Why, to the detriment of the economics profession, MiltonFriedman ignored Hyman Minsky’s advice

September 22, 2017 4 comments

kooWeird: fifty years after Schumpeter and one hundred years after John Stuart Mill they did not mention ‘credit’. Let alone ‘private credit’. Mill’s idea that private credit creation often decisively contributes to bubbles, and bursts, is absent from the whole thing. The Schumpeterian idea that credit financed investments lead to economic growth (and monetary changes) is alien to their concept. Even the Irving Fisher idea that there are different kinds of money with different kinds of velocity is not really incorporated while the sectoral approach which is part and parcel of the main system of monetary statistics, the Flow of Funds, is not even mentioned. And Minsky’s clear warning that stocks of private debts are pivotal in engendering the deep depressions central to their analysis was bluntly ignored. Read more…

Putting predictions to the test

September 21, 2017 12 comments

from Lars Syll

tetIt is the somewhat gratifying lesson of Philip Tetlock’s new book that people who make prediction their business — people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables — are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake. No one is paying you for your gratuitous opinions about other people, but the experts are being paid, and Tetlock claims that the better known and more frequently quoted they are, the less reliable their guesses about the future are likely to be. The accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote. Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones.

The New Yorker

Mainstream neoclassical economists often maintain – usually referring to the methodological individualism of Milton Friedman — that it doesn’t matter if the assumptions of the models they use are realistic or not. What matters is if the predictions are right or not. But, if so, then the only conclusion we can make is — throw away the garbage! Because, oh dear, oh dear, how wrong they have been!  Read more…

Water, health and wealth

September 20, 2017 2 comments

Nava Ashraf, Edward Glaeser, Abraham Holland, Bryce Millett Steinberg  NBER Working Paper No. 23807

Providing clean water requires maintenance, as well as the initial connections that are typically measured. Frequently, the water supply fails in the developing world, especially when users don’t pay the marginal cost of water. This paper uses the timing of frequent, unexpected water service outages in Lusaka, Zambia to identify the short-term impacts of piped water access on contagious disease, economic activity and time use. We use microdata from the primary water utility in the city on the timing and location of supply complaints to identify outages, matched to extensive administrative data across the city. Conditional on fixed effects for time and water service district within Lusaka, we find that increases in outages are associated with increased incidence of diarrheal disease, upper respiratory infections, typhoid fever and measles. We match outages to geolocated microdata on financial transactions from the largest mobile money provider in Zambia, and find that outages cause a reduction in financial transactions. Outages also increase the time that young girls spend at their chores, possibly at the expense of time they spend doing schoolwork. Imperfect infrastructure appears to burden the poor in ways that go far beyond obvious health consequences.


Acid rain, health and government policy

September 20, 2017 1 comment

A recent meme of the fact free right in my country (the Netherlands) is the idea that the Acid Rain problem spontaneously disappeared. It didn’t. It was the government, stupids! And it is a really serious problem which did and does require attention. Source

Break this!

September 20, 2017 12 comments

from David Ruccio


David Brooks should have left well enough alone.

Read more…

The institutional approach to labor economics

from Maria Alejandra Madi

The economist John R. Commons is considered one of the founding fathers of institutional economics. He played a leading role in the developing of the labor economics field by establishing some core principles in his book Institutional Economics: Its Place in Political Economy (1934). Besides, as Kenneth Boulding (1957) stated, Commons’ ideas as a social reformer were very influential in shaping the New Deal and the American labor legislation and social security toward a welfare state.

It is worth noting that some generations of institutionalists in labor economics can be identified since then (Champlin and Knoedler, 2004). After the first generation of Commons and the Wisconsin School, the second generation emerged in the 1950s and included those economists, such as John Dunlop and Neil Chamberlain, who rejected standard economic textbooks and emphasized the role of institutional rules in structuring labor markets and industrial relations. Afterwards, the third generation focused on structural unemployment (e.g., Charles Killignsworth), segmented labor markets (e.g., Michael Piore). This generation also included post-Keynesian economists, such as Eillen Appelbaum.  From 1980 to the present, the fourth generation has been broadened in order to include contiguous fields and new methods of research. Institutionalism has been broadened further to include the new perspective of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson that has informed research and model building based on the concept of transaction cost.

Despite de differences between generations, which are the elements that explain the institutionalist labor approach?     read more

Stiglitz and the full force of Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu

September 19, 2017 18 comments

from Lars Syll

In his recent article on Where Modern Macroeconomics Went Wrong, Joseph Stiglitz acknowledges that his approach “and that of DSGE models begins with the same starting point: the competitive equilibrium model of Arrow and Debreu.”

