Modern macroeconomics — theory based on misleading illusions

October 9, 2020 30 comments

from Lars Syll

Standard new Keynesian macroeconomics essentially abstracts away from most of what is important in macroeconomics. To an even greater extent, this is true of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models that are the workhorse of central bank staffs and much practically oriented academic work.

kWhy? New Keynesian models imply that stabilization policies cannot affect the average level of output over time and that the only effect policy can have is on the amplitude of economic fluctuations, not on the level of output. This assumption is problematic at a number of levels …

As macroeconomics was transformed in response to the Depression of the 1930s and the inflation of the 1970s, another 40 years later it should again be transformed in response to stagnation in the industrial world.

Lawrence Summers

Mainstream macroeconomics is stuck with crazy models — and ‘New Keynesian’ macroeconomics and DSGE models certainly, as Summers puts it, “essentially abstract away from most of what is important in macroeconomics. ”

Let me just give one example. Read more…

Artificial intelligence and the future of economics?

October 8, 2020 Leave a comment

from Gregory Daneke and RWER issue 93

The global financial crisis that began in earnest in 2008 (and is yet to be resolved) prompted significant challenges to the theory and methods of mainstream or orthodox (also known as Neoclassical and/or Neoliberal) economics. Even distinguished orthodox economists, Paul Krugman (2009) Joseph Stiglitz (2017), and Paul Romer (2020) have joined with the crescendo of obscure, yet profound, voices, such as: “institutionalist” (e.g. Hodgson, 2004), “heterodox” (e.g. Keen, 2001; and E. Smith, 2010), and “ecological” (e.g. Constanza, et al., 1997; and Fullbrook and Morgan, 2019), as well as Marxist economists.

One especially promising alternative to mainstream economics grew out of work in nonlinear dynamics and systems theory (see, Daneke, 1999), and has been enhanced by huge advances in computational capabilities. This approach, under the catch-all rubric of Complexity Studies, has many variegated and partial offshoots both mathematical and metaphorical. Plus, use of its computational tools is no guarantee of theoretical coherence. Some qualitative applications are especially robust and some quantitative pieces linger too close the event horizons of neoclassical black holes. Nonetheless, at its core, complexity is a completely unique worldview (see, Arthur 2013) with far reaching implications for how economies are studied and policies derived. As one might expect, mainstream economics, has been extremely reluctant to accept these implications and has only tangentially toyed with the isolated elements of the complexity approach. As in the past (e.g. game theory, behavioral economics, etc.), mainstreamers merely graft-on certain tools and concepts without altering their archaic foundations or their ideological commitments. This highly selective retention is made more problematic by recent developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and BIG DATA. Read more…

The Inequality Crisis: The three options

October 7, 2020 2 comments

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The Inequality Crisis

The everyday operations of our economies produce the goods and services that keep us alive and enable us to enjoy life. But that is not the only way that those operations effect our lives; they also effect societies and ecosystems. The Inequality Crisis, which threatens our societies, and the Climate Crisis, which threatens both our societies and our species, are also, no less than production, brought about directly by the everyday operations of our economies.

But for two hundred years the economics profession has in the main excluded from its study of economies two of their three categories of primary effects. And given the profession’s influence, this exclusion of societal and ecological effects has promoted the intellectual invisibility of these two categories, thereby helping to bring about the two crises. Read more…

Revealed preference theory — much ado about almost nothing

October 6, 2020 10 comments

from Lars Syll

samTwenty-seven years ago yours truly wrote an article on revealed preference theory that got published in History of Political Economy (no. 25, 1993).

Paul Samuelson wrote a kind letter and informed me that he was the one who had recommended it for publication. But although he liked a lot in it, he also wrote a comment — published in the same volume of HOPE — saying:

Between 1938 and 1947, and since then as Pålsson Syll points out, I have been scrupulously careful not to claim for revealed preference theory novelties and advantages it does not merit. But Pålsson Syll’s readers must not believe that it was all redundant fuss about not very much.

