Noah Smith in another superb column points to how most popular terms/words used in economics are vague and poorly defined. He starts with Humpty Dumpty:
Archive for the ‘Economist’ Category
Astral Science in Early Imperial China, a forthcoming book by the historian Daniel P Morgan, shows that in ancient China, as in the Western world, the most valuable type of mathematics was devoted to the realm of divinity – to the sky, in their case (and to the market, in ours). Just as astrology and mathematics were once synonymous in the West, the Chinese spoke of li, the science of calendrics, which early dictionaries also glossed as ‘calculation’, ‘numbers’ and ‘order’. Li models, like macroeconomic theories, were considered essential to good governance. In the classic Book of Documents, the legendary sage king Yao transfers the throne to his successor with mention of a single duty: ‘Yao said: “Oh thou, Shun! Theli numbers of heaven rest in thy person.”’
China’s oldest mathematical text invokes astronomy and divine kingship in its very title – The Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon of the Zhou. The title’s inclusion of ‘Zhou’ recalls the mythic Eden of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE), implying that paradise on Earth can be realised through proper calculation. The book’s introduction to the Pythagorean theorem asserts that ‘the methods used by Yu the Great in governing the world were derived from these numbers’. It was an unquestioned article of faith: the mathematical patterns that govern the stars also govern the world. Faith in a divine, invisible hand, made visible by mathematics. No wonder that a newly discovered text fragment from 200 BCE extolls the virtues of mathematics over the humanities. In it, a student asks his teacher whether he should spend more time learning speech or numbers. His teacher replies: ‘If my good sir cannot fathom both at once, then abandon speech and fathom numbers, [for] numbers can speak, [but] speech cannot number.’
Modern governments, universities and businesses underwrite the production of economic theory with huge amounts of capital. The same was true for li production in ancient China. The emperor – the ‘Son of Heaven’ – spent astronomical sums refining mathematical models of the stars. Take the armillary sphere, such as the two-metre cage of graduated bronze rings in Nanjing, made to represent the celestial sphere and used to visualise data in three-dimensions. As Morgan emphasises, the sphere was literally made of money. Bronze being the basis of the currency, governments were smelting cash by the metric ton to pour it into li. A divine, mathematical world-engine, built of cash, sanctifying the powers that be.
The enormous investment in li depended on a huge assumption: that good government, successful rituals and agricultural productivity all depended upon the accuracy of li. But there were, in fact, no practical advantages to the continued refinement of li models. The calendar rounded off decimal points such that the difference between two models, hotly contested in theory, didn’t matter to the final product. The work of selecting auspicious days for imperial ceremonies thus benefited only in appearance from mathematical rigour. And of course the comets, plagues and earthquakes that these ceremonies promised to avert kept on coming. Farmers, for their part, went about business as usual. Occasional governmental efforts to scientifically micromanage farm life in different climes using li ended in famine and mass migration.
Like many economic models today, li models were less important to practical affairs than their creators (and consumers) thought them to be. And, like today, only a few people could understand them. In 101 BCE, Emperor Wudi tasked high-level bureaucrats – including the Great Director of the Stars – with creating a new li that would glorify the beginning of his path to immortality. The bureaucrats refused the task because ‘they couldn’t do the math’, and recommended the emperor outsource it to experts.
There are some interesting references and interviews of people in the article.
Why would skeptical astronomers question the emperor’s faith in their models? In a phone conversation, Daniel Hausman, a philosopher of economics at the University of Wisconsin, put it bluntly: ‘If you reject the power of theory, you demote economists from their thrones. They don’t want to become like sociologists.’
George F DeMartino, an economist and an ethicist at the University of Denver, frames the issue in economic terms. ‘The interest of the profession is in pursuing its analysis in a language that’s inaccessible to laypeople and even some economists,’ he explained to me. ‘What we’ve done is monopolise this kind of expertise, and we of all people know how that gives us power.’
Every economist I interviewed agreed that conflicts of interest were highly problematic for the scientific integrity of their field – but only tenured ones were willing to go on the record. ‘In economics and finance, if I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it’s favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,’ Pfleiderer said to me. ‘I’ve written articles that wouldn’t curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure.’
Prof. Paola Subacchi of University of Bologna has a depressing piece on state of affairs in Italy. Despite having a really young Prime Minister, he can’t hold on to talented young people:
Problems of plenty for the long legged country:
Over the last 20 years, roughly a half-million Italians aged 18 to 39 have moved abroad, especially to more economically dynamic European Union countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. And those are just the official figures; the actual numbers are probably much higher, possibly more than double. Why are young Italians so eager to leave?
