Showing posts with label academic economists. Show all posts
Showing posts with label academic economists. Show all posts

Friday, May 5, 2023

RBA review attacks the groupthink of others, but not its own

With more time to think about it, it’s clear the review of the Reserve Bank is not the sweeping blockbuster shake-up overhaul we were told it was. Even if all its recommendations are accepted, ordinary borrowers and savers won’t discern any difference in the way interest rates go up and down. But to those who work at the Reserve, and the small army of people who make a lucrative living second-guessing its decisions, the proposed “modest improvements” are a big deal.

Ostensibly, they’re aimed at getting the Reserve up to “world best practice”. But that’s just a spin doctor’s term for doing things the same way everyone else does them. Where’s the evidence that the conventional wisdom is sure to be “best practice”?

It’s also a way of concealing the colonial cringe. Because the rich world’s financial markets are now so highly integrated, with the biggest rich country’s Wall Street setting the lead, most people in our financial market think that if we’re not doing it the way the US Federal Reserve does it, we’re obviously doing it wrong.

This inferiority complex is reinforced because, for the past 30 years, most other central banks have conformed to the US Fed’s ways – even the world’s best colony-conscious country, Britain, has switched to the Fed’s way.

So, what is the Fed’s way? To have interest rates set by a special committee of outside experts, meeting eight times a year not monthly, with each member employed part-time and getting lots of research assistance.

The monetary policy committee should hold a press conference after every meeting and each member should give at least one speech a year on the topic.

To be fair, the Reserve’s Americanisation was pre-ordained by Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ terms of reference and his decision to have the inquiry led by Carolyn Wilkins, a former Bank of Canada heavy and now Bank of England heavy.

Of course, just because we do things differently to the others doesn’t guarantee we’re doing it better, any more than it means we’ve been doing it worse. I’d say our performance over the past 30 years – since the introduction of inflation targeting – has seen a few missteps, but been at least as good as any of the others.

And if the American way is “best practice”, how come the Fed’s been so heavily criticised for being slow to respond to the inflation surge?

But let’s be frank. The review’s big criticism of the Reserve is that it’s too insular, too inward looking and inbred. Except when one Treasury man got the job, governors are always promoted internally. The present governor joined the bank from high school. External appointments to senior economic jobs are rare.

As the review’s critique implies, the Reserve is a one-man band. The governor’s word is law, with limited tolerance for debate. He runs as much of the show as he chooses to, leaving the boring bits to his deputy.

It suits the governor to have a board stacked with business people because, not being economists, their doubts are easily dismissed. Employees would never disagree with the boss in front of the board, and any reservations the Treasury secretary may have would be raised in private.

There always used to be a union leader on the board, but he was let go as part of John Howard’s efforts to delegitimise the union movement which, in his eyes, was in league with his Labor opponents.

This does much to explain the present governor’s ignorance of labour-market realities. Dr Philip Lowe bangs on unceasingly about wages, but excludes unions from the Reserve’s extensive consultations with business and even welfare groups. I don’t remember hearing that swearword “union” ever pass his lips.

There’s always been an academic economist on the board, but they’re in no position seriously to take on the establishment. The board rarely if ever votes on anything. Rather, the chairman-governor “sums up the feeling of the meeting”.

Note, the Reserve has worked this way for the four decades I’ve been watching it. But it does seem to have become more insular and, as the review charges, more subject to “groupthink”, under Lowe.

The inquiry heard from young ex-Reserve economists saying they’d been warned that expressing doubt about the house line would harm their promotion prospects. I’ve been hearing that lately, too.

It’s madness for the Reserve to recruit the cream of each year’s graduating economists, then tell ’em not to speak unless spoken to. And what a way to train the next governor but three.

So, bring an end to groupthink inside the Reserve? Of course. Get a more vigorous debate around the board table before deciding on rates? Sure.