This is probably also the reason why Stiglitz’ critique doesn’t go far enough.

It’s strange that mainstream macroeconomists still stick to a general equilibrium paradigm more than forty years after the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem — SMD — devastatingly showed that it  is an absolute non-starter for building realist and relevant macroeconomics:

SMD theory means that assumptions guaranteeing good behavior at the microeconomic level do not carry over to the aggregate level or to qualitative features of the equilibrium …

24958274Given how sweeping the changes wrought by SMD theory seem to be, it is understandable that some very broad statements about the character of general equilibrium theory were made. Fifteen years after General Competitive Analysis, Arrow (1986) stated that the hypothesis of rationality had few implications at the aggregate level. Kirman (1989) held that general equilibrium theory could not generate falsifiable propositions, given that almost any set of data seemed consistent with the theory …

S. Abu Turab Rizvi

Read more…

Debates in economics

September 18, 2017 6 comments

“Profits above morals and humanity”

September 17, 2017 4 comments

from David Ruccio


Back in June, Kim Hemphill, in her letter to the editor of the Washington Post, challenged pharmaceutical industry claims that it must charge high prices on lifesaving drugs to recover research and development costs.

The case detailed in the June 11 Business article “Max’s best hope costs $750,000” was yet another example of how the pharmaceutical industry continues to put profits above morals and humanity. . .

Research and development costs are a part of the business pharmaceutical companies are in and should have little, if any, bearing on the ultimate price of a drug. What they charge for these specialty drugs is profit-motivated price gouging, plain and simple.

The fact is, as is clear from the chart above, pharmaceutical prices (at the wholesale level) have risen since 1981 at a much faster rate than for all commodities—more than 7 times compared to just two.

Most people, like Ms. Hemphill, think this is a case of “profit-motivated price gouging” on the part of drug companies. But it’s a difficult charge to prove.

Until now.  Read more…

Where modern macroeconomics went wrong

September 16, 2017 6 comments

from Lars Syll

DSGE models seem to take it as a religious tenet that consumption should be explained by a model of a representative agent maximizing his utility over an infinite lifetime without borrowing constraints. Doing so is called micro-foundingthe model. But economics is a behavioral science. If Keynes was right that individuals saved a constant fraction of their income, an aggregate model based on that assumption is micro-founded.FRANCE-US-ECONOMY-NOBEL-STIGLITZOf course, the economy consists of individuals who are different, but all of whom have a finite life and most of whom are credit constrained, and who do adjust their consumption behavior, if slowly, in response to changes in their economic environment. Thus, we also know that individuals do not save a constant fraction of their income, come what may. So both stories, the DSGE and the old-fashioned Keynesian, are simplifications. When they are incorporated into a simple macro-model, one is saying the economy acts as if… And then the question is, which provides a better description; a better set of prescriptions; and a better basis for future elaboration of the model. The answer is not obvious. The criticism of DSGE is thus not that it involves simplification: all models do. It is that it has made the wrong modelling choices, choosing complexity in areas where the core story of macroeconomic fluctuations could be told using simpler hypotheses, but simplifying in areas where much of the macroeconomic action takes place.

Joseph Stiglitz

Stiglitz is, of course, absolutely right.   Read more…

Adults in the room: The sordid tale of Greece’s battle against austerity and the Troika

September 16, 2017 9 comments

from Dean Baker

Yanis Varoufakis begins his account of his half year as Greece’s finance minister in the left populist Syriza government (Adults in the Room, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) with a description of a meeting with Larry Summers. According to Varoufakis, Summers explains that there are two types of politicians. There are those who are on the inside and play by the rules. They can just occasionally accomplish things by persuading others in the room to take their advice.

Then there is the other type of politician, those who don’t agree to the rules and will never get anywhere. Summers asks Varoufakis which type of politician he is.

We don’t know what answer Varoufakis gave to Summers, but he wastes no time telling us he is the second type. He is committed to accomplishing something for his people, most immediately the people of Greece in the struggle to end mindless austerity, but ultimately the people of Europe and arguably the world, in an effort to fight against needlessly cruel economic policies. If this means breaking with the decorum of the elites, so be it.  Read more…

How do you like them facts?

September 15, 2017 Leave a comment

from David Ruccio


Apologists for mainstream economics (such as Noah Smith) like to claim that things are OK because good empirical research is crowding out bad theory.  Read more…

Rethinking expectations

September 14, 2017 5 comments

from Lars Syll

The tiny little problem that there is no hard empirical evidence that verifies rational expectations models doesn’t usually bother its protagonists too much. Rational expectations überpriest Thomas Sargent has defended the epistemological status of the rational expectations hypothesis arguing that since it “focuses on outcomes and does not pretend to have behavioral content,” it has proved to be “a powerful tool for making precise statements.”

Precise, yes, but relevant and realistic? I’ll be dipped!

In their attempted rescue operations, rational expectationists try to give the picture that only heterodox economists like yours truly are critical of the rational expectations hypothesis.

But, on this, they are, simply … eh … wrong.

Let’s listen to Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps — hardly a heterodox economist — and what he has to say (emphasis added):   Read more…

Welfare for Wall Street: fees on retirement accounts

September 14, 2017 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Most of us are willing to help out those who are less well off. Whether it comes from religious belief or a sense of basic decency we feel are an obligation to provide the basic necessities of life for the poor. But how would we feel about being taxed $1,000 a year to provide six figure salaries to people in the financial sector? Although no candidate to my knowledge has ever run on this platform, this is the nature of the retirement system the federal government has constructed for us.

Twenty or 30 years ago, most middle-class workers had defined benefit pensions. This meant that they could count on a fixed benefit that was some fraction of their average salary during their working years. For example, a person who spent 30 years at a company may be entitled to a pension that was equal to 60 percent of their average salary over their final five years of work.

With a defined benefit pension system, most of the risk was born by the employer. The worker did not have to worry about the stock market being down when she chose to retire. Nor did it matter to her if the pension made bad investment choices; the employer was liable for the promised benefits, unless it went bankrupt.

The virtues of the defined pension system can be exaggerated, although recent researchindicates it provided more retirement income than we had recognized. Workers who changed jobs frequently or worked part-time rarely qualified for pension coverage. This excluded many women, African American and Latino workers. But for those who were eligible the defined benefit system provided a substantial degree of retirement security.

Read more…

Economics and the new history of capitalism

September 13, 2017 5 comments

from David Ruccio

As I tell my students, nothing gets a mainstream economist frothing at the mouth quite like mentioning Karl Polanyi.

Or at least it used to, when mainstream economists actually knew who Polanyi was and grasped—however dismissively—what he wrote about the history of capitalism.

To his credit, Eric Hilt (pdf) appears to know something about the author of The Great Transformation and how his work influenced the new history of capitalism. And his review of ten recent books, including Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global Historyis not as dismissive as those of other mainstream economists, such as Alan L. Olmstead.

Much of the research of economic historians focuses on questions originating in economic theory, which tend to be quite narrow. In contrast, these book present expansive narratives and explore questions that may not be amenable to the analytical tools of economists. The authors’ critical perspectives also distinguish their work from that of economic historians and make it relevant to the concerns of many popular readers. The historians of capitalism rightly remind us that economic growth and development can have human costs not captured in average incomes; that our economic history includes no small measure of cruelty, coercion, and expropriation, rather than free exchanges occurring in the context of secure property rights; and that the economic system we have today is not a natural condition, but the outcome of policy choices that could have been made differently.

Hilt is, I think, correct: the new history of capitalism does represent a reminder to—and thus an indictment of—contemporary mainstream economics, precisely because it includes an analysis of the “cruelty, coercion, and expropriation” of the emergence and development of capitalism and the idea that contemporary capitalism is “not a natural condition.”  Read more…

Going rogue: economic practice and hitting the orthodox wall

September 13, 2017 3 comments

from Andrew Vonnegut and WEA Commentaries

My work over almost 20 years would have pegged me as a pretty mainstream economist. I worked in company and market due diligence and risk analysis in emerging markets finance, then for two large international consulting firms in emerging markets policy advisory. A regular, mainstream, practicing economist.

Then I returned to the United States, started teaching a global economics class, and looked for a text. Like my texts 25 years ago, materials were largely locked into a Samuelson definition and optimization framework, with full chapters devoted to expositions of and extensions on the Heckscher-Ohlin and Rybczynski theorems. The skirmish between mainstream and heterodox economics might have another dog in the fight, or at least one quietly lurking nearby: practitioners in need of useful information and frameworks. Unrepentant Laffer disciples aside, are practitioners driven outside the mainstream in a quest for actionable insight?

