Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

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The Wall Street Journal uses this chart to illustrate a story on a new report issued by Morgan Stanley on “Inequality and Consumption.”*

Morgan Stanley’s research suggests weaker-than-usual consumption at the lower end of the income ladder helps explain why this economic recovery has been particularly anemic.

“It has taken more than five years for U.S. households to ‘feel’ like they are in recovery,” write economists Ellen Zentner and Paula Campbell in the report, entitled “Inequality and Consumption.”

Before the recession, they say, “the expansion of credit simply delayed the day of reckoning from declining incomes and rising inequality.”

Apparently, economists at Standard & Poor’s and Morgan Stanley have begun to understand the macroeconomic effects of rising inequality, a problem that legions of mainstream academic economists have simply ignored.

 

*I haven’t yet been able to obtain a copy of the report itself. I will write about it as soon as I do.

Update

Here are some other charts from the report (courtesy of Marketwatch):

MW-CU639_gini_c_20140922105451_ZH

MW-CU641_low_wa_20140922105810_ZH

MW-CU643_median_20140922110117_ZH

MW-CU647_con_vs_20140922110839_ZH

Murner.Nerrenbeschwerung.kind

Mainstream economics has been a disaster, especially since the crash of 2007-08. It wasn’t able to predict the onset of the crisis. It didn’t even include the possibility of such a crisis. And it certainly hasn’t been a reliable guide to getting out of the crisis.

And yet economist after economist has been stepping forward—even on the liberal side of things—to try to convince us that things are pretty much OK in the land of mainstream economics.

Just the other day, Paul Krugman tried to convince us that, leaving aside the failure to predict the crisis or even envisioning the possibility of a crisis occurring, mainstream models “did a pretty good job of predicting how things would play out in the aftermath.” The problem, for Krugman, all comes down to the “bad behavior” of some economists who have been more interested in defending partisan turf than in getting things right.

Now, Mark Thoma wants to argue that the macroeconomic models—including the “dynamic stochastic general equilibrium” models that have become the stock-in-trade of mainstream macroeconomics for the past couple of decades—are just fine. The problem, as Thoma sees it, is not with the theory or the models but with the questions economists have been asking.

What neither Krugman nor Thoma wants to admit is those very same models—hydraulic IS-LM in the case of Krugman, the rational expectations, dynamic optimizing, and representative agents of DSGE—actually direct the behavior of economists and delimit the questions they can ask. Those models are so many theoretical lenses on the world, which determine how the economists who use them interpret the world.

I understand: Krugman and Thoma desperately want to keep the precious baby. But that also means we’re stuck with the increasingly dirty bathwater.

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You know the story: Xi and his San tribe are “living well off the land.” They are happy because of their belief that the gods have provided plenty of everything, and no one among them has any wants. One day, a Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane and falls to Earth unbroken. But the bottle eventually causes unhappiness within the tribe, leading the elders to believe it’s an “evil thing” which the gods were “absent-minded” to send them. Xi then travels to  the edge of the world and throws the bottle off the cliff. He then returns to his tribe and receives a warm welcome from his family.

I wonder if Paul Krugman expects to receive a warm welcome from the economics family after throwing the prediction bottle over the cliff.

Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

I actually agree with Krugman on this point. Economic prediction is, in fact, impossible and the really crazy feature of mainstream economic models is the fact that endogenous crises simply can’t occur. Exogenous factors, sure, but nothing internal to the models can lead to a crash. Their idealized vision of capitalism, absent an external event (such as a credit crunch or an increase in the price of oil), simply leads to a full-employment, price-stable equilibrium.

But, wait, doesn’t the entire edifice fall when—on its own terms—the ability to correct predict is dispensed with? The whole rationale of giving up realistic assumptions about the economic system has been the ability to accurately and correctly predict the movements of the economy. That’s the mantle of predictive science that has been used, since at least the mid-1950s, to expunge all other economic theories and approaches from the discipline.

Mainstream economists can’t have it both ways: to celebrate their models for their predictive ability and then to dispense with prediction when, as in 2007-08 (just as in 1929), their models clearly failed. We need something better.

As for their track record since the crisis broke out, well, they haven’t fared much better—at least to judge by where we stand right now. Krugman, for his part, wants to stick with the hydraulic mechanisms of the textbook economic models, which “did a pretty good job of predicting how things would play out in the aftermath,” and declare that “too many influential” economists must be crazy.

Heinrich Kley, "Sabotage" (Betriebsstorung)

Heinrich Kley, “Sabotage” (Betriebsstorung)

I have long argued (e.g., here and here) that capitalism involves a kind of pact with the devil: control over the surplus is reluctantly given over to the top 1 percent in return for certain promises, such as just deserts, economic stability, and full employment.

In recent years, as so often in the past, we’ve witnessed those at the top sabotaging the pact (simply because they have the means and interest to do so) and now, once again, they’ve undermined their legitimacy to run things.

First, they broke their promise of just deserts, as the distribution of income has become increasingly (and, to describe it accurately, grotesquely) unequal and the tendency toward high concentrations of wealth has returned, threatening to create a new class of coupon-clippers. Then, they ended the Great Moderation with speculative decisions that ushered in the worst economic crisis since the First Great Depression. And, now, the promise of full employment appears to be falling prey to the prospect of secular stagnation.

