Taking Issue with Dani Rodrik: Trade deficits are different with secular stagnation (see Addendum)

November 29, 2017 6 comments

from Dean Baker

I am a big fan of Dani Rodrik’s writings on trade, and I agree with most of what he says in his NYT column today, but I do have one major disagreement. However, before going there let me emphasize some of the key points he makes in the piece.

First, Rodrik is very much on the mark in arguing that recent trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have very little to do with free trade. As he says, these deals are about imposing a corporate-friendly structure of regulations on both our trading partners and the U.S. (The deals have the effect of locking in laws that could otherwise be more easily altered.)

He also is right in singling out the pharmaceutical industry as the biggest villain in this story. We have been using these trade deals to ensure ever longer and stronger patents and related protections. The result is to make drugs, which would otherwise be cheap, extremely expensive. The price of drugs can be a serious burden even in rich countries, but patent protection can make life-saving drugs altogether unaffordable in developing countries. We should be looking to foster alternative, more efficient, mechanisms for financing research, not using trade deals to impose patent monopolies everywhere.  Read more…

Blanchard and Summers: Back to the future

from Maria Alejandra Madi 

Olivier Blanchard and Lawrence Summers have recently called for a reflection about the macroeconomic tools required to manage the outcomes of the 2008 global crisis  in their paper Rethinking Stabilization Policy. Back to the Future. The relevant question they address is: Should the crisis lead to a rethinking of both macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy similar to what we saw in the 1930s or in the 1970s? In other words, should the crisis lead to a Keynesian approach to macroeconomic policy or will it reinforce the agenda suggested by mainstream macroeconomics since the 1990s?

Since the 1990s, mainstream macroeconomics has largely converged on a view of economic fluctuations that has become the basic paradigm of research and macroeconomic policy. According to this view of unexplained random underlying shocks, the fluctuations result from small shocks to components of demand and supply with linear propagation mechanisms which do not prevent the economy to return back to the potential output trend.  Considering a world of regular fluctuations:  (1) dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models are used to develop structural interpretations to the observed dynamics, (2) optimal policy is mainly based on monetary feedback rules- such as the interest rate rule- while fiscal policy is avoided as a stabilization tool, (3) the role of the finance is often centered on the yield curve, and (4) macro prudential policies are not considered.  read more

Swedish housing bubble soon to burst

November 27, 2017 6 comments

from Lars Syll

High and rising household indebtedness poses the greatest risk to the Swedish economy. Household indebtedness has been increasing in Sweden since the mid- 1990s. Home ownership financed by high levels of mortgage debt with variable interest rates makes households vulnerable to falling house prices and increasing interest rates …

swedish-household-debt-as-perc-of-disp-income-to-2013In the present Economic Commentary, we extend the earlier analysis by using updated data covering the period up to September 2017 … Our main findings can be summarised as follows:

1. Household debt continues to increase faster than income. The average DTI ratio increased from 326 per cent in September 2016 to 338 per cent in September 2017.
2. More households have high debts relative to their income. In 2017, 260 000 households had a DTI ratio exceeding 600 per cent. This is an increase of 27 000 households compared to 2016.
3. Household indebtedness is increasing for all income groups and age groups.

Sveriges Riksbank

House prices are increasing fast in EU. And more so in Sweden than in any other member state. Sweden’s house price boom started in mid-1990s, and looking at the development of real house prices during the last three decades there are reasons to be deeply worried. As even The Riksbank now admits, the indebtedness of the Swedish household sector has risen to alarmingly high levels.  Read more…

The arc of (pre)history bends towards greater inequality

November 27, 2017 8 comments

from David Ruccio


The United States, as I have shown over the past week (e.g., herehere, and here), has an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth.

Read more…

Consumer Theory

November 26, 2017 Leave a comment

from Asad Zaman

Lecture 5 of Advanced Microeconomics at PIDE. The base for this lecture Hill & Myatt Anti-Textbook Chapter 4 on Consumer Theory.

Hill and Myatt cover three criticisms of conventional microeconomic consumer theory.

  1. Economic theory considers preference formation as exogenous. If the production process also creates preferences via advertising, this is not legitimate.
  2. Consumers are supposed to make informed choices leading to increase welfare. However, deceptive advertising often leads consumers to make choices harmful to themselves. The full information condition assumed by Economics is not valid.
  3. Economic theory is based on methodological individualism, and treats all individual separately. However, many of our preferences are defined within a social context, which cannot be neglected.