Learning the traditional optimization based foundations of the discipline can be beneficial, in particular for students continuing in economics. But, lots of people taking classes are not on an academic track, whether students in undergrad economics programs, business schools, global studies or public policy programs, or as journalists or just curious people. The latter are my students. They need to learn what the global economy looks like, start asking the right questions, and develop a basic, but broad framework for deriving and understanding the merits of different answers. They don’t need to graph the HO theorem. I did that, and it never helped me solve any problems.

So, like many other members of the WEA, I developed my own class materials (then turned them into a book). The themes that I hope will give students a useful background don’t seem anything but mainstream in the practitioner’s world, but many are left out of a traditional economics education. Here are some examples.  read more

What makes economics a science?

September 12, 2017 21 comments

from Lars Syll

Well, if we are to believe most mainstream economists, models are what make economics a science.

economists3_royalblue_whiteIn a recent Journal of Economic Literature(1/2017) review of Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules, renowned game theorist Ariel Rubinstein discusses Rodrik’s justifications for the view that “models make economics a science.” Although Rubinstein has some doubts about those justifications — models are not indispensable for telling good stories or clarifying things in general; logical consistency does not determine whether economic models are right or wrong; and being able to expand our set of ‘plausible explanations’ doesn’t make economics more of a science than good fiction does — he still largely subscribes to the scientific image of economics as a result of using formal models that help us achieve ‘clarity and consistency’.

There’s much in the review I like — Rubinstein shows a commendable scepticism on the prevailing excessive mathematisation of economics, and he is much more in favour of a pluralist teaching of economics than most other mainstream economists — but on the core question, “the model is the message,” I beg to differ with the view put forward by both Rodrik and Rubinstein.

Economics is more than any other social science model-oriented. There are many reasons for this — the history of the discipline, having ideals coming from the natural sciences (especially physics), the search for universality (explaining as much as possible with as little as possible), rigour, precision, etc.  Read more…

Who’s working for Facebook?

September 11, 2017 2 comments

from David Ruccio

There are plenty of reasons to be interested in—and, even more, concerned about—Facebook. Many of them are raised in the recent review of Facebook-related books by John Lanchester [ht: db]: the fragmentation of the polity (via the targeting of posts), the dissemination of “fake news” (which played an important role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election), the undermining of other livelihoods (such as journalism and music), the level of surveillance of users (much more than any national government), the violation of anti-monopoly rules (via individualized pricing), and so on.

All of them are important—and they get at what the Facebook business model is all about:

For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

That’s right. That’s how the owners of Facebook make their money: they track users, collect information, and then sell that to advertisers.*

But it still doesn’t get at the issue of who works for Facebook, who creates that value, what the class structure of Facebook (and Google and other such companies) is.

Lanchester’s answer is that we, the two billion or so of us who use Facebook, actually work for the social-media giant.  Read more…

Time for critics of economics critics to move on!

September 10, 2017 5 comments

from David Orrell and WEA Commentaries

There is a growing trend for economists to write articles criticising the critics of economics. These articles follow a similar pattern. They start by saying that the criticisms are “both repetitive and increasingly misdirected” as economist Diane Coyle wrote, and might complain that they don’t want to hear one more time Queen Elizabeth’s question, on a 2008 visit to the London School of Economics: “Why did nobody see it coming?”

Economist Noah Smith – writing in a blanket critique of an extract from a 140,000 word book by John Rapley – agrees that “blanket critiques of the economics discipline have been standardized to the point where it’s pretty easy to predict how they’ll proceed.” Unlike the crisis then! “Economists will be castigated for their failure to foresee the Great Recession. Some unrealistic assumptions in mainstream macroeconomic models will be mentioned. Economists will be cast as priests of free-market ideology, whose shortcomings will be vigorously asserted.” And so on.

The articles criticising critics then tell critics it is time to adopt a “more constructive tone” and “focus on what is going right in the economics discipline” (Smith) because “only if today’s critics of economics pay more attention to what economists are actually doing will they be able to make a meaningful contribution to assessing the state of the discipline” (Coyle). If the critics being criticised are not economists, the articles often drive their point on tone home by implying that they don’t know what they are talking about, are attacking a straw man1, or (not these authors, but a popular choice) are like climate change deniers (see also here and here).

Speaking as an early adopter of the Queen Elizabeth story (in my 2010 book Economyths, recently re-released in extended form), allow me to say that I agree completely with these critic critics. Yes, economists failed to predict the most significant economic event of their lifetimes. Yes, their models couldn’t have predicted it, even in principle, based as they were on the idea that markets are inherently self-stabilising. And yes, economists didn’t just fail to predict the crisis, they helped cause it, through their use of flawed risk models which gave a false sense of security.  read more

Modern society

September 9, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll