Posts Tagged ‘economists’

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Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.

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The so-called economics experts surveyed by the UK Centre for Macroeconomics—whose aim is to inform “the public about the views held by prominent economists based in Europe on important macroeconomic and public policy questions”—are in substantial agreement that “lower real wage growth was beneficial for employment levels during the Great Recession.” A clear majority (65 percent) either strongly agree or agree, which increases (to 70 percent) when the answers are weighted with self-reported confidence levels.

I would bet, based on their responses to other questions, the analogous group of “experts” in the United States—such as the mainstream economists who comprise the IGM Panel—hold the same view.

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Here’s the problem: the correlation between wages and employment in the United States (measured in terms of percent change from one year ago in the chart above) does not tell us anything about causality. Mainstream economics experts presume (based on the assumptions embedded in their macroeconomic models) that causality runs from wages to employment. So, in their view, low wage growth is beneficial for employment levels.

What they don’t consider is the opposite relationship: that moderate employment growth (especially during and after a recession) leads to low wage growth.

The key is the Industrial Reserve Army, which is missing from the models used by the so-called experts. As I wrote back in 2015,

While mainstream economists congratulate themselves on a successful economic recovery, which has lowered the headline unemployment rate and requires now a return to “normal” monetary policy, they accept a situation in which a large Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-Wage Workers has both been created by and, in turn, fueled a recovery characterized by stagnant wages for most and growing profits and high incomes for a tiny minority at the very top.

In other words, all mainstream economists are doing is congratulating themselves for a job well done—in supporting an economic system that exists not to serve the needs of workers, but in which workers exist only to serve the needs of their employers.

As it turns out, that self-congratulatory stance is adopted by so-called economics experts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Neil Irwin would like us to believe there’s a mystery surrounding the U.S. economy. But it’s not what one might expect:

The real mystery. . .isn’t why wages are rising so slowly, but why they’re rising so fast.

Really?!

In Irwin’s model, workers’ wages should rise at the same rate as productivity combined with inflation. And he’s worried that wages are rising faster than that right now.

Except they’re not. And they haven’t been for decades.

As is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the change workers’ wages (hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers) has often surprised the rate of growth of per capita output (GDP per capita) for long periods of time. But when we add in inflation (according to the Consumer Price Index), only rarely in recent decades have wages surpassed the sum of output and price changes (during some months of some recessions). In general, workers’ wages have fallen short—in many cases, by 4 and 5 percentage points.

And that’s been going on for decades, which is why the labor share of national income has been falling. Workers produce more, prices go up, and wages rise by much less.

Even recently, after a short period when wages were rising faster than productivity plus inflation (from the second quarter of 2015 to the third quarter of 2016), that trend has continued. In the first quarter of 2017, when wages rose at an annual rate of 2.4 percent, the rate of growth of output per capita and inflation was higher, at 3.9 percent.

For Irwin, as for most mainstream economists, the real mystery is why productivity has been growing so slowly—because they cling to the idea that everyone, including workers, will benefit if only they could find some way to boost productivity.

But that ship sailed long ago. Workers’ wages haven’t matched the growth of the value workers produce for decades. And there’s no reason to expect that trend to change in the foreseeable future—not when employers can get away with paying workers as little as possible.

As I see it, the real mystery is why Irwin and mainstream economists continue to hold to the myth that workers will benefit from rising productivity.

It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes (or, if you prefer, Kurt Wallander) to figure out that, if they continue to focus on productivity and its supposed benefits, they can try to keep things just as they are right now.

But the rest of us know the existing economic institutions have failed—and failed miserably for decades now—and that radically new ways of organizing the economy have to be imagined and enacted.

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Millions of workers have been displaced by robots. Or, if they have managed to keep their jobs, they’re being deskilled and transformed into appendages of automated machines. We also know that millions more workers and their jobs are threatened by much-anticipated future waves of robotics and other forms of automation.

But mainstream economists don’t want us to touch those robots. Just ask Larry Summers.

Summers is particularly incensed by Bill Gates’s suggestion that we begin taxing robots. So, he trots out all the usual arguments, hoping that at least one of them will stick. It’s hard to distinguish between robots and other forms of automation. Robots and other forms of automation produce better goods and services. And, of course, automation enhances productivity and leads to more wealth. So, we shouldn’t do anything to shrink the size of the economic pie.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country up to international trade is just like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Mr Gates’ robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

Progress, indeed.

What mainstream economists like Summers fail to understand is that not touching the robots—or, for that matter, international trade—means keeping things just as they are. It means keeping the decisions about jobs, just like the patterns of international trade, in the hands of a small group of employers. They’re the ones who, under current circumstances, appropriate the surplus and decide where and how jobs will be created—and, of course, where they will be destroyed. Which, as I explained last year, is exactly how international trade takes place.

And because employers, now and as Summers would like to see the world, are the ones who are allowed to retain a monopoly over jobs and trade, they also decide how the economic pie is distributed and redistributed. Tinkering around the edges—with the usual liberal shibboleths about the need for “education and retraining”—doesn’t fundamentally alter the fact that workers remain subject to decisions about technology and trade in which they have no say. Workers are thus forced to have the freedom to adjust, with more or less government assistance, to decisions taken by their employers.

And to sit back and admire, but not touch, the growth in productivity.*

 

*And that’s pretty much what Brad DeLong also recommends in making, for the umpteenth time, the argument that today, the world’s population is, on average, many times richer than it was during the long preceding age—because both average wealth and consumer choice have increased. Delong, like Summers, doesn’t want us to touch the “innovations that have fundamentally transformed human civilization.”

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According to recent news reports, Kevin Hassett, the State Farm James Q. Wilson Chair in American Politics and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute (no, I didn’t make that up), will soon be named the head of Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Yes, that Kevin Hassett, the one who in 1999 predicted the Down Jones Industrial Average would rise to 36,000 within a few years.

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Except, of course, it didn’t. Not by a long shot. The average did reach a record high of 11,750.28 in January 2000, but after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, it steadily fell, reaching a low of 7,286 in October 2002. Although it recovered to a new record high of 14,164 in October 2007, it crashed back to the vicinity of 6,500 by the early months of 2009. And, even today, almost two decades later, it’s only just cracked the 20,000 barrier.

But, no matter, mainstream economists and pundits—like Greg Mankiw, Noah Smith, and Tim Worstall—think Hassett is a great choice.

Perhaps, in addition to his Dow book, they want to place the rest of Hassett’s writings on an altar.

Like Hassett’s claim (which I discuss here) that “lowering corporate taxes is the only real cure for wage stagnation among American workers.”

Or his other major claim (which I discuss here), that poverty and inequality in the United States are merely figments of our imagination.

Let’s focus on that last claim. As regular readers of this blog know, income inequality—whether measured in terms of fractiles (e.g., the 1 percent versus everyone else) or classes (e.g., profits and wages)—has been increasing for decades now. But for conservative economists like Hassett (who was an economic adviser to Mitt Romney before being a candidate to join the Trump team), inequality has not been growing and poor people are actually much better off than they and the rest of us normally think. What they do then is substitute consumption for income and argue that consumption inequality has actually not been growing.

So, what’s the big problem?

But even in terms of consumption they’re wrong. As Orazio Attanasio, Erik Hurst, Luigi Pistaferri have shown, once you correct for the measurement errors in the Consumer Expenditure Survey (which Hassett and his coauthor, Aparna Mathur, don’t do), and bring in other sources of consumption information (including the well-regarded Panel Study of Income Dynamics), consumption inequality has increased substantially in recent decades—more or less at the same rate as inequality in the distribution of income.

Overall, our results suggest that there has been a substantial rise in consumption and leisure inequality within the U.S. during the last 30 years. The rise in income inequality translated to an increase in actual well-being inequality during this time period because consumption inequality also increased.

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And, remember, that doesn’t take into account other forms of inequality, such as the increase in the unequal distribution of wealth, which has exploded in recent decades. The poor and pretty much everyone else—the 90 percent—are being left behind.

It’s the spectacular grab for income, consumption, and wealth by the small group at the top that Hassett and the new administration will be trying to protect.

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There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about mainstream economists’ rejection of the new populism.

Lest we forget, mainstream economists in the United States and Europe (and, of course, around the world) mostly celebrated current economic arrangements. As far as they were concerned, everyone benefits from contemporary globalization (the more trade the better) and from the distribution of income created by market forces (since everyone gets what they deserve).

To be sure, those who identify with different wings of mainstream economics debate the extent to which there are market imperfections and therefore how much interference there should be in markets. Conservative mainstream economists tend to argue in favor of less regulation, their liberal counterparts for more government intervention. But they share the same general economic vision—that capitalism is characterized by “just deserts,” stable growth, and rising standards of living.

Except of course in recent decades it hasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Inequality has skyrocketed to obscene levels (and continues to rise), leaving many people behind. The crash of 2007-08 shattered the illusion of stability—and now there’s a deepening worry of “secular stagnation” moving forward. And, while the conspicuous consumption of the tiny group at the top continues unabated, only rising debt keeps everyone else from falling down the ladder.

No wonder, then, that economic populists, especially those on the Right, are rejecting the status quo—and winning campaigns and elections (often in the form of protest votes).

For the most part, to judge by Brigitte Granville’s survey of a variety of Project Syndicate commentators’ responses to populism, mainstream economists remain blind as to “why so many voters have embraced facile policies and populist politics.”

That’s pretty much what one would expect, given mainstream economists’ general commitment to the status quo.