Before discussing modern consumer theory, it is useful to provide some context and

1      Historical Background:

In a deeply insightful remark, Karl Marx said that Capitalism works not just by enslaving laborers to produce wealth for capitalists, but by making them believe in the necessity and justness of their own enslavement. The physical and observable chains tying the exploited are supplemented by the invisible chains of theories which are designed to sustain and justify existing relationships of power. Modern economic consumer theory is an excellent illustration of these remarks.  read more

Randomization — a philosophical device gone astray

November 26, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll

When giving courses in the philosophy of science yours truly has often had David Papineau’s book Philosophical Devices (OUP 2012) on the reading list. Overall it is a good introduction to many of the instruments used when performing methodological and science theoretical analyses of economic and other social sciences issues.

Unfortunately, the book has also fallen prey to the randomization hype that scourges sciences nowadays.

philosophical-devices-proofs-probabilities-possibilities-and-setsThe hard way to show that alcohol really is a cause of heart disease is to survey the population … But there is an easier way … Suppose we are able to perform a ‘randomized experiment.’ The idea here is not to look at correlations in the population at large, but rather to pick out a sample of individuals, and arrange randomly for some to have the putative cause and some not.

The point of such a randomized experiment is to ensure that any correlation between the putative cause and effect does indicate a causal connection. This works​ because the randomization ensures that the putative cause is no longer itself systematically correlated with any other properties that exert a causal influence on the putative effect … So a remaining correlation between the putative cause and effect must mean that they really are causally connected.

The problem with this simplistic view on randomization is that the claims made by Papineau on behalf of randomization are both exaggerated and invalid:

Read more…

U.S. Wealth Pyramid

November 25, 2017 Leave a comment

from David Ruccio


On Wednesday, I referred to the wealth pyramid in the United States. But I didn’t really represent that pyramid in the chart I provided.   Read more…

The Euro Area double dip was caused by austerity (and yes: there was a double dip)

November 25, 2017 Leave a comment

MerijnKnibbe2What was the cause of the infamous Euro Area 2011-2013 double dip? Answer: a grave policy mistake. Already high ECB interest rates were increased (13 April 2011 13 July 2011) at the same time when fiscal policy was tightened (‘austerity’), unemployment was at record levels (graph 1) and use of capacity was still lowish (less important, core inflation was low, too). As a consequence, Euro Area unemployment started to increase at a time when Japanese and USA unemployment continued to decrease while UK unemployment started to decrease, despite the Eurozone dip. Brad Seltser has written a very good post about the demand side of this (second graph).


Read more…

How would you donate $450 million?

November 24, 2017 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Somehow, some way, someone paid $450 million, after buyer’s fees, for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s last Wednesday. Believed to be the last work by the artist in private hands, the painting’s price smashed all previous records. Since the price also seemed more on par with the education budget of a medium-sized country, Artsy asked a range of leaders from the arts, economics, bioethics, and development to tell us how they’d spend $450 million.

I have to decide whether I would use this money to try to end drug patents or copyrights. Since it is too early in the morning for such a weighty decision, I will put both on the table.

To do in drug patents, I would put up the money for nine orphan drugs trials. These cost around $50 million each, according to recent estimates from James Love, the director of Knowledge Ecology International. I would put all the trial results on the web so that other researchers and doctors would have the full benefit of this information (this would be subject to restrictions preserving the privacy of patients—economists know how to do this). This means they would know whether the drug is more effective for women than men, whether other conditions (e.g. arthritis or heart disease) had an impact on its effectiveness, etc. As it stands now, the drug companies only disclose information that helps them market their drug, so this should be a powerful precedent of how good science could be done.  Read more…

Randomized experiments — a dangerous idolatry

November 23, 2017 5 comments

from Lars Syll

Hierarchy-of-EvidenceNowadays many mainstream economists maintain that ‘imaginative empirical methods’ — especially randomized experiments (RCTs) — can help us to answer questions concerning the external validity of economic models. In their view, they are, more or less, tests of ‘an underlying economic model’ and enable economists to make the right selection from the ever-expanding ‘collection of potentially applicable models.’

It is widely believed among economists that the scientific value of randomization — contrary to other methods — is totally uncontroversial and that randomized experiments are free from bias. When looked at carefully, however, there are in fact few real reasons to share this optimism on the alleged ’experimental turn’ in economics. Strictly seen, randomization does not guarantee anything.

