would still be working for a living. Read more…

On the applicability of statistics in social sciences

August 12, 2019 13 comments

from Lars Syll

Eminent statistician David Salsburg is rightfully very critical of the way social scientists — including economists and econometricians — uncritically and without arguments have come to simply assume that they can apply probability distributions from statistical theory on their own area of research:

9780805071344We assume there is an abstract space of elementary things called ‘events’ … If a measure on the abstract space of events fulfills certain axioms, then it is a probability. To use probability in real life, we have to identify this space of events and do so with sufficient specificity to allow us to actually calculate probability measurements on that space … Unless we can identify [this] abstract space, the probability statements that emerge from statistical analyses will have many different and sometimes contrary meanings …

Kolmogorov established the mathematical meaning of probability: Probability is a measure of sets in an abstract space of events. All the mathematical properties of probability can be derived from this definition. When we wish to apply probability to real life, we need to identify that abstract space of events for the particular problem at hand … It is not well established when statistical methods are used for observational studies … If we cannot identify the space of events that generate the probabilities being calculated, then one model is no more valid than another … As statistical models are used more and more for observational studies to assist in social decisions by government and advocacy groups, this fundamental failure to be able to derive probabilities without ambiguity will cast doubt on the usefulness of these methods.

Wise words well worth pondering on. Read more…

Econometric illusions

August 9, 2019 56 comments

from Lars Syll

reality header3

Because I was there when the economics department of my university got an IBM 360, I was very much caught up in the excitement of combining powerful computers with economic research. Unfortunately, I lost interest in econometrics almost as soon as I understood how it was done. My thinking went through four stages:

1.Holy shit! Do you see what you can do with a computer’s help.
2.Learning computer modeling puts you in a small class where only other members of the caste can truly understand you. This opens up huge avenues for fraud:
3.The main reason to learn stats is to prevent someone else from committing fraud against you.
4.More and more people will gain access to the power of statistical analysis. When that happens, the stratification of importance within the profession should be a matter of who asks the best questions.

Disillusionment began to set in. I began to Read more…

How bad is global inequality, really?

August 8, 2019 8 comments

from Jason Hickel

Most everyone who’s interested in global inequality has come across the famous elephant graph, originally developed by Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner using World Bank data. The graph charts the change in income that the world’s population have experienced over time, from the very poorest to the richest 1%.

We can update the elephant graph using the latest data from the World Inequality Database (WID), which covers the whole period from 1980 to 2016 using a method called “distributive national accounts”. Here’s what it looks like in real dollars (MER), developed in collaboration with Huzaifa Zoomkawala (click through for a series of interactive charts that Huzaifa has created):

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The elephant graph has been used by some to argue that neoliberal globalization has caused inequality to decline since 1980. After all, it would appear that the biggest gains have gone to the poorest 60% of the world’s population, whose incomes have grown two or three times more than those of the richest 40%.

Read more…

Observational data and causal inference

August 8, 2019 2 comments

from Lars Syll

Distinguished Professor of social psychology Richard E. Nisbett takes on the idea of intelligence and IQ testing in his Intelligence and How to Get It (Norton 2011). He also has some interesting thoughts on multiple-regression analysis and writes:

nisbettResearchers often determine the individual’s contemporary IQ or IQ earlier in life, socioeconomic status of the family of origin, living circumstances when the individual was a child, number of siblings, whether the family had a library card, educational attainment of the individual, and other variables, and put all of them into a multiple-regression equation predicting adult socioeconomic status or income or social pathology or whatever. Researchers then report the magnitude of the contribution of each of the variables in the regression equation, net of all the others (that is, holding constant all the others). It always turns out that IQ, net of all the other variables, is important to outcomes. But … the independent variables pose a tangle of causality – with some causing others in goodness-knows-what ways and some being caused by unknown variables that have not even been measured. Higher socioeconomic status of parents is related to educational attainment of the child, but higher-socioeconomic-status parents have higher IQs, and this affects both the genes that the child has and the emphasis that the parents are likely to place on education and the quality of the parenting with respect to encouragement of intellectual skills and so on. So statements such as “IQ accounts for X percent of the variation in occupational attainment” are built on the shakiest of statistical foundations. What nature hath joined together, multiple regressions cannot put asunder.

Now, I think this is right as far as it goes, although it would Read more…

Econ 101

August 7, 2019 8 comments

from David Ruccio

It’s time to get back to blog writing—after a 6-month hiatus during which I taught my final two courses at the University of Notre Dame (A Tale of Two Depressions and Marxian Economic Theory) and prepared for my retirement (which involved, among other things, sorting through, packing up, and moving decades of “stuff”). Now, after 38 years of teaching, I am officially Professor of Economics Emeritus. But, rest assured, I plan to continue this blog and other writing projects. 

For the first time in almost four decades (aside from a few research sabbaticals), I don’t face the prospect of returning to campus and teaching economics. But, I can’t help it, I still worry about what millions of students in the United States and around the world will learn—or at least be subjected to—when they enroll in their economics classes this fall.

One of the major issues for any economics class, especially an introductory or principles course, is how to make it useful for students. Read more…