Notwithstanding Samuelson’s comment, I do still think it basically was much fuss about ‘not very much.’ Read more…

Patent monopolies in prescription drugs cause corruption # 43,508

October 5, 2020 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

Economists and economic reporters all know that tariffs can lead to corruption. The idea is that if a government-imposed tariff raises the price of a product by 10-25 percent above the free market price, companies have a large incentive to find ways to avoid the tariff. This can mean reclassifying imports to get around the tariff or trying to curry favor with politicians to get exemptions. The New York Times and ProPublica have run several excellent pieces providing examples of such behavior (e.g. herehere, and here).

The reasonable takeaway from these stories is that tariffs should be applied sparingly and with clear purposes in mind. Indiscriminate use of tariffs is likely to lead to large-scale corruption, as corporations use their political power to gain special treatment.

We should be glad that reporters have actively worked to expose the abuses associated with the tariffs Donald Trump has imposed since coming into the White House. But what about the abuses associated with government-granted patent monopolies for prescription drugs? We literally never see a piece pointing out that patent protection creates an enormous incentive for corruption, in fact, one that is far larger than with the Trump tariffs. Read more…

Game theory — theory with little substantive content

October 5, 2020 17 comments

from Lars Syll

binmoreratdecI don’t see that we are even entitled to assume that reality accords to some model that humans are able to envisage … To say that Pandora knows what decision model she is facing can therefore be taken as meaning no more than that she is committed to proceeding as though her model were true …

The price of abandoning psychology for revealed-preference theory is therefore high. We have to give up any pretension to be offering a causal explanation of Pandora’s choice behavior in favour of an account that is merely a description of the choice behavior of someone who chooses consistently. Our reward [sic!] is that we end up with a theory that is hard to criticise because it has little substantive content.

Back in 1991, when yours truly earned his first PhD​ with a dissertation on decision-making and rationality in social choice theory and game theory, I concluded that “repeatedly it seems as though mathematical tractability and elegance — rather than realism and relevance — have been the most applied guidelines for the behavioural assumptions being made. On a political and social level, ​it is doubtful if the methodological individualism, ahistoricity and formalism those guidelines imply are especially valid for explaining real-world decision-making.”

This, of course, was like swearing in church. My mainstream colleagues were — to say the least — not exactly überjoyed. Read more…

Wealth that results only from a change in the exchange-value of some goods relative to others

October 4, 2020 Leave a comment

from Andri Stahel and RWER issue 93

As will be argued, a great part – and increasingly so – of the capital gains result from an inflationary increase in the monetary value of given financial assets and not from productive employment of capital, generating both capital-income and new wealth on its wake. Thus, we overlook the effect of the different kinds of capital both in fostering or not overall economic activity and the effect of that which has been termed “financialisation” on the wealth-inequalities in our contemporary world. “A pattern of accumulation in which profits accrue primarily through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production”, as defined by Greta Krippner following Arrighi (Arrighi 1994; Krippner 2005, p. 174).

While in the case of capital invested in productive and commercial activities we may observe a larger appropriation of newly created wealth by some in proportion to that gained by others, but still growing wealth for all in global terms; a completely different picture emerges when we look at the speculative financial gains obtained from buying and selling financial assets at a profit. Here, no new wealth is created and thus, at the aggregate level, we have a net transfer of the existing wealth to those who managed to effectively obtain speculative gains from their capital at the expenses of those who don’t and who do not possess speculatively invested savings.

A second aspect which is not considered by Piketty and by economists at large even when talking about “wealth distribution” issues has to do with the very definition of wealth and what we are talking about in the first place. read more

Why game theory fails to live up to its promise

October 2, 2020 4 comments

from Lars Syll

Why, it might be objected, should the goal of social science be mere causal explanations of particular events? Isn’t such an attitude more the province of the historian? Social science should instead be concentrating on systematic knowledge. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, this objection concludes, is a laudable example of exactly that – a piece of theory that sheds light over many different cases.