Assume that you are involved in an experiment where we examine how the work performance of Chinese workers (A) is affected by a specific ‘treatment’ (B). How can we extrapolate/generalize to new samples outside the original population (e.g. to the US)? How do we know that any replication attempt ‘succeeds’? How do we know when these replicated experimental results can be said to justify inferences made in samples from the original population? If, for example, P(A|B) is the conditional density function for the original sample, and we are interested in doing an extrapolative prediction of E [P(A|B)], how can we know that the new sample’s density function is identical with the original? Unless we can give some really good argument for this being the case, inferences built on P(A|B) is not really saying anything on that of the target system’s P(A|B).   Read more…

How does Germany’s Monopolies Commission combat market concentration? By making sure that no good data is available.

November 23, 2017 4 comments

from Norbert Häring

How many companies have merged into corporate groups in Germany? We don’t know. The official figures are completely unconvincing. We have a Monopolies Commission which, together with the German Federal Statistical Office, has the legal mandate to monitor market concentration. Germany’s parliament wanted to ensure that the necessary information about the possible emergence of problematic market power is available, only to discover this no longer fits in with the neoliberal ideology inspired by the Chicago School, which has apparently become the ruling ideology at Germany’s Monopolies Commission.

The figures presented by the Monopolies Commission and the Federal Statistical Office appear unreliable. According to the Commission’s main 2008 report, more than 500,000 companies were part of corporate groups in 2003. Following a parliamentary question by the Left Party (die Linke) in the Bundestag the Federal Government recently compiled data from the Federal Statistical Office for the period from 2005 to 2017 concerning the number of corporate groups. According to this study, the number of merged companies in 2005 was surprisingly only one-third as high as in 2003, and the number of corporate groups was 75% less than two years previously. Over the following years there was a clear increase, although with strong fluctuations.

Read more…

At the bottom of the wealth pyramid in the United States

November 22, 2017 Leave a comment

from David Ruccio

wealth shares

Yesterday, I looked at the enormous wealth of U.S. billionaires and the growing gap between them and the rest of the American people.

Today, I want to examine what’s happened in recent years at the bottom of the wealth pyramid.

Read more…

The Shifting Battleground

November 22, 2017 2 comments

from Asad Zaman

The bull charges the red flag being waved by the matador, and is killed because he makes a mistake in recognizing the enemy.  A standard strategy of the ultra-rich throughout the ages has been to convince the masses that their real enemy lies elsewhere. Most recently, Samuel Huntington created a red flag when he painted the civilization of Islam as the new enemy, as no nation was formidable enough to be useful as an imaginary foe to scare the public with. Trillions of dollars have since been spent in fighting this enemy, created to distract attention from the real enemy.

The financial deregulation initiated in the Reagan-Thatcher era in the 1980s was supposed to create prosperity. In fact, it has resulted in a sky-rocketing rise in inequality. The gap between the richest and the poorest has become larger than ever witnessed in history. Countless academic articles and books have been written to document, explain and attempt to provide solutions to the dramatic increase in inequality. The American public does not need these sophisticated data and theories; it experiences the fact, documented in The Wall Street Journal, that the quality of jobs and wage earnings are lower today than they were in the 1970s. Growing public awareness is reflected in several movies about inequality. For instance, Elysium depicts a world where the super-rich have abandoned the ruined surface of the planet Earth to the proles, and live in luxury on a satellite.

The fundamental cause of growing inequality is financial liberalisation. Just before the Great Depression of 1929, private banks gambled wildly with depositors’ money, leading to inflated stocks and real estate prices. Following the collapse of 1929, the government put stringent regulations on banking. In particular, the Glass-Steagall Act prohibited banks from speculating in stocks. As a result, there were few bank failures, and widespread prosperity in Europe and the US in the next 50 years. Statistics show that the wealth shares of the bottom 90 per cent increased, while that of the top 0.1 per cent decreased until 1980. To counteract this decline, the wealthy elite staged a counter-revolution in the 1980s, to remove restrictive banking regulations.  read more

DSGE models are missing the point

November 21, 2017 9 comments

from Lars Syll



In a recent attempt to defend DSGE modelling, Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum and Mathias Trabandt have to admit that DSGE models have failed to predict financial crises. The reason they put forward for this is that the models did not “integrate the shadow banking system into their analysis.” That certainly is true — but the DSGE problems go much deeper than that:  Read more…

Engineering a new crisis to resolve an old one

November 21, 2017 2 comments

from C.P. Chandasekhar

News that the US economy grew at 3 per cent during the hurricane-blighted third quarter of 2017, close to the 3.1 per cent recorded in the previous quarter, has once more revived claims that the world economy has left the Great Recession behind. There is one reason to discount this claim. Back to back 3 per cent annualized rates of growth in consecutive quarters has been observed more than once since the 2008 crisis. In fact, as recently as the second and third quarters of 2014, rates of GDP growth in the US stood at 4.6 and 5.2 per cent respectively.

So, besides indications that Europe has seen the worst of the recession and is possibly experiencing a mild recovery, the principal cause for celebration if any is the falling unemployment rate in the developed economies.  According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, the unemployment rate in the advanced economies is estimated to have fallen from its 8.3 per cent high in 2010 to 6.2 per cent in 2016 and a projected 5.7 per cent in 2017. In the US, the unemployment rate touched a 16-year low of 4.3 per cent. Some of this decline is because of the discouraged worker effect, or the tendency for those who have been looking for employment for long and not finding it to report themselves as not seeking work anymore. That leads to a fall in the number of unemployed actively seeking work but not finding it, captured in the unemployment rate. But with the labour force participation rates rising recently, there is reason to believe that unemployment is indeed falling.   Read more…

Monopoly men*

November 20, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio

Wealth inequality in the United States has reached such extreme levels it is almost impossible to put it into perspective.

But the folks at the Institute for Policy Studies (pdf) have found a novel way, by comparing the fortunes of the 400 wealthiest Americans to the meager assets of everyone else.


Here’s what they found:   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…

Why Krugman and Stiglitz are no real alternatives to mainstream economics

November 18, 2017 22 comments

from Lars Syll

verso_978-1-781683026_never_let_a_serious_crisis__pb_edition__large_300_cmyk-dc185356d27351d710223aefe6ffad0cLittle in the discipline has changed in the wake of the crisis. Mirowski thinks that this is at least in part a result of the impotence of the loyal opposition — those economists such as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman who attempt to oppose the more viciously neoliberal articulations of economic theory from within the camp of neoclassical economics. Though Krugman and Stiglitz have attacked concepts like the efficient markets hypothesis … Mirowski argues that their attempt to do so while retaining the basic theoretical architecture of neoclassicism has rendered them doubly ineffective.

First, their adoption of the battery of assumptions that accompany most neoclassical theorizing — about representative agents, treating information like any other commodity, and so on — make it nearly impossible to conclusively rebut arguments like the efficient markets hypothesis. Instead, they end up tinkering with it, introducing a nuance here or a qualification there … Stiglitz’s and Krugman’s arguments, while receiving circulation through the popular press, utterly fail to transform the discipline.

Paul Heideman

Despite all their radical rhetoric, Krugman and Stiglitz are — where it really counts — nothing but die-hard mainstream neoclassical economists. Just like Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas or Greg Mankiw.  Read more…

Not with a bang but with a (prolonged) whimper

November 17, 2017 49 comments

from Jayati Ghosh

It is probably obvious to everyone that global capitalism is in dire straits, notwithstanding the brave talking up of output recovery that now characterises almost every meeting of the international governing elite. Even so, discussions of the end of capitalism still typically seem overstated and futile, not least because those hoping and mobilising for bringing in an alternative system are everywhere so scattered, weak and demoralised. In effect, capitalism is the only game in town, which is why even in its current debilitated and even decrepit state, it fears no rivals.

But maybe that is really not the point. Maybe economic systems can die without actually being killed by other competing systems. “How will capitalism end?” is the title of a brilliant book by the German thinker Wolfgang Streeck. (Verso, London 2016, published in India by Juggernaut Books.) It provides a cogent and persuasive critique of the nature of contemporary capitalism, and describes its ongoing extended demise, without surrendering to any optimism that as it fails to deliver even in terms of its own logic, all the nastiness and injustice it has generated must inevitably change for the better.

As may be fitting for a work with this combination of scope and profundity, it is difficult to pigeonhole either the author or the book into simple disciplinary categories. It straddles economics, politics and sociology, with forays into moral philosophy: in other words, political economy at its best. But even if it is beautifully written, it makes for tough reading – simply because the message is so stark, at once depressingly dystopic and terrifyingly plausible.   Read more…

Desperately seeking a link between wages and productivity

November 17, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio


Everyone, it seems, now agrees that there’s a fundamental problem concerning wages and productivity in the United States: since the 1970s, productivity growth has far outpaced the growth in workers’ wages.*

Even Larry Summers—who, along with his coauthor Anna Stansbury, presented an analysis of the relationship between pay and productivity last Thursday at a conference on the “Policy Implications of Sustained Low Productivity Growth” sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Thus, Summers and Stansbury (pdf) concur with the emerging consensus,   Read more…