That’s the worry expressed in a new ebook edited by Richard Baldwin and Coen Teulings published by Vox. While secular stagnation can be defined in different ways, the basic idea is that, for the foreseeable future, economic growth—and therefore the prospect of full employment—is probably going to be much lower than it was in the decades leading up to the global crises of 2007-08. Moreover, what little growth is expected will most likely be accompanied by great inequality and financial stability.

If it becomes a reality, secular stagnation represents the end of the pact with the devil. It’s going to be impossible to keep any of the promises—just deserts, economic stability, and full employment—that have maintained capitalism’s legitimacy.

I don’t know if the members of the 1 percent are aware of or concerned about the extent to which secular stagnation may be their undoing (because, in fact, they may hold out the hope that more austerity can successfully be imposed to keep pumping out the surplus). But, to judge from many of the contributions to the Vox volume, the prospect of secular stagnation certainly appears to be worrying mainstream macroeconomists.

Why? Because their own promise was to analyze the uneven and shifting patterns of the macroeconomy and to devise the appropriate set of monetary and fiscal policies to ensure the continuation of the pact with the devil. However, secular stagnation—including the idea that the real rate of interest would have to be negative to maintain an equilibrium of savings and investment—calls into question the efficacy of the kinds of macroeconomic policies that have long held sway among mainstream macroeconomists. Now, they’re not sure they’ll be able to maintain the promise of creating a just distribution of income, avoiding financial instability, and creating enough jobs to ensure every able-bodied person who wants a decent, well-paying job can have one.

Actually, as we’ve seen, they haven’t been able to fulfill that promise for the past 7 years. And now, the threat of secular stagnation means they won’t able to do it anytime in the near future.

There just may not be a happy Disney ending to this one. . .

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After learning that Joseph Stiglitz had been invited to give a lecture on inequality at the University of Oxford, I asked my friend Stephen Whitefield, Professor of Politics, University Lecturer in Politics, and Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, to offer his sense of Stiglitz’s lecture. I am pleased to publish his comments here.

It was a huge pleasure for me and my college (Pembroke) and my Department (Politics and International Relations), with the support of the UK Fulbright Commission, to welcome Joseph Stiglitz back to the University of Oxford to deliver the 4th Annual Fulbright Distinguished Lecture. Stiglitz had been Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford in the 1970s. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for his work that shows, as I understand it, that when markets don’t function with perfect information—that is to say, almost always–then there is also always room for government intervention to improve welfare outcomes. That was a huge turn in the debate, even if many mainstream economists and their political allies/masters have yet to catch up.

Stiglitz was in Oxford to talk about “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality and What Can Be Done About It,” which topic marks another great turn in the debate about what kind of political economy we want, from thinking that inequality is irrelevant, since all boats are rising, to thinking that inequality matters, because it makes just about everything worse, at least when it is at very high levels. Stiglitz was of course also central to shifting the current of academic opinion on this topic. And he demonstrated in a brilliant talk—which everyone can link to here (as a podcast or video)—that he is not averse to turning that scholarship into powerful and persuasive accessible language. I have also to add that Stiglitz is a great person to talk to. As Ngaire Woods, his old friend, said in her introduction to his lecture, Stiglitz listens to people.

So, I know he will not be at all put out if he reads me to say that, while his dissection of the causes and consequences of inequality was outstanding, his discussion of what can be done about them was rather light. I told him that myself at dinner afterwards, as did others. I am sure that a lot of that would have been sorted out if he had had more time to talk. After all, he is not at all short of policy prescriptions, as are others like Thomas Piketty, who advocates a global wealth tax. But the problem is not that there is a lack of policies to put forward. In my view, the main problem is with the lack of a clear vision about how to build the political alliances that are necessary to enact those prescriptions. Maybe Stiglitz is right that things look better in places like Brazil and that we can learn things from its experience. Becoming Swedish, however, even if we thought that an attractive proposition—and I still have Per Wahloo in mind when thinking about Swedish Social-Democracy—is just not an option. So, how do we create a winning coalition against inequality that looks plausible and appropriate to our national conditions?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now. But here is a gesture in that direction. First, an irony—that he gave this talk in Oxford where we are of course constantly seeking the support of the 0.01-percenters, including to fund a chair to commemorate Senator Fulbright in my college and department. There were a number of such people in the lecture theatre. But note next something we all know (or strongly believe since Wilkinson and Pickett), that in highly unequal societies even the richest 1 percent appear to have worse health outcomes compared to their counterparts in more equal societies. Stiglitz did not offer a very convincing explanation as to why this is the case. He put it down to stress, which is possible but not very plausible on the face of it. Susan Kelly, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter, puts a more likely hypothesis to my mind: over-treatment. There is apparently a negative correlation at the top end between numbers of physicians and health outcomes. But, who knows? A good question to research. . .