It is not for lack of political representation. Since 2013, the share of Italy’s parliament that is under 40 has increased from 7% to 13%. Moreover, Italy now has one of the youngest governments among advanced countries (only France does better). And Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, at age 41, is Italy’s youngest prime minister ever.
Nonetheless, young Italians remain deeply dissatisfied with the state of their country and the economic opportunities it can provide. Indeed, despite Renzi’s promise to implement reforms aimed at rejuvenating the country’s economy and institutions – the platform on which he won power in 2014 – some 90,000 Italians under the age of 40 have since left.
Renzi’s message, while skillfully crafted and optimistic, cannot mask the harsh economic reality in Italy today. Most jarring, youth unemployment stands at 39% – one of the highest rates in the EU and well above the bloc’s average of 20%. With 26% of people under the age of 30 not in school, employment, or training – the second-highest rate in the EU, behind only Greece – structural youth unemployment will prove difficult to correct.
Even those who have jobs have reasons to be unhappy. According to Eurostat, Italy’s young people are among the most dissatisfied with their jobs, with many convinced that the best jobs are reserved for the well connected. And, indeed, corruption still poses a major challenge for Italy; Rome’s last two mayors, for example, were forced out of office for malfeasance. In last year’s Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Italy was ranked 61st, trailing all other advanced economies.
Making matters worse, Italy’s economy has been stagnant for years.
How countries decline..
This is a very important post by Thorvaldur Gylfason, Helgi Tomasson and Gylfi Zoega. It is another strong reminder of what omitting history of economic thought has done to economics students. We are just being made to use certain terms without knowing whether they are actually true. Quite a few economics terms/relationships are actually weak when tested empirically. So, one should always be careful while stating them as some theory or facts which we often do.
The authors point to two such highly popular terms used by both econs and wannabe econs across the world- Ricardian equivalence and Fisher effect. In both these, even the authors on whom they are named had cautioned on the relationship. But, over time like we see in game of Chinese whispers, these ideas have become distorted. The weak relationships showed by these two have become a matter of fact leading to all kinds of wrong policies:
Most of today’s economics students are victims of scrapping history of economic thought from our courses. Whatever little we know is just picked from here and there. This just leads to incomplete and unbaked information which is even more dangerous as much of it is misconceptions.
Jag Bhalla has a reminder on associating Adam Smith with just Laissez-Faire economics. I mean this aspect is now much more of standard knowledge that Adam Smith was hardly just a free market enthusiast. He was more of a moral philosopher than really an economist. But then we continue to err and think Smith to be a Laissez-Faire economics man.
Bhalla points to a whole list of links where he points to these modern misuses..
Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece writes on how the recent stats showing growth in Europe are all wrong.
What he shows is how people are getting even elementary macro wrong. There is confusion between nominal and real growth. In times of inflation, one looks at real growth but in times of deflation, one should look at nominal growth:
“Greece has at last returned to economic growth.” That was the official European Union storyline at the end of 2014. Alas, Greek voters, unimpressed by this rejoicing, ousted the incumbent government and, in January 2015, voted for a new administration in which I served as finance minister.
Last week, similarly celebratory reports emanated from Brussels heralding the “return to growth” in Cyprus, and contrasting this piece of “good” news to Greece’s “return to recession.” The message from the troika of European bailout lenders – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – is loud and clear: “Do as we say, like Cyprus has done, and you will recover. Resist our policies, by electing people like Varoufakis, and you will suffer the consequences of further recession.”
This is a powerful story. Except that it is built on a disingenuous lie. Greece was not recovering in 2014, and Cyprus’s national income has not recovered yet. The EU’s claims to the contrary are based on an inappropriate focus on “real” national income, a metric bound to mislead during periods of falling prices.
If asked whether you are better off today compared to a year ago, you would answer in the affirmative if your money income (that is, its dollar, pound, euro, or yen value) rose during the previous 12 months. In the inflationary times of yore, you might have also accompanied your response with the (reasonable) complaint that increases in the cost of living eroded your increased money income.
To account for this gap between your money income and your capacity to buy things with it, economists focused on your purchasing power by adjusting your money income for average prices.
A country’s aggregate income is measured in a similar way. Economists begin by summing up everyone’s money incomes to derive nominal Gross Domestic Product – or, for the sake of simplicity, the country’s total money income (N). Then they adjust N for changes in average prices (P) by dividing N by P. This ratio is the country’s “real” income (R = N/P).
During inflationary times, the purpose of calculating the figure for real national income, R, was that it stopped us from becoming overexcited by reports that money income had increased substantially. For example, at a time when average prices were rising by, say, 8%, a 9% increase in money income translated into a mere 1% real growth rate in our capacity to buy stuff.
So, clearly, in inflationary times, the number for real national income, R, was the one to look at before rejoicing that the economy was growing. Only when R rose strongly did we have good cause to believe that economic activity was rising. But in periods of deflation (when prices are falling), like those encountered in Greece and in Cyprus today, R can be deeply misleading.
Well, anything can happen during these times..
It is such an irony really. One one hand, economists spend most of their time talking or training themselves about ills of government. But on the other, they just salvate on getting a position of government economic adviser/central banker etc. The power of being a government appointed economist suddenly catapults one to enormous fame. And if the person can build some image spin with the media, then one is assured of a position of a demi-god of sorts.
The run up to US Presidential elections is on. As expected, economists have jumped in the fray saying which Presidential candidate’s economic plan is superior to others. It is as chaotic as following the Presidential candidate debates.
Prof Laurence Kotlikoff has an apt warning for all such economists. They parade as economists but their advice is colored on the basis of the position of their political bosses or political favorites:
Prof. Anand Swamy of Williams College has a nice piece on knowing history.
We often lament that there is too much govt intervention in land and finance/credit markets. This is of course blamed on the government policies post independence. However, the intervention dates back to British:
Fascinating bit of research by trio of Ulrik Beck, Benedikte Bjerge, Marcel Fafchamps.
Ever since the seminal paper of Coase (1937), economists have known that transactions costs can hinder the efficiency of exchange. If transaction costs are present, some mutually beneficent transactions may not take place.
In developing countries, poor institutions mean that many such transactions are left on the table since transaction costs are too high. For example, property rights are often vaguely defined and contracts hard to enforce legally. Well-functioning institutions support well-functioning markets through low transaction costs. In these contexts, there is increasing evidence that households instead rely on their social networks. One example is how social ties play an important role in informal insurance schemes (Fafchamps and Lund 2003, Mazzocco and Saini 2012). In fact, the importance of social ties shows up in very diverse contexts where they can help to decrease transaction costs; other examples from the economics literature are in the selection of an international trading partner (Granovetter 1995, Topa 2001) and in labour markets where seeking and getting a job is affected by social networks (Rauch 2001, Chaney 2014).
There are good reasons to think that social networks can also reduce barriers to the exchange of production factors. Social connections can increase trust between individuals and important information can be exchanged. Social ties can also reduce the risk of violation of agreements, since the violator risks losing not only the contract but also the social connection. These are some of the ways in which social ties are thought to lower transaction costs. However, the extent to which social ties can offset the negative impacts of high transaction costs for exchange of production factors is an open research question. Earlier papers provide indirect evidence that this may be the case (Sadoulet et al. 1997, Holden and Ghebru 2005, Macours et al. 2010).
So what does their analysis show? Do networks help? Somewhat…
José Piñera was Chile’s secretary of Labor and Social Security and architect of the country’s successful reform of its pension system (now at Cato).
In this speech, he speaks on how the social security system was revamped in Chile but failed in US (due to the famous Clinton-Lewinsky scandal):
A superb paper by George S. Tavlas of Bank of Greece. Far more useful than several of those macro/monetary policy papers.
He tracks what led the Friedman/Schwartz duo to become monetarists. Friedman actually favored use of fiscal policy for stabilisation till 1940s. Then in the 1950s role of monetary factors started to make sense. There was also a huge role played by a FDIC economist Clark Warburton who has of course been forgotten. In many ways, Friedman’s core ideas came from Warburton:
Yanis Varoufakis, the former and regular blog writing finance minister of Greece defends himself in this piece.
In his end-of-2015 missive, Holger Schmieding of the Hamburg investment bank Berenberg warned his firm’s clients that what they should be worrying about now is political risk. To illustrate, he posted the diagram below, showing how business confidence collapsed in Greece during the late spring of 2015, and picked up again only after my resignation from the finance ministry. Schmieding chose to call this the “Varoufakis effect.”
There is no doubt that investors should be worried – very worried – about political risk nowadays, including the capacity of politicians and bureaucrats to do untold damage to an economy. But they must also be wary of analysts who are either incapable of, or uninterested in, distinguishing between causality and correlation, and between insolvency and illiquidity. In other words, they must be wary of analysts like Schmieding.
Business confidence in Greece did indeed plummet a few months after I became Finance Minister. And it did pick up a month after my resignation. The correlation is palpable. But is the causality?
It was actually the Troika effect: