Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 24 October 2016 in Uncategorized
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Mark Tansey, “Invisible Hand” (2011)

Yesterday, I explained that the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom because, through their neoclassical version of contract theory, they “proved” that capitalist firms—employers hiring labor to produce commodities in privately owned corporations—were the most natural, efficient way of organizing production.

It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream economists—initially in tweets, then in full blog posts—have heaped praise on this year’s award.


Paul Krugman couldn’t believe Hart and Holmstrom hadn’t won the prize already, while Justin Wolfers considered them “an unarguably splendid pick.”

Tyler Cowen also expressed his conviction that the new Nobel laureates are “well-deserving economists at the top of the field.” (He then explains, in separate posts, the significance for neoclassical theory of Hart’s and Holmstrom’s research on the theory of the firm.) The other member of the Marginal Revolution team, Alex Tabarrock, follows up by criticizing the one instance in Hart’s work in which he actually criticizes private enterprise. Hart (in a piece with two other economists) argues one of the downsides of private prisons is that they sacrifice quality for cost—but, according to Tabarrock, “private prisons appear to be cheaper than public prisons but they are not significantly cheaper and the quality of private prisons is comparable to that of public prisons and maybe a little bit higher.”

And then there’s Noah Smith, who follows suit by praising “the new exciting tools that have been developed in the micro world,” including by the new Nobel laureates. He refers to that work in microeconomics as the “real engineering”—as against macroeconomics, “whose scientific value is still being debated.”

The fact is, the value of both areas of mainstream economics is still being debated, as it has been from the very beginning. There is nothing settled (except, perhaps, in the minds of mainstream economists) about either the theory of the firm or the causes of recessions and depressions, the determinants of a commodity’s value or the prospects for long-term capitalist growth, whether the labor market or the economy as a whole is in any kind of equilibrium.

Smith overlooks or ignores those debates, most of which occur between mainstream economists and other, nonmainstream heterodox economists. But then, in attempting to explain why this year’s prize went to microeconomists, Smith displays his real misunderstanding of the history of economics—arguing that “macro developed first.”

Economists saw big, important phenomena like growth, recessions and poverty happening around them, and they wrote down simple theories to explain what they saw. The theories started out literary, and became more mathematical and formal as time went on. But they had a few big things in common. They assumed the people and the companies in the economy were each very tiny and insignificant, like particles in a chemical solution. And they typically assumed that everyone follows very simple rules — companies maximize profits, consumers maximize the utility they get from consuming things. Pour all of these tiny simple companies and people into a test tube called “the market,” shake them up, and poof — an economy pops out.

Here’s the problem: macroeconomics didn’t develop first. Indeed, it wasn’t invented until the 1930s, when John Maynard Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. This should not be surprising, given the fact that the world was in the midst of the Great Depression, with at least 25 percent unemployment, after neoclassical microeconomists (following their classical predecessors, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say) had attempted to prove that markets would always be in equilibrium, which of course ruled out economic depressions and massive unemployment. Oops!

Since then, we’ve seen a mainstream tradition that combines (in different, shifting ways) neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics—a tradition that failed miserably both in the lead-up to and following on the second Great Depression.

But no matter, at least from the perspective of mainstream economics, because its leading practitioners—sometimes from the macro side, this year from the micro side—continue, as if by contract, to be awarded Nobel prizes.


Technically, there is no Nobel Prize in economics. What it is, instead, is the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which members of the Nobel family and a previous winner (Friedrich von Hayek) have criticized.

So, where did the prize come from? As Avner Offer explains,

The Nobel prize came out of a longstanding social conflict. On one side, central banks and the better-off striving to keep property intact and prices stable; on the other, everyone else’s quest for economic security. The Swedish social democratic government clipped the wings of the central bank – Sveriges Riksbank – in pursuit of more housing and jobs. In compensation, the government allowed the central bank to keep some funds, which the bank used in 1968 to endow the Nobel prize in economics as a vanity project to mark its tercentenary.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Neoclassical Economics (as I dubbed it 5 years ago) was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom. Officially, the 2016 prize recognized “their contributions to contract theory.” Unofficially, as I understand their work, it was all about attempting to solve a longstanding problem in neoclassical economic theory: the theory of the firm.

Historically, neoclassical economists (and, for that matter, not a few heterodox economists) simply assumed capitalist firms maximize profits. But, in the context of a market system, there’s no particular reason a non-market institution like “the firm” should exist (instead of, for example, everyone—workers, managers, suppliers, buyers, and so on—entering into market exchanges in parking lots or coffee shops each morning).* And yet corporations, many of them employing hundreds of thousands of workers and making record profits, have become central to the way capitalist economies are currently organized. Moreover, once you look inside that “black box,” a great deal more is going on. Workers are hired to perform necessary and surplus labor in the course of producing commodities by managers, who run the enterprise on a daily basis and receive a cut of the surplus from the board of directors, who themselves need to be elected by shareholders (who, together with money-lenders, merchants, government officials, and many others, inside and outside the enterprise, receive their own portions of the surplus). Corporations, as it turns out, are pretty complicated—political, cultural, and economic—institutions.

But when neoclassical economists like Hart and Holmstrom look inside the firm what they see is a single issue—a relationship between a “principal” and “agents.” Principals (e.g., capitalists) are presumed to enter into agreements—voluntary contracts—with agents (e.g., workers) to advance a goal (e.g., of maximizing profits). As they see it, contracts are risky because, first, principals and agents often have conflicting interests (e.g., principals want maximum effort while agents are presumed to engage in risk-averse, shirking behavior) and, second, measuring fulfillment of the goal is imperfect (that is, not all the actions of the agents can be perfectly observed). The whole point of contract theory, then, is to devise a relationship such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal.

In one of his most famous and influential papers, “Moral Hazard in Teams” (pdf, a link to the working-paper version), Holmstrom’s starting point is the idea that there’s a problem of “inducing agents to supply proper amounts of productive inputs when their actions cannot be observed and contracted upon directly” (in other words, moral hazard), especially when they work in teams. He then sets up a model in which he demonstrates that “separating ownership from production”—which also provides the incentive for limited monitoring by the owners (i.e., stockholders)—solves the problem of moral hazard and restores efficiency.**

In other words, the Nobel Prize-winning approach to contract theory is used to demonstrate what neoclassical economists had long presumed: that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

That’s why, from a neoclassical perspective, it is only natural that capital hires labor.


*In fact, Paul Samuelson (in 1957, in “Wages and Interest: A Modern Dissection of Marxian Economic Models,”American Economic Review) once argued that “In a perfectly competitive market, it really doesn’t matter who hires whom: so have labor hire ‘capital’.”

**Hart, for his part (in a paper with John Moore [pdf]), looked at the issue of property rights in relation to firms by distinguishing between owning a firm and contracting for services from another firm. Their model shows, once again in true neoclassical fashion, that the owner of an enterprise—who exercises “control,” not only over assets, but also over the workers tied to those assets—will have more control, leading to higher efficiency, if they directly employ the workers than if they have an arm’s-length contract with another employer of the workers. That’s because, under single ownership, the employer can “selectively fire the workers of the firm” if they dislike the workers’ performance, whereas under contracted services they can “fire” only the entire firm.



Late last month, I argued Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to international trade. But his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters. That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer in recent weeks than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.

And now we’re witnessing the free-trade, anti-Trump backlash.

Thomas B. Edsall cites the same Peter Goodman article I did last week, which included this astute observation:

Across much of the industrialized world, an outsize share of the winnings has been harvested by people with advanced degrees, stock options and the need for accountants. Ordinary laborers have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety.

But then Edsall goes all in with the mainstream economists who, as part of their unchanging mantra, celebrate free international trade.* He cites, as one example, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management:

No nation can succeed by trying to protect the past from the future. We will succeed by having the confidence to embrace competition, and leveraging our comparative strengths, which are numerous. We have the largest, most productive and most technologically advanced economy that’s ever existed on this planet. The more open the world economy is, the more we have an opportunity to leverage our many strengths.

My sense is that mainstream economists are doubling down on their free-trade argument, forgetting about the “ordinary laborers [who] have borne the costs and suffered from joblessness and deepening economic anxiety,” for two major reasons.

First, they fervently believe in free trade, because their models are designed to ignore the unequal costs and benefits of international trade. That is, the “gains from trade” that supposedly accrue to everyone are literally baked into their models. And they’re afraid to admit that some gain, and many others lose, under existing international trade regimes and agreements. They’re afraid because admitting the unequal outcomes opens the door to intervening and creating patterns of trade that might actually help workers and other losers within the current arrangements. They’re also fearful of incurring the wrath of other mainstream economists, who attack any exceptions to the free-trade mantra with a vengeance (as even Paul Samuelson discovered).

Second, mainstream economists are doubling down on their defense of free trade because they’re willing to say anything and everything to attack Trump. Just the fact that Trump has had the temerity of criticizing free-trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby creating (in the eyes of mainstream economists) the specter of protectionism, has led them to cast aside all caution and reinforce their uncritical support for free trade. (Edsall even invokes the long-discredited idea that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was “one of the principle causes” of the first Great Depression to make the case.) But, of course, in their determination to oppose the Republican candidate, mainstream economists also dismiss the indignities and injuries many of Trump’s supporters have suffered in recent decades.**

International trade is not the only thing hurting American workers. It’s probably not even the major factor. Decades of stagnant wages, rising inequality, outsourcing, and job-displacing technological change created by their employers are, in my view, even more important. But mainstream economists’ and pundits’ all-out defense of free trade, their refusal to recognize the unequal benefits and costs of globalization, and their determined efforts to let employers completely off the hook are among the important reasons that, against all odds, Trump is only 5-6 points behind in the national polls.***


*It should come as no surprise that, according to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, the solution to the problems of international trade is. . .more trade.

**Many of Clinton’s supporters have also been harmed by U.S. economic policies, including international trade agreements.

***I wrote this post before the revelation of the 2005 Trump tape and the Wikileaks publication of the emails concerning Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Given the media coverage of the two events (plus whatever happens in the Sunday debate), my guess is the new polls will register a much larger lead for Clinton—and there will be much less discussion of international trade (or economics of any sort) in the weeks ahead.


Mark Tansey, “EC 101” (2009)

The case for changing the way we teach economics is—or should be—obvious.

It certainly is apparent to the students of Manchester University’s  Post-Crash Economics Society and to the other 44 student groups, members of Rethinking Economics, pressing for pedagogical changes on campuses from Canada to Italy and from Brazil to Uganda.

But as anyone who teaches or studies economics these days knows full well, the mainstream that has long dominated economics (especially at research universities, in the United States and elsewhere) is not even beginning to let go of their almost-total control over the curriculum of undergraduate and graduate programs.

That’s clear from a recent article in the Financial Times, in which David Pilling asks the question, “should we change the way we teach economics?”

Me, I’ve heard the excuses not to change economics for decades now. But it still jars to see them in print, especially after the spectacular failure of mainstream economics before, during, and after the worst economic crisis since the first Great Depression.

Here’s one—the idea that heterodox economics is like creationism, in disputing the “immutable laws” captured by mainstream theory:

Pontus Rendahl teaches macroeconomic theory at Cambridge. He doesn’t disagree that students should be exposed to economic history and to ideas that challenge neoclassical thinking. (He prefers the word “mainstream”, since neoclassical, like neoliberal, has become a term of near-abuse.) He is wary, however, of moving to a pluralist curriculum in which different schools of thought are given similar weight.

“Pluralism is a nicely chosen word,” he says. “But it’s the same argument as the creationists in the US who say that natural selection is just a theory.” Since mainstream economics has “immutable laws”, he argues, it would be wrong to teach heterodox theories as though they had equal validity. “In the same way, I don’t think heterodox engineering or alternative medicine should be taught.”

Rendahl also argues that students are too critical of the models they encounter as undergraduates:

When we start teaching economics, we have to teach the nuts and bolts.” He introduces first-year students to the Robinson Crusoe model, in which there is only one “representative agent”. Later on, Friday is brought on the scene so the two can start trading, although no money changes hands since transactions are solely by barter. (Money and credit are strangely absent from most economic curricula.)

Somehow, the “simplification” involved in presenting a theory of capitalism without money and credit—and therefore without the mechanisms that, from the start, invalidate Say’s Law—is presumed to be innocent.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present worry about banishing mathematical modeling, which is taken to be the necessary condition for intellectual rigor:

Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in economics and teaches at Princeton, says economics is a broad church, but one that needs to be kept rigorous.

He gives the example of Daron Acemoğlu, a “young superstar” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research includes the study of how institutions foster or inhibit growth. “He’s a very good example of the way things ought to be going, which is you do history but you know enough mathematics to be able to model it too. Banishing mathematics is not the solution,” he says. “The model is the cross-check on whether you actually know what you’re talking about.”

For economists like Deaton, rigor is identified with mathematics, not with knowing the assumptions of a theory or being acquainted with various theories.

And, finally, there’s the idea that part of economics is broken but the rest is just fine:

In Manchester, Diane Coyle also defends the basic methodology of economics. She says there is confusion among critics between microeconomics, the study of the behaviour of individuals and firms, and macroeconomics, the study of whole economies. Macroeconomics, she admits, “is broken”. But microeconomics is both robust and often verifiable with real-world data. What, she asks, can heterodox economists contribute to typical concerns of microeconomics, such as discovering the right mix of policy incentives to discourage obesity?

In Coyle’s case, the assumption is that there’s a set of theory-independent, “real-world data,” against which neoclassical microeconomics has been compared and ultimately verified. That, of course, is news to other economists, who use different theoretical lenses, and see very different data.

The assumptions built into each and every one of these defenses of mainstream economics and attacks on heterodox economic theories as well as any hint of pluralism in the teaching of economics are, at best, outdated—the leftovers from positivism and other forms of post-Enlightenment scientism. They comprise the “spontaneous philosophy” of mainstream economists who have exercised hegemony in the practice and teaching of economics throughout the postwar period.

And, yes, Pilling is right, when that hegemony is challenged, as it has been by economics students and many economists in recent years, “the clash of ideas gets nasty.”


Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he owned Hillary Clinton during the first part of Monday’s debate. And his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters.

That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer at this stage than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.*

I weighed in back in July, trying to move the debate beyond the free trade-protectionism terms in which it has been framed. Now, we have Peter Goodman, who understands that “Trade is under attack in much of the world, because economists failed to anticipate the accompanying joblessness, and governments failed to help.”**

Goodman makes a number of good observations—about the role “libraries full of economics textbooks” played in promoting free trade and the fact that, even if manufacturing plants returned to the United States, “robots would probably capture most of the jobs.”

But what really interests me about Goodman’s article are the comments from readers. Here is a small sample:

From Mitch Gitman (in Seattle)—

Economists failed to anticipate the job losses stemming from unleashing a Hobbesian race to the bottom on the global economy?! I think they all knew full well, but they weren’t so concerned because it wasn’t their jobs being lost. Just like these economists don’t belong to the generations that are going to be bearing the brunt of the environmental impacts of this sudden race to burn all the fossil-fuel resources that our only planet has taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate.

Economists are supposed to be the professionals who are smart enough to see the big picture, but economists have to pay the bills too. And there was never going to be a demand for an economist with the simple common sense to see the really big picture, that being able to buy marginally cheaper goods at Walmart is the classic case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Bill Maher had a great line from his commentary at the end of last Friday’s episode of his HBO show “Real Time.” To people who ask, “Why doesn’t our economy work for people like me?” His response: “Because it’s not designed to.”

From Kate Flannery (in New York)—

At it’s barren heart, it’s not about trade, it’s about profit at any cost to the public good or just simply human life.

We wouldn’t need lower cost consumer goods, if people had decent income to purchase what they need or want in a sustainable way. Products that are cheap, but fall apart after a year is not the way life should be, nor is it environmentally just.

Every economic lie and political spin about the glories of globalization is just that – a lie to enable corporations and the rich to have even more. American agricultural giants wanted more markets for their horrible products, sending corn into Mexico, a country that didn’t need it. This drove Mexican farmers out of business and destabilized workers who fled north to find work, or crowded into cities to become slave workers for corporations at minimal wages. And that’s just one small example of its immoral and devastating effects.

Globalization and its attendant trade are a main contributor to environmental degradation around the globe as well.

The whole idea of glorious trade and globalization and all the rest, is just a monumental lie serving to enrich the few at the expense of the many. It’s been sold to the public at extraordinary cost. But people are waking up and realizing that those we elect to protect and serve the interests of society have only their self interests and those at the top of the food chain – corporations and finance – are just hollow men and women.

It’s about profit. Nothing else.

And LindaP (in Boston)—

It breaks my heart that the city where I grew up –Fall River, MA, the Spindle City– is a Trump stronghold. It is against the self-interest of those supporters, but as one who lived through the shut down of a city and the hopelessness that ensues, I (kinda) get it.

On hot summer vacation days in the ’60s, we kids would walk through the city. Factory windows would be open. The clack and whir of sewing machines and other manufacturing equipment was as familiar as crickets in the evening. Both my parents — my entire family, actually — worked in those mills.

No one was rich, living in three-deckers and saving up for the American Dream of owning a home, which many went on to do. In those neighborhoods of three-deckers there was cleanliness, pride of place, community, and a real knowledge (not false hope) that you could progress and make a better life for your family. No one was looking to live in a gilded tower — just a nice home, good schools, a living wage, and a better life for ones children.

Then the mills went dark, one by one. Everyone I knew who made their lives in those jobs had to move on. There were still other union jobs to get in the late 60s, so we survived. By the time my parents retired, I saw opportunity dry up for those behind them.

The loss of manufacturing allowed poverty, addiction, and a true hopelessness to take hold. Maybe you have to live it to know how devastatingly true that is.

There’s more wisdom in those comments, about the causes and consequences of free trade, than one will find in Trump’s speeches and the libraries full of mainstream economics textbooks—or, for that matter, in the revised policy positions on Hillary Clinton’s web site.


*Clearly, the Brexit vote has also had an impact.

**To be clear, mainstream economists are the ones who failed to anticipate the negative effects, and both Democratic and Republican governments failed to help workers.