Next year in Nuremberg

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of The Telegraph puts eloquently and compellingly the prosecution case for the greatest deliberate economic misfortune of our era.  He argues that this gross failure of democracy leads him to vote to leave the EC. But, as President G. W. Bush used to say, you are either at the table or you are lunch. This failure should mean we redouble our efforts to reform European institutions and rid them of the Dutch-German austerity policies which so dominate economic policy.

Nobody has ever been held to account for the design faults and hubris of the euro, or for the monetary and fiscal contraction that turned recession into depression, and led to levels of youth unemployment across a large arc of Europe that nobody would have thought possible or tolerable in a modern civilized society. The only people that are ever blamed are the victims.
There has been no truth and reconciliation commission for the greatest economic crime of modern times. We do not know who exactly was responsible for anything because power was exercised through a shadowy interplay of elites in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Paris, and still is. Everything is deniable. All slips through the crack of oversight.
Nor have those in charge learned the lessons of EMU failure. The burden of adjustment still falls on South, without offsetting expansion in the North. It is a formula for deflation and hysteresis. That way lies yet another Lost Decade.
Has there ever been a proper airing of how the elected leaders of Greece and Italy were forced out of power and replaced by EU technocrats, perhaps not by coups d’etat in a strict legal sense but certainly by skulduggery?
On what authority did the European Central Bank write secret letters to the leaders of Spain and Italy in 2011 ordering detailed changes to labour and social law, and fiscal policy, holding a gun to their head on bond purchases?
What is so striking about these episodes is not that EU officials took such drastic decisions in the white heat of crisis, but that it was allowed to pass so easily. The EU’s missionary press corps turned a blind eye. The European Parliament closed ranks, the reflex of a nomenklatura.
While you could say that the euro is nothing to do with us, it obviously goes to the character of the EU: how it exercises power, and how far it will go in extremis.”

O ignorance! O mores!

In the last few weeks, it was reported that mathematician Edward Nelson of Princeton had claimed to show that Peano Arithmetic, one of many possible axiomatic systems for the numbers, was internally inconsistent.   Within a short period, his claim and proof were subject to examination by other pure mathematicians, not least Terence Tao of UCLA, who thought Nelson’s argument had potential flaws.   Nelson initially defended himself and then, accepting the criticisms, retracted his claim.  More details can be found in a post by John Baez on the n-category blog, which initiated a dialog in which both Tao and Nelson participated, and where Nelson announced his retraction.   A subsequent discussion of what happened in this dialog and the lessons for the philosophy of mathematics can be found on the blog of Catarina Dutilh Novaes, a discussion to which Tao again contributed, this time on his methods.
This example of fast proposal-criticism-retraction contrasts sharply with mainstream Economics, where an error in deductive reasoning may be pointed out, with neither retraction nor revision nor apparent learning from its adherents 70 years on.  Keynes’ criticisms of conventional austerity economics were first uttered in the 1930s, and yet they still have to be repeatedRelcalcitrant ignorance indeed.
One of the key insights of Keynesian economics is that a government is not like a household:  Governments can increase their income by increasing their spending, something most households cannot do.   Another key insight is that the effect of one person doing something may be very different if many people also do it.  To see better at a baseball stadium, for instance, you can stand up, but this only works if the people in front of you stay seated; if everyone stands, you will see no better than if everyone stayed seated.    Likewise, the economy-wide effects of individuals saving may be deleterious even when the effects are beneficial for an individual.   Keynes called this the savings trap.  Instead of learning from such insights, we get a British Prime Minister telling us all in 2011 to save hard and reduce our personal debt, and treating the national budget as if he were running a a household in Grantham.

Recalcitrant ignorance in economics

British business economist John Kay has written an essay for the Institute for New Economic Thinking on the failures of mainstream macro-economics.   Among many insightful comments, there is this:

What Lucas means when he asserts that deviations are ‘too small to matter’ is that attempts to construct general models of deviations from the efficient market hypothesis – by specifying mechanical trading rules or by writing equations to identify bubbles in asset prices – have not met with much success.  But this is to miss the point: the expert billiard player plays a nearly perfect game, but it is the imperfections of play between experts that determine the result.  There is a – trivial – sense in which the deviations from efficient markets are too small to matter – and a more important sense in which these deviations are the principal thing that matters.”

Mostly agreeing with Kay, Paul Krugman repeats a point he has made before about the freshwater economists — their failure to understand the deductive implications of their own models:

Here’s what we agree on: if consumers have perfect foresight, live forever, have perfect access to capital markets, etc., then they will take into account the expected future burden of taxes to pay for government spending. If the government introduces a new program that will spend $100 billion a year forever, then taxes must ultimately go up by the present-value equivalent of $100 billion forever. Assume that consumers want to reduce consumption by the same amount every year to offset this tax burden; then consumer spending will fall by $100 billion per year to compensate, wiping out any expansionary effect of the government spending.
But suppose that the increase in government spending is temporary, not permanent — that it will increase spending by $100 billion per year for only 1 or 2 years, not forever. This clearly implies a lower future tax burden than $100 billion a year forever, and therefore implies a fall in consumer spending of less than $100 billion per year. So the spending program IS expansionary in this case, EVEN IF you have full Ricardian equivalence.”

As Krugman says:

The fact that these guys don’t even get the implications of their own models right tells us that the problem runs deeper than believing too much in abstract math. At some level it has to be political: they want to declare government policy ineffectual so badly that for all their vaunted modeling mojo they can’t be bothered to think it through, or listen to other people who point out their error.”

The macroeconomic dark ages

Paul Krugman, writing about the failings of macro-economists before and after the Great Recession, notes the wide social consequences of the pro-abstraction, anti-history turn in the study of economics this last half-century.   Sadly, this turn has been another instance of the dominance of Descartian autism in western intellectual culture.

Early in 2009, when the Obama stimulus was under discussion, I was stunned to read statements from a number of well-regarded economists asserting not merely that the plan was a bad idea in practice — a defensible idea — but that debt-financed government spending could not, in principle, raise overall spending. Here’s John Cochrane:
Continue reading ‘The macroeconomic dark ages’