But here’s the joke. While rightly criticising the Reserve for encouraging groupthink, the report is itself a giant case of groupthink. It accepts unquestioningly the conventional wisdom of recent decades that there’s really only one way you could possibly manage the economy through the ups and downs of the business cycle, and that’s by manipulating interest rates.

Any role for “fiscal policy” – changing taxes and government spending? Didn’t think of that but, no, not really. Just make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the central bank.

We’ve fiddled with interest rates so much we’ve got them down to zero. Should we stop? Gosh no. Just think of some way to keep going. The review accepts that the central banks’ misadventure into “unconventional monetary policy” – UMP – which it sanctifies as “additional monetary policy tools”, is now part of “best practice”.

Really? Competitive currency devaluations are the way to fix the global economy’s ills? Can you hear yourselves?

Apparently, slowing the growth in spending by directly punishing the small proportion of households young and foolish enough to load themselves up with mortgage debt is “best practice”.

No, it’s not. It’s just a sign that the review committee is so caught up by global groupthink that it has never thought there might be a better way.


Monday, February 1, 2021

How economics could get better at solving real world problems

The study of economics has lost its way because economists have laboured for decades to make their social science more mathematical and thus more like a physical science. They’ve failed to see that what they should have been doing is deepening their understanding of how the behaviour of “economic agents” (aka humans) is driven by them being social animals.

In short, to be of more use to humanity, economics should have become more of a social science, not less.

This is the conclusion I draw from the sweeping criticism of modern economics made by two leading British economics professors, John Kay and Mervyn King, in their book, Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for economists to see the error of their ways. There are two kinds of economist: academic economists and practising economists, who work for banks, businesses and particularly governments or, these days, are self-employed as “economic consultants”.

Whenever I criticise “economists” – which I see as part of the service I provide to readers – the academics always assume I’m talking about them. It rarely occurs to them that I’m usually talking about their former students, economic practitioners – the ones who matter more to readers because they have far more direct influence over the policies governments and businesses pursue.

You see from this just how inward-looking, self-referential and self-sustaining academic economics has become. The discipline’s almost impervious to criticism. Criticism from outside the profession (including “the popular press”) can usually be dismissed as coming from fools who know no economics. If you’re not an economist, how could anything you say have merit?

But Kay and King are insiders. As governor of the Bank of England, King was highly regarded internationally. Kay has had a long career as an academic, author, management consultant, Financial Times columnist and head of government inquiries.

So their criticism will just be ignored, as has been most of the informed criticism that came before them. Their arguments will be misrepresented – such as that they seem opposed to all use of maths and statistics in economics. They’re not. But there’ll be little face-to-face debate. Too discomforting.

Trouble is, the push to increase the “mathiness” of economics has gone for so long that all the people at the top of the world’s economics faculties got there by being better mathematicians than their rivals.

They don’t want to be told their greatest area of expertise was a wrong turn. Similarly, all the people at the bottom of the academic tree know promotion will come mainly by demonstrating how good they are at maths.

Kay and King complain that economics has become more about technique – how you do it – than about the importance of the problems it is (or isn’t) helping people grapple with in the real world. (This may help explain why, in many universities, economics is losing out to business faculties.)

In support of their case for economics needing to be more of a social science, Kay and King note there are three styles of reasoning: deductive, inductive and “abductive”. Deductive reasoning reaches logical conclusions from stated premises.

Inductive reasoning seeks to generalise from observations, and may be supported or refuted by later experience. Abductive reasoning seeks to provide the best explanation for a particular event. We do this all the time. When we say, for instance, “I think the bus is late because of congestion in Collins Street”.

Kay and King say all three forms of reasoning have a role to play in our efforts to understand the world. Physical scientists (and mathy economists) prefer to stick to deductive reasoning. But this is possible only when we study the “small world” where all the facts and probabilities are known – the world of the laws of physics and games of chance.

In the “large world”, where we must make decisions with far from complete knowledge, we have to rely more on inductive and abductive reasoning. “When events are essentially one-of-a-kind, which is often the case in the world of radical uncertainty, abductive reasoning is indispensable,” they say.

And, so far from thinking “as if” we were human calculating machines, “humans are social animals and communication plays an important role in decision-making. We frame our thinking in terms of narratives.”

Able leaders – whether in business, politics or everyday life – make decisions, both personal and collective, by talking with others and being open to challenge from them.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Professor Robert Schiller, of Yale, has cottoned on to the importance of narratives in explaining the behaviour of financial markets, but few others have seen it. Most academic economists just want to be left alone to play the mathematical games they find so fascinating.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Populist revolt around the world making economists rethink

It’s often said that the failure of conventional economics revealed by the global financial crisis has prompted no serious effort to find a new economic theory that actually works. Look closer, however, and you see economists stirring themselves to lift their game.

That’s the view of a noted American economist and critic of his profession, Professor Dani Rodrik, of Harvard, in an article published this week by Project Syndicate.

Rodrik says the populist backlash sweeping the advanced economies in recent years – think Trump, Brexit and Pauline Hanson – has produced some soul searching in the discipline. It is, after all, a backlash against the austerity policies, free-trade deals, financial deregulation and labour market deregulation that economists urged on the politicians (and only in retrospect realised how naive they’d been and how misused by pollies with other agendas).

In consequence of this rethink, “the economics profession is gradually changing for the better”, according to Rodrik. But the transformation extends beyond thinking about economic policy.

Within the discipline there’s finally a reckoning with the hierarchical practices (reverence for seniority and high-status universities) and the macho seminar culture (where anyone who says something silly or unorthodox is brutally shot down) that have produced an inhospitable environment for women and minorities.

According to a survey of its members conducted last year by the American Economic Association, nearly half of female economists felt discriminated against or treated unfairly on account of their gender. Nearly a third of non-white economists felt they’d been treated unfairly because of their ethnicity.

Rodrik, an Egyptian American, thinks the bad policy advice and the inhospitality towards anyone not an old white male may be related. “A profession that is less diverse and less open to different identities is more likely to exhibit groupthink and hubris,” he says.

“If it is to generate ideas to help society achieve inclusive prosperity [and so not push outsiders into the arms of populist politicians with no real answers to the problems being reacted against] it will have to start by becoming more inclusive itself.”

The new face of the discipline was on display at its annual meeting in San Diego early this month. The sessions that attracted the greatest attention were the more than a dozen focusing on gender and diversity.

Also discussed was a new book by the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case, Deaths of Despair. Their research shows how a particular set of economic ideas privileging the supposed “free market”, along with an obsession with material indicators such as aggregate productivity and gross domestic product, have fuelled an epidemic of suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism among America’s (often jobless) working class.

Capitalism is no longer delivering for these people (many of whom switched their votes to get Trump over the line) and economics is, at the very least, complicit, Rodrik observes.

In a panel session at the annual meeting that Rodrik helped organise, Economics for Inclusive Prosperity (note that buzzword inclusive), several new strands of thinking were discussed that are, he claims, “taking over the discipline”.

One was the need to expand economists’ focus from average levels of prosperity (which often look okay) to the distribution of that increased income between top, middle and bottom (which often doesn’t).

Another strand of thought was the non-economic dimensions that are equally fundamental to wellbeing – such as dignity, autonomy, health and political rights – damage to which economists have tended to ignore.

“How economists talk about, say, trade agreements or deregulation may well change when they take such additional considerations seriously,” he says.

“This will require new economic indicators. One proposal that goes part of the way is for government agencies to produce distributional national accounts [something our Australian Bureau of Statistics has been working on].”

Mainstream economists have long claimed their theories and models to be “value-free”. This is self-delusion on a grand scale. In a paper presented to the panel session by Professor Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Professor Wendy Carlin, of University College, London, they boldly stated the bleeding obvious.