Greek retreat from game theory | LARS P. SYLLIn reply, we certainly agree that regularities or models that explain or that give heuristic value over many different cases are highly desirable. But ones that do neither are not – especially if they use up huge resources along the way. When looking at the details, the Prisoner’s Dilemma’s explanatory record so far is poor and its heuristic record mixed at best. The only way to get a reliable sense of what theoretical input would actually be useful is via detailed empirical investigations. What useful contribution – whether explanatory, heuristic or none at all – the Prisoner’s Dilemma makes to such investigations cannot be known until they are tried. Therefore resources would be better directed towards that rather than towards yet more theoretical development or laboratory experiments.

R. Northcott & A. Alexandrova

Game theory is, like mainstream economics in general, model-oriented. Read more…

issue no. 93 of RWER

October 1, 2020 Leave a comment

Political Economy

September 30, 2020 1 comment

from Asad Zaman

This is a sequence of posts on “New Directions in Macroeconomics“, which discusses the numerous directions of research which must be incorporated to create a viable Macroeconomics for the 21st Century. We have previously discussed “Post-Keynesian Economics“, and “Modern Monetary Theory“. This post discusses the necessity of re-incorporating politics into economics.

Once we recognize the importance of history and institutions, it becomes clear that economic problems cannot be separated from politics and society. The interplay of class interests, and their relative power, is of essential importance in understanding political and economic structures of society. Current commitment to methodological individualism has blinded economists to these aspects, and left them unable to explain burning issues like the rapid rise of income inequality in the wake of financial de-regulation. There are many different perspectives from which the inter-relationships between politics and economics can be analyzed.  read more

Perfecting the automated surveillance of the world’s population.

September 28, 2020 3 comments

from Norbert Häring

The President of the EU-Commission plans to give all EU citizens a European digital identity which can “be used anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying taxes to renting a bike”. She wants to implement for Europe what ID2020, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and Homeland Security are pushing worldwide – to perfect the automated surveillance of the world’s ppopulation.

In Ursula von der Leyen’s speech on the State of the Union on September 16, an important announcement was lost due to the attention given to a tightened climate target. The President of the Commission said:

We want a set of rules that puts people at the centre. Algorithms must not be a black box and there must be clear rules if something goes wrong. The Commission will propose a law to this effect next year. This includes control over our personal data which still have far too rarely today. Every time an App or website asks us to create a new digital identity or to easily log on via a big platform, we have no idea what happens to our data in reality. That is why the Commission will soon propose a secure European e-identity. One that we trust and that any citizen can use anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle. A technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used.

You have to read between the lines to decipher the perfidious plan. Read more…

What’s the use of economic models?

September 27, 2020 7 comments

from Lars Syll

chameleonOne can generally develop a theoretical model to produce any result within a wide range. Do you want a model that produces the result that banks should be 100% funded by deposits? Here is a set of assumptions and an argument that will give you that result. That such a model exists tells us very little …

Being logically correct may earn a place for a theoretical model on the bookshelf, but when a theoretical model is taken off the shelf and applied to the real world, it is important to question whether the model’s assumptions are in accord with what we know about the world. To be taken seriously models should pass through the real world filter.

Chameleons are models that are offered up as saying something significant about the real world even though they do not pass through the filter. When the assumptions of a chameleon are challenged, various defenses are made … In many cases the chameleon will change colors as necessary, taking on the colors of a bookshelf model when challenged, but reverting back to the colors of a model that claims to apply the real world when not challenged.

Paul Pfleiderer

Pfleiderer’s absolute gem of an article reminds me of what H. L. Mencken once famously said: Read more…

The problems of economics as an academic pursuit have a sociological origin

September 26, 2020 89 comments

from Gerald Holtham (originally a comment)