Tim Harford at LSE: Dirigisme in action

This week  I heard economic journalist Tim Harford talk at the London School of Economics (LSE), on a whirlwind tour (7 talks, I think he told us, this week) to promote his new book.   Each talk is on one topic covered in the book, and at LSE he talked about the GFC and his suggestions for preventing its recurrence.
Harford’s talk itself was chatty, anecdotal, and witty.    Economics is still in deep thrall to its 19th century fascination with physical machines, and this talk was no exception.   The anecdotes mostly concerned Great Engineering Disasters of our time, with Harford emphasizing the risks that arise from tightly-coupling of components in systems and, ironically, frequent misguided attempts to improve their safety which only worsen it.
Anecdotal descriptions of failed engineering artefacts may have relevance to the preventing a repeat of the GFC, but Harford did not make any case that they do.  He just gave examples from engineering and from financial markets, and asserted that these were examples of the same conceptual phenomena.    However, as metaphors for economies machines and mechanical systems are worse than useless, since they emphasize in people’s minds, especially in the minds of regulators and participants, mechanical and stand-alone aspects of systems which are completely inappropriate here.   Economies and marketplaces are NOT like machines, with inanimate parts whose relationships are static and that move when levers are pulled, or effects which can be known or predicted when causes are instantiated, or components designed centrally to achieve some global objectives.  Autonomous, intelligent components having dynamic relationships describes few machines or mechanical systems, and certainly none from the 19th century.   
A better category of failure metaphors would be ecological and biological.   We introduce cane toads to North Queensland to prey upon a sugar cane pest, and the cane toads, having no predators themselves,  take over the country.    Unintended and unforeseen consequences of actions, not arising merely because the  system is complex or its parts tightly-coupled, but arise because the system comprises multiple autonomous and goal-directed actors with different beliefs, histories and motivations, and whose relationships with one another change as a result of their interactions.  
Where, I wanted to shout to Harford, were the ecological metaphors?  Why, I wanted to ask, does this 19th-century fascination with deterministic, centralized machines and mechanisms persist in economics, despite its obvious irrelevance and failings? Who, if not rich FT journalists with time to write books, I wanted to know, will think differently about these problems?
Finally, only economists strongly in favour of allowing market forces to operate unfettered would have used the dirigismic methods that the LSE did to allocate people to seats for this lecture.  We were forced to sit in rows in our order of arrival in the auditorium. Why was this?  When I asked an usher for the reason, the answer I was given made no sense:   Because we expect a full hall.    Why were the organizers so afraid of allowing people to exercise their own preferences as to where to sit?  We don’t all have the same hearing and sight capabilities, we don’t all have the same preferences as to side of the hall, or side  of the aisle, etc. We don’t all arrive in parties of the same size.  We don’t all want to sit behind a tall person or near a noisy group.
The hall was not full, as it happened, so we were crammed into place in part of the hall like passive objects in a consumer choice model of voting, instead of as free, active citizens in a democracy occupying whatever position we most preferred of those still available.  But even if the hall had been full, there are less-centralized and less-unfriendly methods of matching people to seats.  The 20 or so LSE student ushers on hand, for instance, could been scattered about the hall to direct latecomers to empty seats, rather than lining the aisles like red-shirted troops to prevent people sitting where they wanted to.
What hope is there that our economic problems will be solved when the London School of Economics, of all places, uses central planning to sit people in public lectures?
Update: There is an interesting critical review of Harford’s latest book, here.

Concat: The crisis in macroeconomic policy execution

During the Great Depression, as the Bank of England and British banks were attempting to renegotiate the terms of their loans from the USA, the British sent Sir Otto Niemeyer to Australia to prevent Australia doing the same for its loans from Britain.    The injustice and unabashed hypocrisy of this – where you stood on the issue of debt repayment clearly depending on where you sat – always angered me.    Had I been around in 1932, I would have supported New South Wales Premier Jack Lang’s refusal to hand over moneys from the NSW State Government owed to the Australian Commonwealth Government for its payment of interest on NSW foreign debts.
We seem to be in for more hypocrisy and hard times, as the share-owning class, having received bailouts from western taxpayers for their investments in failed and paralyzed banks, now raise a wacka wacka huna kuna against public sector debt.    The plain people of Ireland, for example, will now be paying for the malfeasance and incompetence of their richer compatriots.
Two illuminating posts from Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman on our failed western political system, which seems unable to fix our failed economy, despite us knowing what should be done:

And here is Barry Eichengreen on the Irish bailout:

Some older articles on the crisis:


Concat 1: The GEC

A post to concatenate interesting material on the GFC and the GEC:

Mass customization of economic laws

Belatedly, I have just seen a column by John Kay in the FT of 13 April 2010 (subscribers only), entitled:  “Economics may be dismal, but it is not a science.” His column reminded me of Stephen Toulmin’s arguments in his book Cosmopolis about the universalizing tendencies of modern western culture these last four centuries, which I discussed here.
An excerpt from Kay’s column:

Both the efficient market hypothesis and DSGE [Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models] are associated with the idea of rational expectations – which might be described as the idea that households and companies make economic decisions as if they had available to them all the information about the world that might be available. If you wonder why such an implausible notion has won wide acceptance, part of the explanation lies in its conservative implications. Under rational expectations, not only do firms and households know already as much as policymakers, but they also anticipate what the government itself will do, so the best thing government can do is to remain predictable. Most economic policy is futile.
So is most interference in free markets. There is no room for the notion that people bought subprime mortgages or securitised products based on them because they knew less than the people who sold them. When the men and women of Goldman Sachs perform “God’s work”, the profits they make come not from information advantages, but from the value of their services. The economic role of government is to keep markets working.
These theories have appeal beyond the ranks of the rich and conservative for a deeper reason. If there were a simple, single, universal theory of economic behaviour, then the suite of arguments comprising rational expectations, efficient markets and DSEG would be that theory. Any other way of describing the world would have to recognise that what people do depends on their fallible beliefs and perceptions, would have to acknowledge uncertainty, and would accommodate the dependence of actions on changing social and cultural norms. Models could not then be universal: they would have to be specific to contexts.
The standard approach has the appearance of science in its ability to generate clear predictions from a small number of axioms. But only the appearance, since these predictions are mostly false. The environment actually faced by investors and economic policymakers is one in which actions do depend on beliefs and perceptions, must deal with uncertainty and are the product of a social context. There is no universal economic theory, and new economic thinking must necessarily be eclectic. That insight is Keynes’s greatest legacy.

Catwoman, my old flame

Those of you paying attention to these lectures will realize how obsessed I am with Economics.  That flaxen-haired lady promised so much, but she has so many flaws and failings.   When we first meet her, it seems she is everything you could wish for:  she is concerned with how society should be organized, how people should be given material goods, how the benefits of new technology and material well-being should be shared with all, and how the poor should be enriched, so that they can spend their time on self-improving and fulfilling activities, like art and sport.  So much is promised!
But then, once the flirtation and seduction are over, her flaws become evident. I have been thinking about these flaws again, having just read Deirdre McCloskey’s superb 2002 pamphlet, The Secret Sins of Economics.  Many of McCloskey’s criticisms are ones I (and many others) have made before, but some are new.   I decided, for comparison, to list here my chief complaints with this blemished beauty, this feline seductress, Our Lady of the Catallacts.  Date her if you wish, but you should read these accounts by her ex-lovers before you do.
First, she is blinkered, often unable to see what is obvious to anyone else – that we are all shaped by social and cultural forces, and peer pressures.   Instead, Catwoman and her acolytes invariably assume an individualist explanation for any economic or social phenomenon, and then seek to demonstrate it.  McCloskey calls this a focus on the P-variables (price, individual prudence, profit, the profane) as distinct from the S-variables (solidarity, speech, stories, shame) which Anthropology, that Indiana Jones of academic disciplines – creative, unruly, a thorn in everyone else’s side – has focused on.   A classic example is Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics.
Because of her blindness to the social, Cat Lady mostly ignored (until recently) major aspects of society, such as Institutions, legal frameworks, norms, and power relationships, aspects which can make or fail the marketplaces she says she studies.   She can’t claim that no one mentioned these to her, since 19th-century economists such as Karl Marx made the study of these aspects the work of a lifetime, and their study has continued to the present by sociologists and anthropologists and political scientists.
She has also been blind to anything historical or temporal, as if all her work stood outside the mundane and messy world in which we live.  This blindness manifests itself most strongly in the complete disregard (until recently) for endowments:  how did we get to where we are?  So, for example, free trade theory says that if England produces textiles more cheaply than Portugal, and Portugal produces wine more cheaply then England, the two should trade textiles for wine, and wine for textiles.   And the choice of these products is a subtly clever one, obfuscating much, since wine needs sunshine and not too much rain, while textiles (in the 18th and early 19th centuries) needed lots of rain, in order that the damp air would ensure cotton threads did not break when woven by machines.   So, Portugal’s sunshine and Northern England’s rain, being part of the God-given climate, were natural advantages, beyond the control or manipulation of any temporal human powers.  Free trade seems to have been ordained by the Almighty. But why consider only England’s textiles and not Ireland’s?    The answer is that Ireland had no textile industry to speak of.  And just why is that?  After all, much of Ireland is as damp as the valleys of Lancashire.   The reason is that the owners of northern English textile factories lobbied the British authorities to exclude Irish-made textiles from entering England.  When Ireland lost its own Parliament in a hostile takeover by Westminster, this protectionism for English textiles was entrenched, and the growing British Empire provided the critical masses of customers to ensure bonuses in Bury and Bolton and Burnley.     (Is it any wonder that people in Ireland and India and elsewhere sought Independence, when colonialism so powerfully stifled economic aspirations.)  Northern England has no natural comparative advantage in textile production, at least, not when compared to Ireland, but an artificial, man-made advantage.  The same type of advantage, in fact, that South Korea today has in ship-building, or the USA in most computer and aerospace technologies.   Where, in the mainstream theory of free trade, are these aspects studied, or even mentioned?
And when, angered by these failings, you face her with them, the wench promises you that that was all in the past, and she will be different from now on.  Path dependence and network goods and institutional economics are all the rage, she says.   But then you find, she’s still up to her old tricks:  She says she’s building models of economic phenomena in order to understand, predict and control, just like physicists do.  But, although it looks like that’s what she’s doing, in fact her models are not models of real phenomena, but models of stylized abstractions of phenomena.  Her acolytes even use that very word – stylized – to describe the “facts” which they use to calibrate or test their models.
Of course, she will say, physicists do this too.  Newton famously assumed the planets were perfect spheres in order to predict their relative movements using his theory of gravitation.   But physicists later relax their assumptions, in order to build revised models, in a process that has continued since Newton to the present day.  Physicists also allow their models to be falsified by the data they collect, even when that data too is stylized, and overturned.     Instead, Catwoman is still assuming that people are maximizers of individual utility, with perfect foresight and unlimited processing capabilities, obeying the axiom of the irrelevance of independent alternatives, when all these assumptions have been shown to be false about us.   When was the last time a mainstream economic model was overturned?
Indeed, here is another of her flaws:  her loose grasp of reality.  She says we are always, all of us, acting in our own self-interest.  When you quiz this, pointing out (say) a friend who donated money to a charity, she replies that he is making himself feel better by doing something he thinks virtuous, and thus is maximizing his own self-interest.  Her assumption, it turns out, is unfalsifiable.   It is also naive and morally repugnant – and false!  Anyone with any experience of the world sees through this assumption straight away, which is why I think our feline friend is borderline autistic.   She just does not know much about real people and how they interact and live in the word. Who would want to step out with someone having such views, and unable to reconstruct them in the light of experience?
And, despite her claims to be grounded in the material world (Paul Samuelson:  “Economics is the study of how people and society end up choosing, with or without the use of money, to employ scarce productive resources that would have alternative uses,  . . .”), she sure is fond of metaphysical entities for which no hard evidence exists:  invisible hands, equilibria, perfect competition, free trade, commodities, in fact, the whole shebang.   As marketers say, the existence of a true commodity is evidence that a marketing manager is not doing his or her job.  In comparison, Richard Dawkins with his memes is a mere amateur in this creation of imaginary objects for religious veneration.
One could perhaps accept the scented candles and the imaginary friends if she was a little more humble and tolerant of the opinions of others.  But no, the feline femme fatale and her acolytes are among the most arrogant and condescending of any academic disciplines.  Read the recovering Chicago economist McCloskey for an account of this, if you don’t believe me.   McCloskey’s anecdotes and experiences were very familiar to me, especially that sneer from an economist who thinks you’ve not acted in your own self-interest – for example, by helping your colleagues or employer with something you are not legally required to do.  Indeed, the theft by economists from philosophers of the word “rational” to describe a very particular, narrow, autistic behavior is the best example of this.   Anyone whose behavior does not fit the models of mainstream economics can be thus be labeled irrational, and dismissed from further consideration as if insane.
Date her at your peril!  You have been warned!