They argued that every policy paradigm has embedded within it not just a theory about how the economy works, but also a set of ethical values about what the good life entails. Neo-liberalism, for instance, presumes individualistic, amoral individuals and a free market that delivers efficiency, thanks to “complete contracts” (those that leave the other party no room to cheat you, but such contracts don’t exist) and few instances of “market failure” (where, for various reasons, the market fails to work the way the theory says it will).

Clearly, such assumptions go a long way towards explaining why economists failed to foresee that deregulation of the financial system and permissive supervision of it would lead eventually to collapse and deep recession.

Bowles and Carlin said what we needed was a new theory that integrates egalitarian, democratic and sustainability “norms” of acceptable behaviour (the ethical side) with a model of the economy as is really operates today (that is, which would incorporate the insights of behavioural economics).

Such a paradigm would place the community alongside the economists’ conventional dichotomy between the market and the government. And it would include policies such as wealth taxes, broader access to insurance to reduce people’s exposure to risks, workplace rights, reform of corporate governance (none of the convenient fiction that shareholders’ rights trump all others), and a substantial weakening of intellectual property rights (which have devolved from a device to encourage innovation to a prime source of big business rent-seeking).

Professor Luigi Zingales, of Chicago University’s business school, criticised economists for foisting their own preferences on the public. They tended to place greater value on certain outcomes (such as economic efficiency) rather than others (such as the distribution of income) and they fall prey to groupthink and to fetishising particular economic models over others.

I can’t say I’m convinced a revolution in economists’ thinking is imminent, but it’s a start.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Give economists a PC and they start making more sense

Economies turn down and back up, but one of the biggest, long-running economic stories of our time is the way the digital revolution is disrupting one industry after another. So let me tell you how it’s changing the academic study of economics.

You probably imagine the economic research carried out in universities is terribly theoretical and impractical. It used to be, but not anymore.

You can trace the progress of academic economics by looking at who’s been awarded the Nobel memorial prize in economic sciences from about 2001 onwards, and what they did to deserve it. Of course, there’s usually a long delay between when you make your seminal contribution and when you get your gong.

Until the turn of the century, the prize usually went to people elaborating on orthodox neo-classical theory, particularly by shifting to mathematical reasoning.

It may surprise you that the man who wrote the most popular introductory textbook of the post-war years, Paul Samuelson, was also the individual who did most to turn economic reasoning from words and diagrams to equations.

The development of the first mathematical “econometric” models of the macro economy was another important advance.

It was about 30 years ago that the frontier of economic research took a more realistic turn by shifting to the study of “imperfect competition”, where the idealised assumptions of the simple neo-classical model of markets were critically examined.

In 2001, for instance, the prize was shared by three American economists – George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz – for their demonstration that, rather than being perfectly shared by everyone in a market, information is usually asymmetric – with sellers knowing more than buyers – and, rather than being costless, is expensive to acquire.

Another example: Paul Krugman got his gong in 2008 for demonstrating that there’s more to international trade than just each country pursuing its “comparative advantage”, as mainstream theory assumes.

It was about 40 years ago that the psychologist Daniel Kahneman (gonged in 2002) and the rebellious economist Richard Thaler (2017) began formulating behavioural economics, an advance on the neo-classical assumption that all decision-making is rational. Robert Shiller got his in 2013 for his study of non-rational behaviour in financial markets.

But recent studies of articles in the world’s top economic journals (mainly American) have shown that, since about the turn of the century, theoretical papers have largely been replaced by empirical studies of particular relationships in particular markets (competition between male and female drivers in Japanese speedboat races, for instance).

This shift from deducing conclusions from assumption-based theory to examining the relationships between real-world variables, to see how the theory measures up, is a big improvement. But why has it happened?

I give most credit to the information revolution. Computerisation has hugely increased that number of “data sets” of business information waiting to be discovered and subjected to statistical tests by academic economists checking hypotheses or just looking for interesting relationships.

All of which is easily done using programs on your personal computer, rather than waiting your turn for time on the main-frame. And it fits with economists’ modern addiction to using stats and maths for “academic rigour”.

As part of their greater interest in empirical evidence rather than what theory tells us should be the case, economists have started doing something they long believed was impossible: economic experiments – including searching out “natural experiments”, such as the famous study of two nearby cities in different US states, where one state raised the minimum wage and the other didn’t.

By the standards of real mathematicians, economists’ maths isn’t that fancy, but it’s more advanced than used by others in the social sciences. Economists have made more progress in moving from finding correlations to establishing causal relationships than the psychologists have – which probably means they get more research funding.

It also means there’s less resistance from international journals to publishing research about that uninteresting and unimportant place called Australia. I’m told doctoral students come to Oz because they’ve heard we have good data sets.

The risk, however, is that research projects are chosen because good data are available, rather than because the questions being answered are important to our understanding of how the economy works and to finding better solutions to our economic problems.

We don’t want academic economists losing interest in their theory, we want them using their empirical evidence to improve it. Making it more realistic and thus more reliable in its predictions about what happens if you do X, or whether policy A or policy B is more likely to improve things.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Positions vacant: economists (women preferred)

Never in the field of economic conflict was so much analytical effort devoted to so few... as in Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe’s one-man crusade to save the economics profession.

This latter-day Lord Kitchener wants more young Australians studying economics at high school and university, then enlisting as economists in the holy war against economic inefficiency.

His message: Your country needs you. Opportunity cost is being flouted on every hand, yet we have just 3000 professional economists fighting the tide of economic illiteracy.

Young women, in particular, should look at themselves in the mirror and ask the hard question: what good reason have I not to become an economist? Why should I squander my life on any lesser calling than the orderly regulation of mammon?

And let’s have no weak excuses that you know nothing about being an economist – what kind of people they are, what they do, where they work, how hard it is to find a job. Not forgetting a question that could cross the mind of someone with the right stuff to be a dismal scientist: how well does it pay?

Field marshal Lowe has had his people working night and day scouring data bases far and wide to answer all such questions. Rochelle Guttmann (ably assisted by James Bishop, a mere male) does so in the subtly titled paper, Does It Pay to Study Economics? taken from my rapidly dwindling pile of unused reports, seasonally adjusted from 2018.

According to the 2016 census, fewer than 3000 people work as economists, even though there are 73,000 people with post-school qualifications in economics. What’s worse, only about two-thirds of people working as economists actually hold a qualification in economics.

But this is misleading. It’s not nearly that bad. For a start, the 3000 excludes about 2000 academic economists, who are classed as university lecturers. More significantly, to be classed as holding a qualification in economics, you must have that word in the name of your degree.

This is silly. In the day, the title of your degree said as much about which uni you went to as about the subject you majored in. Economics majors at Melbourne or UNSW walked away with a BCom, whereas accounting majors at Sydney got a BEc.

Little wonder people holding an “economics” degree are more likely to work as an accountant than as an economist. And you can forget the notion that a third of working economists are unqualified academically.

Returning to the recruiting drive, the authors make two observations about the huge disparity between those having done an economics degree and those getting a job as an economist.

First, it probably shows it’s hard for someone with an economics degree to actually get a job as an economist (ie, S > D). But it probably also shows that an economics degree is generalist in nature and provides a breadth of skills that allows you to work in a broader range of jobs compared to other degrees.

Get this: “80 per cent of economics graduates work in high-skilled white-collar occupations”.

More than a third of economists (narrowly defined) work in public administration, well over a quarter in private-sector professional services and about 15 per cent in financial services. But people with economics degrees work in a broader range of occupations and industries than people with degrees in most other fields.

Whether you’re talking economists or people with economics degrees, more than 60 per cent of them are men. Lowe believes – as does his teenage daughter, apparently – this disparity must be corrected. (The daughters of powerful men are far more influential than is commonly understood.)

Now to the question no economist would regard as sordid. Figures from the Australian Tax Office say economists have hourly earnings that put them in the top 3 per cent of earnings by occupation.

Graduates with economics degrees typically have higher full-time earnings than other graduates. They’re comparable with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees, and higher than for business and other social science degrees.

Guttmann and her male sidekick say the labour market tends to pay the highest wages to people with the skills, abilities and knowledge that are in shortest supply [relative to employers’ demand].

So which skills make economists well-paid? Apart from their knowledge of economics, economists have skill in maths that’s way above the average for other skilled occupations, and above-average analytical skill, for reasoning and problem solving (which is what brings the big bucks).

Looking for the catch? You’ve found it. If you’re weak on maths, you might be happier as a journo.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

We can't divorce the economy from the environment

In case you haven't noticed, a lot of economists are very concerned about Tony Abbott's choice of target for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to be taken to the international climate change conference at Paris in December.

But if you think that means they believe Abbott's target is too tough and will do too much damage to the economy, you've got the wrong end of the stick.

Most would be likely to believe the target should be more ambitious, and few would be concerned that such a target would do significant economic harm. Conventional economic modelling almost invariably shows the loss of economic growth would be surprisingly small, almost trivial.

They'd be more concerned to ensure the instruments used to achieve the target were those likely to do so at the lowest cost in terms of economic growth forgone. That's why few would have approved of Abbott's decision to abandon Julia Gillard's hybrid carbon tax/emissions trading scheme and replace it with "direct action" payments from the budget.

I'm not claiming every economist thinks this way, of course; just the great majority. There are a few exceptions, naturally, just as you can find the odd scientist who disagrees with the overwhelming majority view that global warming is real and caused by humans.

If you hadn't noticed, consider the leading part played by economists in urging that Australia be at the forefront of international efforts to reduce emissions. First, the various reports by Professor Ross Garnaut​, then the chairman of the independent Climate Change Authority, Bernie Fraser – former Reserve Bank governor and former secretary of the Treasury – then leading non-government experts such as Professor Frank Jotzo​ and Professor Warwick McKibbin, both of the Australian National University.

Note, too, the role of Dr Martin Parkinson, who worked first on John Howard's emissions trading scheme, then on Labor's as the first head of the Department of Climate Change. When Parkinson moved on to become head of Treasury, he was succeeded by another Treasury chap, Blair Comley​.

In fact, there were so many senior Treasury people at the top of the Climate Change department, it was a virtual outpost of Treasury. Both Parkinson and Comley were sacked as one of Abbott's first acts on becoming Prime Minister. Presumably, they were punished for caring too much about global warming.

Remember too that, internationally, both the emissions trading scheme and the carbon and other pollution taxes are inventions of economists. A trading scheme was used with great effect by the Americans in their efforts to reduce acid rain.

Two characteristics of economists stand out when it comes to climate change. First, they accept what the scientists are telling us without argument. Unlike some, they're not disposed to explain to the experts where they're getting it wrong.

Second, they don't believe we can go on thinking "the economy" can be kept in a separate box to "the environment". There are major interactions between the two that can't be ignored.

But, as a journalist, I'm not a member of the economists' union, so to speak, so let me stop describing their majority views and give you mine. My thinking has been influenced by the more radical opinions of yet another economist, Professor Herman Daly, of the University of Maryland.

In defending his latest target, Abbott pledged he'd never put the environment ahead of the economy and jobs. This separate-box thinking is like saying you'd never put staying alive ahead of going to work. Lose your life and whether you get to work or not hardly matters.

Daly says the economy is a "wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". Whether at a national or global level, the economy exists inside the environment – the ecosystem. It's a box inside a circle, if you like.

The point is, all human activity – all our producing and consuming – depends directly on the natural environment. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the shelters we build and the energy we use all come from the ecosystem that surrounds us.

Much of our economic activity involves misusing, overusing and abusing the natural environment. We've done great damage to our soil, rivers and aquifers, we've destroyed much habitat and many species, and now the world's overuse of fossil fuels is playing havoc with the climate.

We can be divided into those who want to do what we can to stop the destruction and start on the clean-up, and those who want to put it out of mind and keep on as we are, leaving the bill to be picked up by the next generation.

The latter group will always justify their insouciance by claiming to be putting jobs first. Yeah, sure. For the next few years, at least.

Let me be honest with you. I don't believe those modelling exercises seeming to prove that the economic costs of acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be minor. Such results are a product of the assumptions built into all conventional economic models that, whatever shock the economy is hit by, after 20 years or so, everything will be back to where it would have been.

So, the cost in terms of growth and jobs forgone might be greater than we're being told. But of one thing I'm sure: the longer we leave it, the higher those costs will be.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Economists shouldn’t be apologists for business

As the nation's economists gird their loins for a year of furious debate over economic management and reform, there's a soul-searching question they need to face.

This year's policy agenda will be dominated by economic issues. First is what's to be done about what wasn't done last year: the failure to get the budget on a credible course towards eliminating the structural deficit.

What can be done to reduce wastefulness in health spending that makes more sense than GP co-payments? Is it really a smart idea to partially deregulate government-owned and highly bureaucratic universities with their high degree of pricing power?

Apart from the government's response to last year's review of the financial system, there's the various inquiries being conducted this year: the review of the tax system, review of federal-state responsibilities and review of industrial relations.

In these things the government's big-business backers have very strong views about which reforms it should take for ratification at next year's federal election.

But while the economists are willing the politicians to "show leadership" there's a tough question they should be asking themselves: is conventional economics in reality just a rationalisation of the interests of business? Are economists spin doctors seeking to advance the greed of the rich and powerful?

That's certainly not what economics is supposed to be about. Its stated ethic is that the interests of consumers should always trump those of producers. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations carries a powerful condemnation of business people's propensity to engage in rent-seeking.

But that's just the theory. In practice these days, it's hard to find many economists pushing such a line in the public debate. One honourable exception is Professor Ross Garnaut, who has pointed to the way the push for economic reform has degenerated into rival interest groups striving for nothing more than sectional advantage.

Why are so few of his colleagues joining him in this cause? Why do so many economists stay silent while business interests distort the principles of economics to disguise their self-seeking? And, indeed, many economic consultants make their living by crafting such distortions - often through modelling - for whoever can afford their services.

One reason for the economists' silence is that most are employed by bosses who don't want them criticising business. The business economists may speak endlessly on whether or not the Reserve Bank will cut interest rates, but on little of lasting importance. Econocrats aren't supposed to express personal opinions and, in any case, their masters - of either colour - wouldn't want them offending business.

Even the academic economists enjoy less freedom to critique business behaviour in an era where the backdoor privatisation of universities has made them more dependent on business donors and where individuals are too busy publishing or perishing in journals with zero interest in Australian issues.

But the full explanation goes far deeper. Biases hidden in the neo-classical model of how markets work have caused "the economists' way of thinking" to be deeply suspicious of government intervention in markets and unthinkingly supportive of business behaviour.

One bias is the assumption that economic agents always behave rationally in pursuit of their self-interest. So individuals always know better than governments and any strange behaviour by businesses can be explained only by their rational response to distortions caused by interfering politicians.

Another bias arises from the model's unit of analysis: the individual firm or consumer. This leaves no room in the model for any kind of benefit from collective action. Rather, the market's "invisible hand" transforms agents' rational self-interest into the public good.

So economists keep mum while governments assume the budget can be returned to surplus only by reducing government spending, not by increasing taxation, and that all government spending is dubious, but distorting "tax expenditures" (which, purely by chance, heavily favour business and high income-earners) aren't a problem.

Even so, many economists are inclined to agree with business lobbies that the one exception to the fatwa against higher taxes could be an increase in the goods and services tax - provided the extra revenue is used to reduce the tax on companies or high income-earners.

