Posts Tagged ‘mainstream’

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Back in 2010, Charles Ferguson, the director of Inside Job, exposed the failure of prominent mainstream economists who wrote about and spoke on matters of economic policy to disclose their conflicts of interest in the lead-up to the crash of 2007-08. Reuters followed up by publishing a special report on the lack of a clear standard of disclosure for economists and other academics who testified before the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee between late 2008 and early 2010, as lawmakers debated the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s.

Well, economists are still at it, leveraging their academic prestige with secret reports justifying corporate concentration.

That’s according to a new report from ProPublica:

If the government ends up approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust — affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities — reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Right now, the United States is experiencing a wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions, leading to increasing levels of concentration, reminiscent of the first Gilded Age. And, according to ProPublica, a small number of hired guns from economics—who routinely move through the revolving door between government and corporate consulting—have written reports for and testified in favor of dozens of takeovers involving AT&T and many of the country’s other major corporations.

Looking forward, the appointment of Republican former U.S. Federal Trade Commission member Joshua Wright to lead Donald Trump’s transition team that is focused on the Federal Trade Commission may signal even more mergers in the years ahead. Earlier this month Wright expressed his view that

Economists have long rejected the “antitrust by the numbers” approach. Indeed, the quiet consensus among antitrust economists in academia and within the two antitrust agencies is that mergers between competitors do not often lead to market power but do often generate significant benefits for consumers — lower prices and higher quality. Sometimes mergers harm consumers, but those instances are relatively rare.

Because the economic case for a drastic change in merger policy is so weak, the new critics argue more antitrust enforcement is good for political reasons. Big companies have more political power, they say, so more antitrust can reduce this power disparity. Big companies can pay lower wages, so we should allow fewer big firms to merge to protect the working man. And big firms make more money, so using antitrust to prevent firms from becoming big will reduce income inequality too. Whatever the merits of these various policy goals, antitrust is an exceptionally poor tool to use to achieve them. Instead of allowing consumers to decide companies’ fates, courts and regulators decided them based on squishy assessments of impossible things to measure, like accumulated political power. The result was that antitrust became a tool to prevent firms from engaging in behavior that benefited consumers in the marketplace.

And, no doubt, there will be plenty of mainstream economists who will be willing, for large payouts, to present the models that justify a new wave of corporate mergers and acquisitions in the years ahead.

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Mark Tansey, “Coastline Measure” (1987)

The pollsters got it wrong again, just as they did with the Brexit vote and the Colombia peace vote. In each case, they incorrectly predicted one side would win—Hillary Clinton, Remain, and yes—and many of us were taken in by the apparent certainty of the results.

I certainly was. In each case, I told family members, friends, and acquaintances it was quite possible the polls were wrong. But still, as the day approached, I found myself believing the “experts.”

It still seems, when it comes to polling, we have a great deal of difficult with uncertainty:

Berwood Yost of Franklin & Marshall College said he wants to see polling get more comfortable with uncertainty. “The incentives now favor offering a single number that looks similar to other polls instead of really trying to report on the many possible campaign elements that could affect the outcome,” Yost said. “Certainty is rewarded, it seems.”

But election results are not the only area where uncertainty remains a problematic issue. Dani Rodrik thinks mainstream economists would do a better job defending the status quo if they acknowledged their uncertainty about the effects of globalization.

This reluctance to be honest about trade has cost economists their credibility with the public. Worse still, it has fed their opponents’ narrative. Economists’ failure to provide the full picture on trade, with all of the necessary distinctions and caveats, has made it easier to tar trade, often wrongly, with all sorts of ill effects. . .

In short, had economists gone public with the caveats, uncertainties, and skepticism of the seminar room, they might have become better defenders of the world economy.

To be fair, both groups—pollsters and mainstream economists—acknowledge the existence of uncertainty. Pollsters (and especially poll-based modelers, like one of the best, Nate Silver, as I’ve discussed here and here) always say they’re recognizing and capturing uncertainty, for example, in the “error term.”

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Even Silver, whose model included a much higher probability of a Donald Trump victory than most others, expressed both defensiveness about and confidence in his forecast:

Despite what you might think, we haven’t been trying to scare anyone with these updates. The goal of a probabilistic model is not to provide deterministic predictions (“Clinton will win Wisconsin”) but instead to provide an assessment of probabilities and risks. In 2012, the risks to to Obama were lower than was commonly acknowledged, because of the low number of undecided voters and his unusually robust polling in swing states. In 2016, just the opposite is true: There are lots of undecideds, and Clinton’s polling leads are somewhat thin in swing states. Nonetheless, Clinton is probably going to win, and she could win by a big margin.

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As for the mainstream economists, while they may acknowledge exceptions to the rule that “everyone benefits” from free markets and international trade in some of their models and seminar discussions, they acknowledge no uncertainty whatsoever when it comes to celebrating the current economic system in their textbooks and public pronouncements.

So, what’s the alternative? They (and we) need to find better ways of discussing and possibly “modeling” uncertainty. Since the margins of error, different probabilities, and exceptions to the rule are ways of hedging their bets anyway, why not just discuss the range of possible outcomes and all of what is included and excluded, said and unsaid, measurable and unmeasurable, and so forth?

The election pollsters and statisticians may claim the public demands a single projection, prediction, or forecast. By the same token, the mainstream economists are no doubt afraid of letting the barbarian critics through the gates. In both cases, the effect is to narrow the range of relevant factors and the likelihood of outcomes.

One alternative is to open up the models and develop a more robust language to talk about fundamental uncertainty. “We simply don’t know what’s going to happen.” In both cases, that would mean presenting the full range of possible outcomes (including the possibility that there can be still other possibilities, which haven’t been considered) and discussing the biases built into the models themselves (based on the assumptions that have been used to construct them). Instead of the pseudo-rigor associated with deterministic predictions, we’d have a real rigor predicated on uncertainty, including the uncertainty of the modelers themselves.

Admitting that they (and therefore we) simply don’t know would be a start.

 

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Are mainstream economists responsible for electing Donald Trump?

I think they deserve a significant share of the blame. So, as it turns out, does Dani Rodrick.

My argument is that, when mainstream economists in the United States embraced and celebrated neoliberalism—both the conservative and liberal versions—they participated in creating the conditions for Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election. As I see it, mainstream economists adopted neoliberalism as a set of ideas (about self-governing individuals and an economic system that needs to be understood and obeyed) and a political-economic project (on behalf of corporate bosses) and ignored the enormous costs, especially those borne by the majority of workers, their families, and the communities in which they live. And it was precisely the resentments generated by neoliberalism—which were captured, however imperfectly and in a cynical manner, by Trump’s campaign (and downplayed by Hillary Clinton’s, in the campaigns against both Bernie Sanders and Trump)—that many voters took to the polls one week ago.

Rodrick’s condemnation of mainstream economists is more specific: he focuses on the role that mainstream economists served as “cheerleaders” for capitalist globalization.*

It has long been an unspoken rule of public engagement for economists that they should champion trade and not dwell too much on the fine print. This has produced a curious situation. The standard models of trade with which economists work typically yield sharp distributional effects: income losses by certain groups of producers or worker categories are the flip side of the “gains from trade.” And economists have long known that market failures – including poorly functioning labor markets, credit market imperfections, knowledge or environmental externalities, and monopolies – can interfere with reaping those gains.

They have also known that the economic benefits of trade agreements that reach beyond borders to shape domestic regulations – as with the tightening of patent rules or the harmonization of health and safety requirements – are fundamentally ambiguous.

Nonetheless, economists can be counted on to parrot the wonders of comparative advantage and free trade whenever trade agreements come up. They have consistently minimized distributional concerns, even though it is now clear that the distributional impact of, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement or China’s entry into the World Trade Organization were significant for the most directly affected communities in the United States. They have overstated the magnitude of aggregate gains from trade deals, though such gains have been relatively small since at least the 1990s. They have endorsed the propaganda portraying today’s trade deals as “free trade agreements,” even though Adam Smith and David Ricardo would turn over in their graves if they read the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

This reluctance to be honest about trade has cost economists their credibility with the public. Worse still, it has fed their opponents’ narrative. Economists’ failure to provide the full picture on trade, with all of the necessary distinctions and caveats, has made it easier to tar trade, often wrongly, with all sorts of ill effects.

Rodrick is absolutely right: mainstream economists’ own models include at least some of the losses from trade—in terms of outsourced jobs, declining wages, and rising inequality—but, in their textbooks and public interventions, they routinely ignore those uenqual costs and take the position that globalization and free trade need to be celebrated, protected, and expanded. Lest they create an opening for the “barbarians” who, inside and outside the academy, are critical of the conditions and consequences of capitalist globalization.

Those of us who have been critical of free-trade agreements and the whole panoply of policies associated with globalization and neoliberalism (e.g., here and here) understand they’re not the sole or even main cause for the deteriorating condition the U.S. working-class has found itself in recent years and decades. Neoliberalism is not just globalization, as it includes a wide range of economic and social strategies and institutions that have boosted the bargaining power of employers vis-à-vis workers—from the adoption of labor-saving technologies through the growth of the financial sector to the privatization of public services and the social safety net.

But we also can’t ignore the correlation, since the early-1970s, between globalization (measured, in the chart above, by the sum of exports and imports as a percentage of U.S. GDP, which is the green line on the right-hand axis) and inequality (measured, in the same chart, by the percentage of income, including capital gains, going to the top 1 percent, on the left-hand axis). There are lots of economists, both everyday and academic, who understand that a tiny group at the top has captured most of the benefits of trade agreements and other measures that have allowed U.S. corporations to engage in increased international trade, both importing and exporting commodities that have boosted their bottom-line. Meanwhile, many American workers—such as voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—have lost jobs, faced stagnating wages, and suffered as their local communities have deteriorated.

However, mainstream economists, in their zeal to push globalization forward, ignored those problems and concerns. They thus paved the way and deserve a large part of the blame for Trump’s victory.

 

*Readers need to keep in mind that, when Rodrick refers to economists, he’s actually referring only to mainstream economists (which is the only group he seems to recognize). Other, so-called heterodox economists have never been so sanguine about the effects of neoliberalism or capitalist globalization.

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René Magritte, “La clef des champs” (1936)

Plenty of illusions are being shattered these days, such as the idea that a successful recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression would keep the incumbents in power. A combination of lost jobs, stagnant wages, and soaring inequality put an end to that illusion. Much the same has happened to American Exceptionalism.

Noah Smith has just discovered another shattered illusion: the independence of supply and demand.

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Mainstream economists generally think about the world in terms of supply and demand—at both the micro and macro levels: supply and demand in the market for oranges or labor (which determine the equilibrium price and quantity), as well as aggregate supply and demand for the economy as a whole (which determine the equilibrium level of prices and output). Perhaps even more important, they think about supply and demand as acting independently of one another: a shift in supply or demand in individual markets (which lead to changes in equilibrium prices and quantities) as well as “shocks” to aggregate supply or demand in macro models (which determine changes in the equilibrium level of prices and output). The presumption is that a shift in demand (at the level of individual markets or the economy as a whole) does not cause a shift in supply (at either level), or vice versa.*

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As it turns out, the independence of supply and demand is just an illusion.

As I wrote back in 2009, it’s quite possible that at the micro level—for example, in the case of the labor market—both supply and demand are determined by something else, such as the accumulation of capital.

Thus. . .if the accumulation of capital leads to rightward shifts in both the demand for and supply of labor, wages may not increase (and quite possibly will decrease).

Therefore, supply and demand in individual markets aren’t necessarily independent.

And then, in 2013, I discussed the illusion of the independence of aggregate supply and demand.

In terms of the mainstream model, the collapse of aggregate demand leading to the crash of 2007-08 has also affected the aggregate supply of the economy—thereby shattering the illusion of the independence of the two sides of the macroeconomy. As the authors put it, “a significant portion of the recent damage to the supply side of the economy plausibly was endogenous to the weakness in aggregate demand—contrary to the conventional view that policymakers must simply accommodate themselves to aggregate supply conditions.”

Not only does the destruction of a significant portion of the future growth potential of the U.S. economy challenge the model mainstream economists use to analyze the macroeconomy and to formulate policy; it also forces us to question the rationality of a set of economic arrangements in which trillions of dollars of potential wealth (which might then be used to improve lives for the majority of the population) are sacrificed at the altar of keeping things pretty much as they are.

It represents the indictment both of an academic discipline and of economic system.

So, Smith is right: the shattering of the illusion of the independence of supply and demand means the way mainstream economists teach basic economics is fundamentally wrong.

What he forgets to mention, however, is that an economic system that is governed by supply and demand that are not independent of one another—and thus is subject to considerable instability on a regular basis, with the costs being shouldered by those who can least afford it—is also open to question.

Perhaps Tuesday’s results will serve notice that the time for challenging mainstream economics and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists has finally arrived.

 

*There can, of course, be simultaneous shifts in supply and demand but the shifts themselves are considered independent of one another.

 

Inequality

Mainstream economists have finally discovered the importance of institutions. But they get it all wrong.

Take Daron Acemoglu (of MIT) and Jim Robinson (of the University of Chicago). In their view (according to Adam Davidson), Donald Trump threatens to disrupt the institutions that serve as the basis of “American Exceptionalism.”

The problem is, the United States does not represent an exception to the rule that “Over most of history, a small élite confiscated wealth from the poor.”

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As I showed the other day, the distribution of wealth in the United States is obscenely unequal (with the top 1 percent owning more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth), and has been getting more unequal over the course of the past three decades. And it’s the existing set of institutions—economic, political, and cultural—that has made it possible for a small élite to confiscate wealth from the vast majority, including the poor.

Trump is thus a consequence, not a cause, of the institutions that have come to represent the unexceptionally unequal “American way of life.”

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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.

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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.

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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.