Saturday, August 19, 2017

Two points from "What economists study"


At voxeu, What economists study: A guide for the curious by Christopher Snyder.

Took me a while to get around to reading this, because it didn't strike me as "economics". I mean, if economists can give us things like the Global Financial Crisis, then surely economists are not studying the right things. But when I sat down to read it, I liked it. I liked it even though Snyder writes:

One of the great advances of modern empirical economic research is causal identification—uncovering true causal relationships rather than overinterpreting apparent correlations as causation.

Maybe that's what I do, overinterpret apparent correlations as causation. I look at graphs and try to find things that are similar and things that are dissimilar. But hey, I have my theories, and my theories are based on historical data, and that's good enough for me. I'm no economist, and I can't do the kind of math economists do, "causal identification" and all that, but economists are welcome to use that stuff on my theories any time they want. Meanwhile, there are a couple points in Snyder's article that I want to mention.


1. The Just-Price Theory

In the Middle Ages, philosophers advanced the just-price theory. This argues that value is an inherent property of an object. On this view, diamonds are expensive because of their inherent quality, and water is not.

What a cute idea! Gold isn't valuable because it's rare. Gold is inherently valuable.

Nobody thinks like a Middle Ages philosopher these days, except those who think money should be backed by something that has intrinsic value.


2. Feedback from the Economy

Economists have to devise clever ways to establish causation in nonexperimental data. Pick one ... A macroeconomist might pick Romer’s (1992) study of whether fiscal or monetary policy deserved more credit for the US recovery from the Great Depression. The problem: a bad economy can feed back to make beneficial policies look damaging.

A bad economy can feed back to make beneficial policies look damaging. Yeah, exactly, and that's very important. There is another version of the same idea: A good economy can make any policy (good or bad) look good.

There are techniques that rely on such ideas. A common one is to separate the good economy from the bad and study only the bad years. Any study that starts in 1980 or after, ignoring the "golden age" that followed WWII, is one of these. There must be millions of 'em.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Wise words


Tim Duy:

This is the language used by the far right to discredit and undermine faith in our government institutions. For the left to adopt the same language adds to the fire already burning.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stop doing psychology and start doing econ


Brad DeLong:

[M]ore than a generation of inequitable and slower-than-expected economic growth in the global North has created a strong political and psychological need for scapegoats.

Well fuck you Brad DeLong. For inventing stories about my psychological need for scapegoats, fuck you.

DeLong continues, regardless:

People want a simple narrative to explain why they are missing out on the prosperity they were once promised, and why there is such a large and growing gap between an increasingly wealthy overclass and everyone else.

I can give you the simple narrative: Excessive private debt is the reason we are missing out on the prosperity we expect, and excessive private debt is the reason there is such a large and growing gap between an increasingly wealthy overclass and everyone else. End of narrative.

If Brad DeLong would stop doing psychology and start doing econ, he could see it for himself.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Too much fertilizer


The Symptoms of Over-Fertilizing:

Fertilizing plants encourages healthy growth and flowering, but too much leads to problems.

Some signs of over-fertilizing are easy to spot... And though fertilizer should encourage healthy growth, too much can stunt growth or stop it entirely.

Is it possible that the emphasis on free trade and globalization is just too much fertilizer?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Voluntary vs Involuntary Unemployment


Pettinger ("helping to simplify economics") offers this definition:

Voluntary unemployment is defined as a situation where the unemployed choose not to accept a job at the going wage rate.

That's it exactly. And by choosing to define voluntary rather than involuntary unemployment, Pettinger simplifies economics. Here is Keynes:

If, indeed, it were true that the existing real wage is a minimum below which more labour than is now employed will not be forthcoming in any circumstances, involuntary unemployment, apart from frictional unemployment, would be non-existent. But to suppose that this is invariably the case would be absurd.

And

Moreover, the contention that the unemployment which characterises a depression is due to a refusal by labour to accept a reduction of money-wages is not clearly supported by the facts.

And

For, admittedly, more labour would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money-wage if it were demanded.

In other words, involuntary unemployment is a situation where the unemployed are willing to accept a job at the going wage, but do not find work. This meshes perfectly with Pettinger's definition.

And then there is Scott Sumner:

We all agree that there were lots of people without jobs. We all agree that lots of them wanted to be working. We all agree that lots of them were miserable. I call that “involuntary unemployment.”

Number one, Sumner gets the definition of "involuntary" unemployment wrong. It's not about being out of work. (That's just "unemployment".)

Number two: I omitted it, but Sumner prefaces these thoughts by saying, "But what is so obvious about involuntary unemployment, as defined by Keynes?" That's Sumner's emphasis on the words "as defined by Keynes", not mine.

The first three sentences after those four words all start with the phrase "We all agree". Sumner apparently agrees with Keynes three times. But he is putting words in Keynes' mouth, as we find out in the next sentence after, where Sumner admits he has been giving us his own definition of involuntary unemployment.

But Sumner's is not a definition of involuntary unemployment. It is only a definition of unemployment: without a job, wanting work, and miserable. And it's not even a technical definition of unemployment. It's just some social chatter.

"Involuntary unemployment" is a technical term, defined by Keynes. Pettinger simplifies the concept by choosing to define voluntary employment instead: a refusal to accept work at the going wage.

Funny thing: Sumner gets that wrong, too. He says:

I think they were unemployed because of sticky wages, and that if workers collectively accepted lower wages then we would have had full employment in 1936.

The Depression drove wages down, so that the "going" wage was lower during the Depression than before. Sumner is saying workers refused to accept the going wage (in 1936) because it was lower. This refusal, by definition, makes the unemployment in Sumner's story voluntary. Sumner calls it involuntary. Sumner is wrong.

Keynes establishes the definition:

The classical school [argue] that if labour as a whole would agree to a reduction of money-wages more employment would be forthcoming. If this is the case, such unemployment, though apparently involuntary, is not strictly so ...

Pettinger simplifies it:

Voluntary unemployment is defined as a situation where the unemployed choose not to accept a job at the going wage rate.

It's not complicated. Sumner is wrong.

Monday, August 14, 2017

I hate politics


Replying to Mark Thoma, I wrote:

Half a dozen years back there was so much right-wing chatter about the threat of inflation (from quantitative easing) that it seemed the chatters wanted hyperinflation, just to show they were right about the economy.

... It's not quite so bad these days, not yet at least, and I'm not sure it's only a left-wing phenomenon, but these days the chatter seems to be about impending recession.

Why would "impending recession" be a left-wing phenomenon?

Why, indeed. On the day after the Presidential Inauguration last January, Adam Ozimek was at Forbes with The Best Case For The Trump Economy. Ozimek is not a fan of Trump, as his concluding remarks indicate:

So if everything goes smoothly and Trump doesn't do anything crazy, or anything really, he could potentially keep the current pace of job growth running for a few more years and maybe even for the whole term...

If I was Trump, I'd do the absolute minimum policy-wise and make job #1 avoiding a recession.... I'd also probably change the hairdo.

Not a fan, but not so full of hate for the man that he can't do econ. Many people are.

Anyway, in the same article Ozimek says

If you look over the long-term, the employment to population rate falls during recessions then slowly recovers. So if we can avoid a recession, it's not crazy to think we could get back to 2000 levels.

I quoted that yesterday, talking about Trump's 4% growth target. Ozimek's point is that for Trump to succeed in making America's economy great again, he's going to have to avoid recession.

And there, right there, is the reason the chatter about impending recession is a left-wing phenomenon.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Trump's 4% growth target


Trump apparently wussed out, abandoning his 4% target for economic growth and embracing 3%. I read a couple things ridiculing him at 3%, as if even that is too high a target. Absurd.

Myself, I'd hold Trump to his original target: 4%. We can get there. Even if we don't make it, shooting for 4% is a much more honorable goal than shooting for 3%. And far more impressive, if we make it.


Back in January 2017, Menzie Chinn of EconBrowser looked at Trump's growth target. Quoting from the economy page of the Trump-Pence website, Chinn echoes

Boost growth to 3.5 percent per year on average, with the potential to reach a 4 percent growth rate.

The Trump-Pence link today reports a "page not found" error. Wuss.

Anyway, Menzie points out that reaching Trump's growth target will require a large increase in the size of the labor force or in labor productivity, or both. Unrealistically large, Chinn implies. He says

it seems unlikely to have acceleration of growth to the indicated rates, especially if policies are undertaken to deport some portion of the population

and

If we are deporting undocumented workers en masse, how is [the labor force] going to be expanded?

It's a fair question.


At Forbes (21 Jan 2017) Adam Ozimek said

If you look over the long-term, the employment to population rate falls during recessions then slowly recovers. So if we can avoid a recession, it's not crazy to think we could get back to 2000 levels.

Ozimek continues:

That means going from 78.2% today to 81.9%, an increase of 3.7 percentage points. If you apply this to the 125 million population, that's about 4.6 million jobs. If these jobs take the whole four years of the Trump administration to recover, that's 95,000 jobs a month above and beyond the natural growth in the labor force. When you add in that natural labor force growth, that should be enough to keep job growth in the range from the last three months, which has averaged 165,000.

That was January. Job growth in June 2017 surged "as employers surpassed the expectations of most economists by adding 222,000 jobs."

As that kind of job growth continues, Trump's 4% becomes more likely.


At FiveThirtyEight (4 August 2017) Ben Casselman writes:

Meanwhile, the U.S. doesn’t seem to be running out of available workers, at least not yet. Rather, the improving job market seems to be drawing people off the economy’s sidelines. The labor force grew by 349,000 people in July; the so-called participation rate — the share of adults who are either working or actively looking for work — has been essentially flat for the past year and a half. That’s an impressive trend given the ongoing retirement of the baby boom generation, which puts downward pressure on the participation rate.

Things are happening in the labor force.


// Related: You don't just show a graph and assume that the trend it shows will continue forever

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Defining Aggregate Demand Deficiency


Nick Rowe defines Aggregate Demand Deficiency: "It means that the stock of money is too small, or is circulating too slowly, to buy and sell all the things that people want to buy and sell."

It sounds like Nick is saying the velocity of circulation of money is not influenced by the decisions of spenders. I would say it is the decisions of spenders that determine the velocity of circulation.

Suppose Nick accepts the view that spenders determine the velocity of circulation. How does that fit into his definition?

"There are too few spenders, or they are spending too slowly, to buy and sell all the things that people want to buy and sell."

But "people" are the spenders.

"People are spending too slowly to buy all the things that they want to buy."

So it seems people are confused, wanting to buy things but not wanting to spend the money.

Most of us are familiar with that problem, I think. And if we want something but decide not to spend the money, demand is reduced because of our decision. Our wants and desires only count as demand if we actually spend the money.

Nick Rowe's definition again: The stock of money is too small, or is circulating too slowly, to buy all the things that we want to buy.

"Want to buy" is not quite right. Everybody wants a coach and six, Adam Smith said. Everybody wants a Corvette. But not everybody gets one. All of that "wanting" is not demand.

Okay, so maybe 1000 people were actually going to buy Corvettes but it turns out that only 750 of them can afford to buy one. There is a demand shortfall of 250 Corvettes, 1000 minus 750. The million people who "want" Corvettes do not come into the calculation at all.

//

That definition again: An "aggregate demand deficiency" happens when money is circulating too slowly to buy all the things that people want to buy.

But of course we can always just go out and borrow the money, and buy whatever we want. But maybe we don't want to borrow enough to get that new Corvette. Or maybe our bank is telling us we don't want to borrow that much.

An aggregate demand deficiency might happen because we are borrowing less. And that's not really the same as "the stock of money is too small, or is circulating too slowly". It is, and it isn't. Borrowing money is a way to make the quantity of money bigger (if you count bank money as money) or it is a way to make the velocity of circulation increase (if you don't). But borrowing money has other effects also: It makes our debt bigger. It makes our debt service bigger. It reduces our "after debt service" income. It reduces the money we'll have in the future for spending to buy all the things that we want to buy.

In the long run, borrowing money creates an aggregate demand deficiency. The U.S. economy slowed after 1973? Aggregate demand deficiency since 1966. But we ignored it and kept borrowing anyway, borrowing more and more, because policy paved the way for that. And then, after 2007, we didn't keep borrowing anymore. And suddenly the stock of money was too small and we had ourselves an aggregate demand deficiency we couldn't ignore. As a consequence of borrowing and of the effects of too much borrowing for too long a time.

We borrowed too much, early on (in the 1950s and '60s). It became a problem in the 1970s. They fixed the problem in the 1980s and '90s by making it possible for us to borrow even more. But they solved the wrong problem. The problem was not that we couldn't borrow all that we wanted. The problem was the growing cost of the growing debt. They tried to solve the problem by encouraging us to add even more to our debt.

Borrow more we did. Add to our debt, we did. Debt grew faster and faster. But the overall cost of that debt grew also. And paying the debt service took money away from "aggregate demand" and created an "aggregate demand deficiency". And the economy grew slowly because of it.

But all that ended after 2007, when people suddenly realized their debt was a problem. And people started borrowing less and paying back more. And the economy suddenly tanked.

So here is the big picture: In the early years we have too much borrowing (but not a lot of debt) so aggregate demand is high and economic growth is good. In the middle years we have too much borrowing (and too much debt) so we have an aggregate demand shortfall that slows the economy despite all the borrowing. And in the later years we have no borrowing (and still too much debt) and the economy tanks.

So there is a little more to the story than "the stock of money is too small, or is circulating too slowly". There is also the cost of finance.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A weapon against the nation-state


Economic Theory: Limitations and Biases at Conversable Economist, 6 July 2017:

Arnold Kling tackles the hardy perennial topic "How Effective is Economic Theory?" in the Summer 2017 issue of National Affairs. His overall approach is to focus on "five interlocking subjects in particular: mathematical modeling, homo economicus, objectivity, testing procedures, and the particular status of the sub-discipline of macroeconomics." He then compares and contrasts what economists were saying about those subjects in 1966 and 1980, compared with his views on current patterns. For details, read the essay! But here are few excerpts that caught my eye and may give some flavor of his discussion:

"Economists are not without knowledge. We know that restrictions on trade tend to help narrow interests at the expense of broader prosperity. We know that market prices are important ...

There is a lot more, excerpts from Kling and thoughts on the excerpts. I want to cut it off right at the start and deal with the first piece of knowledge presented: Restrictions on trade tend to help narrow interests at the expense of broader prosperity.

It is a general statement, offered as something more than a rule of thumb. A lot more than a rule of thumb: Restrictions on trade are costly. Period, end of story.

It is presented as a given. Something economists know, and know for sure.

I have trouble with the period, the given, the certainty. But most of all, I have trouble with the incompleteness of that particular piece of knowledge. When the "narrow" interests are those of nations and the "broader" prosperity is that of global corporations, that harmless little piece of knowledge becomes a weapon against the nation-state.


How do the world's biggest companies compare to the biggest economies?

How will they compare when government is small enough you can "drown it in a bathtub"?