But even when they admit that “much has gone wrong for a great many people,” as Margaret MacMillan does (“Globalization and automation are eliminating jobs in developed countries; powerful corporations and wealthy individuals in too many countries are getting a greater share of the wealth and paying fewer taxes; and living conditions continue to deteriorate for people in the US Rust Belt or Northeast England and Wales”), we read the spectacular claim that today’s populists—these “new, outsider political forces”—are wrong because they “claim to have a monopoly on truth.”

Now, I understand, MacMillian is a historian, not an economist. But the idea that populists are somehow the only ones who claim to have a monopoly on truth is an extraordinary diagnosis of the problem.

Think of the legions of mainstream economists who have lined up over the years to claim a monopoly on the truth concerning a wide variety of policies, from restricting minimum wages and approving NAFTA to deregulating finance and voting no on Brexit. They are the ones who have aligned themselves with the interests of economic and political elites and who, in the name of expertise, have attempted to trump democratic, public discussion of important economic issues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream economists—such as Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan—are so concerned that economists have been demoted within the new Trump administration. The horror! The chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers is not going to be a member of the Cabinet.

Yes, it is true, business acumen is not the same as economic analytics. (I teach economics in a College of Arts and Letters, not in a business school—and, as I remind my students on a regular basis, I’m the last person they should turn to for investment or business advice.) But that’s a far cry from claiming a monopoly on the truth, which is only available to those who speak and write in the language of mainstream economics.*

If mainstream economists finally relinquished that claim—and, as a result, spent more time both learning the languages of other traditions within the discipline of economics and listening to the grievances and desires of those who have been sacrificed at the altar of the status quo—perhaps then they’d have something useful to contribute to the larger debate about where the world is headed right now.

 

*According to Andrea Brandolini, the late Tony Atkinson understood this: “‘Economists are too often prisoners within the theoretical walls they have erected’, he recently wrote discussing austerity policies, ‘and fail to see that important considerations are missing”

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Mainstream economics presents quite a spectacle these days. It has no real theory of the firm and, even now, more than nine years after the Great Recession began, its most cherished claim to relevance—the use of large-scale forecasting models of the economy that assume people always behave rationally—is still misleading policymakers.

As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, we now have a leading mainstream economist, Havard’s Martin Feldstein, claiming that the “official data on real growth substantially underestimates the rate of growth.”

Mr. Feldstein likes to illustrate his argument about G.D.P. by referring to the widespread use of statins, the cholesterol drugs that have reduced deaths from heart attacks. Between 2000 and 2007, he noted, the death rate from heart disease among those over 65 fell by one-third.

“This was a remarkable contribution to the public’s well-being over a relatively short number of years, and yet this part of the contribution of the new product is not reflected in real output or real growth of G.D.P.,” he said. He estimates — without hard evidence, he is careful to point out — that growth is understated by 2 percent or more a year.

This is not just a technical issue for Feldstein:

it is misleading measurements that are contributing to a public perception that real incomes — particularly for the middle class — aren’t rising very much. That, he said, “reduces people’s faith in the political and economic system.”

“I think it creates pessimism and a distrust of government,” leading Americans to worry that “their children are going to be stuck and won’t be able to enjoy upward mobility,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand this.”

Here’s what folks need to understand: mainstream economists like Feldstein, who celebrate an economic system based on private property and free markets, build and use models in which market prices capture all the relevant costs and benefits to society. And, since GDP is an accounting system based on adding up transactions of goods and services based on market prices, for mainstream economists it should represent an accurate measure of the “public’s well-being.”

Mainstream economists can’t have it both ways—either market prices do accurately reflect social costs and benefits or they don’t. If they do, then Feldstein & Co need to stick with the level and rate of growth of GDP as the appropriate measure of the wealth of the nation. And, if they don’t, all their claims about the wonders of free markets simply dissolve.

Notice also that, for Feldstein, the problem is always in one direction: GDP statistics only undercount social well-being. What he and other mainstream economists fail to consider is that whole sectors of the economy, like financial services (or, more generally, FIRE, finance, insurance, and real estate), are counted as adding to national income.

As Bruce Roberts has explained,

because “financial services” are deemed useful by those who pay for them, those services must be treated as generators in their own right of value and output (even though there is nothing there that can actually be measured as output at all). . .

the standard (neoclassical) approach embedded in GDP accounting means, in concrete terms, that profits in FIRE must be treated as a reflection of rising real output generated by FIRE activities, requiring a numerical “imputation” of greater GDP. And, worse, that *rising* profits in FIRE then go hand in hand with *rising* levels of imputed “output” and hence enhanced “productivity.”

If Wall Street doesn’t add to GDP—if FIRE activities just represent transfers of value from other economic sectors (both nationally and internationally)—then its resurgence in the years since the crash doesn’t contribute to output or growth.

The consequence is that GDP, as it is currently measured, actually overcounts national output and income. Actual growth during the so-called recovery is much less than mainstream economists and politicians would have us believe.

That’s the real reason many Americans are worried they and “their children are going to be stuck and won’t be able to enjoy upward mobility.”