But, to return to my point about the political coalition to implement a reduction in levels of inequality, what we need to know is this: who are the political actors interested in doing this? This was not addressed in any explicit way by Stiglitz, and it seems to me a characteristic of even progressive policies presented by scholars that the questions of who will implement them and in whose political interests they are enacted are seldom on the table. There is talk—just—in analyses of inequality of class but not much about class interests or class actors. Now, there was an implicit answer in Stiglitz’s talk. Perhaps it is the enlightened rich who will use their massive power to reduce inequality, because they will come to see that it is harmful to their interests. Maybe. I have my doubts. Certainly I would not expect inequality to come down to the levels that I would find economically, socially, or politically appropriate if those were the political forces driving it.

But if not the rich, then who? By the admission of all involved in the analysis of inequality, the period from around 1930 to 1980 was one of declining inequality and of course in the post-WWII period of rapid economic growth as well. A time also, not coincidentally, of strong organised trade unions and a mobilised working class. All that is recognised. Less so is the counterpart in international relations, the existence of the Soviet Union and then the Communist bloc and the international communist movement, which presented an alternative to capitalism that many working-class people found attractive and the rich found terrifying enough to make significant concessions. I suspect it takes a stick as well as a carrot to make the rich see their self-interest differently.

Almost all of that historical moment is gone now, and not all for the bad. As a student of the Soviet system, I only lament it when thinking about the appalling kleptocracy that emerged from its womb, to use Marx’s kind of metaphor—a kleptocracy that aspired to be as rich as our own oligarchs. But we should remember that the creation of unions and left movements was the work of generations of intellectuals—I mean that in the broadest Gramscian terms—to create not just policies but first and foremost social and political actors. Perhaps that is what we now need to concentrate on imagining, not to mention doing.

brilliant-economists

Benjamin Wallace-Wells [ht: sm] argues that the broad interest in Thomas Piketty’s book (along with the attention to Nate Silver’s data) is a sign that we’re now speaking the language of economics.

What is up isn’t a mystery. It makes perfect sense to be seeking economic explanations in the years just after the economy has imploded, and while the presidency is preoccupied with trying to fix it. I suspect there’s something else contributing, too — a desire for an objective, numerate authority when elites and their subjective authority are so broadly distrusted.

I suspect that’s true, which is one of the reasons I’ve tried to convince my colleagues that what we should be teaching is critical economic literacy—an ability to understand how economic theories work, and how dependent the conclusions economists arrive at are on the assumptions and concepts of the different economic theories they use.

Wallace-Wells appears to be concerned that economics language is squeezing out other languages and ways of viewing the world. My concern is a bit different: it’s that the hegemony of one economic language serves to marginalize other economic languages. Because that’s the point: there is not a single language of economics, but rather multiple languages. And when the language of mainstream economics is predominant, the ways of looking at and intervening to change the world are confined to a small box. Inequality, for example, becomes narrowly understood in terms of the incomes received by individuals and varying percentiles of the population, while proposals to solve the problem of inequality focus on ways individuals at the bottom can improve their chances and/or how some of the income can be redistributed from the top toward the bottom. But the basic economic structure is never in question—either in terms of how it continues to generate such grotesque levels of inequality or how it might be changed to effect more equal outcomes.

And that’s because the language of mainstream economics has come to dominate our discussions of inequality and much else. So, if Wallace-Wells is right and “the work of one department, economics, is always on the front pages,” then at least let’s make it clear that economists—both academic and everyday—speak in multiple languages. And learning to speak in languages other than that of mainstream economics may just allow us to break through the “curious kind of hesitancy and conditionality on the rest of intellectual culture.”

Update

And, I almost forgot: Yahya M. Madra and Fikret Adaman have published a very useful piece in the current issue of Antipode (behind paywall) in which they argue the economization of the social in the language of neoliberal economic theory (in its different Austrian, Chicago, and post-Walrasian versions) lead to its depoliticization—by cultivating individual “opportunism” as the only sound basis for policy. In my view, what Madra and Adaman demonstrate is that the mainstream language of economics (even when, and perhaps precisely because, it admits of variations in how that language is deployed) reduces the scope for both understanding and doing something about the economic problems that plague us today.

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There’s probably a story here but, for the life of me, I don’t know what it is.

A nude portrait of University of Cambridge economics fellow Victoria Bateman [ht: ja] has gone on display in London’s Mall Galleries as part of an exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Commissioned by Bateman in celebration of her own birthday, the portrait was painted by Anthony Connolly.

Best I can tell, Bateman is an unremarkable economist (with an econometric paper [pdf] on grain prices in early modern Europe and a book, Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe, on a related topic). And her own comments on the portrait are not particularly insightful (in terms of either the aesthetics of the painting itself or the context for exhibiting the portrait). But kudos to her for citing the work of Dobb, Hobsbawm, Brenner, and Wallerstein in her paper (since they’re rarely cited in mainstream economic history), and for having the courage to present her portrait to the public (how many academics, let alone academic economists, would have the nerve?).

As for myself, while there aren’t a lot of mainstream economists I’d like to see in the nude (whether represented in painting, photography, or some other artistic medium), I do think that, after the crises of 2007-08 and in the midst of the Second Great Depression, the lot of them should be disrobed and hung in a gallery.

The rogues gallery.