The problems of economics as an academic pursuit have a sociological origin. The subject matter of economics is of interest to nearly everyone who lives in a commercial society and has to make a living. Intelligent people develop opinions about it and advance opinions in a way they would not do about astronomy or quantum physics. Similarly every politician has a story about the economic policy to be followed. This situation has created a strong form of credentialism among academic economists, evidenced by the use in the USA of the term “PHD economist” i.e. distinguishing a “real” economist from an economic journalist or mere informed commentator. This desire to define and secure a profession of economists has led not only to credentialism but to formalism. There must be hoops to jump through, filters to pass, if “real” economists are to be distinguished. An emphasis on mathematical technique is just such a filter. From credentialism and formalism comes a self-referential approach that holds “economic problems must have economic explanations and economic solutions”. That makes it illegitimate to introduce “non-economic” elements into economic theory. Demarcation and the exclusivity of “economics” is thereby reinforced. Non-economic elements are often considered to include any form of “irrational” behaviour. Unfortunately some schools of economics at that point finalise their separation from the real world by failing to distinguish “procedural rationality”, which is a useful simplifying assumption, from “substantive rationality”, which assumes a never-never land of near-perfect knowledge and ubiquitous equilibrium. The distinction, due to Herb Simon, was apparently too subtle for the neo-classical school. Ideology also plays a part in promoting some schools of economics. Theories that depict a self-stabilising system in which everyone is doing as well as possible are remote from reality but convenient for the conservative interests in society that wish to resist change. Once this structure is in place it is difficult to pursue a career as an academic economist without going along with a substantial part of it. Read more…

It’s not vaccine nationalism, it’s vaccine idiocy

September 25, 2020 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week an official with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the country may have a vaccine available for widespread distribution by November or December. This would almost certainly be at least a month or two before a vaccine is available for distribution in the United States, and possibly quite a bit longer.

While we may want to treat statements from Chinese government officials with some skepticism, there is reason to believe that this claim is close to the mark. China has reported giving its vaccines to more than 100,000 people. In addition to giving it to tens of thousands of people enrolled in clinical trials, it also has given them to front line workers, such as medical personal, through an emergency use authorization.

This may not have been a good policy, since these workers faced the safety risks associated with a vaccine that has only undergone limited testing, but it does mean that a large number of people have now been exposed to China’s leading vaccine candidates. If there were serious side effects, it would be hard for China to bury evidence of large numbers of adverse reactions. If no such evidence surfaces, we can assume that bad reactions to the vaccines were either rare and/or not very serious. Read more…

Inequality in the United States—pandemic edition

September 24, 2020 16 comments

from David Ruccio

Year 3 of the Trump presidency was absolutely terrific—indeed, record-breaking—for Americans.

At least that’s how things look in terms of the headline numbers from the Census Bureau: median household income was up (by 6.8 percent, a record) over 2018 and the official poverty rate decreased (by 1.3 percentage points, to 10.5 percent, the lowest rate observed since estimates were initially published for 1959).*

And then there’s Kevin Hassett, former chair of Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisers (who returned to the White House to lead its pandemic-response team, downplaying the danger of coronavirus and pushing the administration to re-open the economy amid lockdowns and social distancing) who seized on the report to make another of his wild claims:

If you’re a social justice warrior and you’re looking at the data, you would have to say that the Trump years, through the beginning of the pandemic, were the sort-of best years for advances in social justice since World War II.

The problem is that other data in the same report show nothing of the sort. Read more…

Evidence-based policies

September 23, 2020 1 comment

from Lars Syll

Evidence-based theories and policies are highly valued nowadays. Randomization is supposed to control for bias from unknown confounders. The received opinion is that evidence based on randomized experiments, therefore, is the best.

More and more economists have also lately come to advocate randomization as the principal method for ensuring being able to make valid causal inferences.

rowsonYours truly would, however, rather argue that randomization, just as econometrics, promises more than it can deliver, basically because it requires assumptions that in practice are not possible to maintain. Just as econometrics, randomization is basically a deductive method. Given the assumptions (such as manipulability, transitivity, separability, additivity, linearity, etc.) these methods deliver deductive inferences. The problem, of course, is that we will never completely know when the assumptions are right. And although randomization may contribute to controlling for confounding, it does not guarantee it, since genuine randomness presupposes infinite experimentation and we know all real experimentation is finite. And even if randomization may help to establish average causal effects, it says nothing of individual effects unless homogeneity is added to the list of assumptions. Real target systems are seldom epistemically isomorphic to our axiomatic-deductive models/systems, and even if they were, we still have to argue for the external validity of the conclusions reached from within these epistemically convenient models/systems. Causal evidence generated by randomization procedures may be valid in ‘closed’ models, but what we usually are interested in, is causal evidence in the real target system we happen to live in. Read more…

Modern Monetary Theory

September 22, 2020 46 comments

from Asad Zaman

This continues from the previous post on Post-Keynesian Response. A large number of contributions from different areas need to be integrated to build an economics for the 21st Century. For an acknowledgement of the failure of 20th Century Macro from one of its architects, see Romer’s Trouble With Macro. This post explains Modern Monetary Theory briefly.

Since the time of Keynes, major changes have taken place in the global financial system. Against wishes of Keynes, Bretton-Woods created a dollar centered system based on notional exchangeability of dollars for gold. The Nixon Shock in 1971 removed the gold backing from dollars, leading to the modern world of floating exchange rates. Dramatic changes in the monetary exchange systems and financial institution play no role in orthodox modern macroeconomics, since money and finance are not (supposedly) part of the real economy. Taking the nature of modern money and the financial institutions into serious considerations leads to many important insights which lie at the core of MMT. Three major innovations lie at the foundations of this theory. These are summarized below:

Endogenous Money: MMT reflects an institutional perspective on the creation of money. When Central Banks set discount rates, they lose control of the quantity of money, which must be issued in amounts required to equilibrate the demand/supply of money at the policy rate. Private creation of money depends on bank-lending, which in turn depends on the investment climate. Bank credit depends on expectations, sound collaterals, and also a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect – if everyone is lending, banks cannot afford to stay out. Theories of endogenous money underlie Minsky’s Financial Fragility Hypothesis, which suggests that the money creation process is inherently destabilizing because private credit is expanded at the top of the business cycle and contracted at the bottom, exactly the opposite of what is required for good economic management.

Functional Finance: read more

Beyond the Mainstream

September 21, 2020 5 comments

from David Ruccio

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous two posts, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

This is certainly not the first time people have looked beyond mainstream economics. There is a long history of criticisms of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism from the very beginning. Although students won’t have read about them in traditional economics textbooks.

Those texts are generally written with the presumption there’s only one economic theory and one economic system. The existence of Marxian economics opens up the debate, creating space for both multiple ways of thinking about economics and a variety of different economic systems.

Criticisms of Mainstream Economic Theory

In the history of economic thought, criticisms of the mainstream approach were formulated early on. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others (such as Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus, and John Stuart Mill) developed classical political economy in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, when the new economic system we now call capitalism was just getting off the ground—and almost immediately their approach was debated and challenged. Read more…

Expected utility theory — an ex-parrot

September 20, 2020 5 comments

from Lars Syll

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

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

Expected utility theory does not explain actual behaviour and choices. But still — although the theory is obviously descriptively inadequate — economists and microeconomics textbook writers gladly continue to use it, as though its deficiencies were unknown or unheard of.

That cannot be the right attitude when facing scientific anomalies! Read more…

Trade wars are class wars: even more than Klein and Pettis say

September 19, 2020 3 comments

from Dean Baker

I have long enjoyed reading Matthew Klein’s columns in the Financial Times and elsewhere. They are invariably insightful and I have learned much from them. I am less familiar with Michael Pettis’ work, but I have liked what I have read. Therefore, I expected a lot from their book, Trade Wars are Class Wars, and I was not disappointed.

The basic point is that the major trade imbalances in the world over the last four decades have been driven by the suppression of wage growth, with income being redistributed from labor to capital. This has led to shortfalls in aggregate demand that countries try to offset by having trade surpluses. The main actors in that picture are China and Germany.

In the Klein-Pettis view, the U.S. has also suffered from this upward redistribution, although it has taken a somewhat different form, since the country has run persistent trade deficits over this period. While I largely agree with this framing, I have some minor quibbles with the story they lay out and one very large one.

In the minor quibble category, Klein and Pettis (KP) criticize Trump adviser Peter Navarro for focusing on the bilateral trade deficits the United States runs with China and other countries. I have no stake in defending Peter Navarro, but at least some of us who are concerned about the trade deficit with China have argued that the U.S. should be pressing China to raise the value of its currency relative to the dollar. Read more…