As for industrial relations, conventional economic theory's primitive analysis of the labour market - which largely assumes away differences in the quality of labour, as well as assuming units of labour are no different from units of any commodity - leaves many economists happy to accept that the more bargaining power employers enjoy the better off all of us will be.

Many of these ingrained prejudices are being challenged by empirical research, but "evidence-based policy" that doesn't fit with business's perceived interests is being studiously ignored by most economists.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Badly taught economics has high opportunity cost

Is it possible the discipline of economics is becoming so mathematical it's in the process of disappearing up its own fundament?

While you're thinking about that, let me take the opportunity to ask you a quiz question (it's a holiday weekend, after all).

You've won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative activity. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you'd be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer.

So what is the ''opportunity cost'' of seeing Clapton? Is it $0, $10, $40 or $50? Take your time (especially if you fancy yourself as an economist).

The opportunity cost of a decision is the value (benefit) of the next-best alternative. So the right answer is $10. When you go to the Clapton concert you forgo the $50 of benefit you would have received from going to the Dylan concert. But that's the gross benefit. You also forgo the $40 of cost, so the net benefit you forgo is $10.

If you didn't get the right answer, don't feel too bad. When two economists at Georgia State University, Paul Ferraro and Laura Taylor, asked that question of almost 200 economists attending a professional conference, almost 80 per cent got the wrong answer.

The answers they gave were spread across the four possible answers, with more than a quarter saying $50, apparently believing it was only the ''willingness to pay'' of $50 that was relevant.
The next most popular answer was $40, apparently because people thought the cost of a Dylan ticket must also have been the opportunity cost. Those who answered $0 must have concluded there could be no opportunity cost if the Clapton concert was free.

This left fewer than 22 per cent of respondents getting the right answer. And if that (along with your own failure to get it right) doesn't shock you, it should.

Opportunity cost is probably the most fundamental concept in economics. One introductory textbook lists it along with ''marginalism'' and ''efficient markets'' as three of economics' most fundamental concepts. Opp cost seems a pathetically simple concept, but non-economists keep forgetting to consider it - meaning they don't always make the best decisions about how to spend the limited time and money available to them.

And it seems the concept isn't as simple as we assume. If about 80 per cent of non-economists got the question wrong, that would be a pity, but not too surprising. But the respondents to the survey were, in the authors' words, ''among the most well-trained economists on the planet''. Two-thirds of the respondents had PhDs, with the remainder studying for their PhD.

What's more, more than 60 per cent of them had actually taught introductory economics courses. Those who'd taught the course were no more likely to get the right answer than those who hadn't, nor were those who'd attended one of America's top-30 graduate schools, nor those who'd graduated before 1996 rather than after it.

The only significant differences were in the economists' field of specialisation. Only the tiny number specialising in micro-economic theory got a halfway respectable score, followed well back by those doing applied micro. Worst were those doing macro or international economics.

The first reason for concern is what these results say about the quality of the teaching of economics at postgraduate level. After surveying students in seven top-ranking US graduate programs in 1987, David Colander, a leading researcher of the economics profession, concluded the programs emphasised mathematics to the detriment of empirical content and economic reasoning.

A commission on graduate education in economics in 1991 found that it generated ''too many idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues''. This survey suggests little improvement since then.

Does it matter for economic research if economists can't identify opportunity cost? ''Obviously,'' the authors say, ''it matters for PhD economists who take jobs in the private or government sectors, in which opportunity costs are the fodder of daily decisions …

''Theoretical research rarely requires that an individual calculate an opportunity cost in the form of a word problem. Empirical research tends to focus more on appropriate techniques to make inferences about parameter values in models.

''But can economists be relevant in the world of ideas and policy if we cannot answer simple … opportunity cost questions?''

But whatever the failings of post-graduate teaching, there's also failure at the undergraduate level. The authors say the concept of opportunity cost is usually covered in the first week of introductory undergraduate classes and often deemed so straightforward as to not require further teaching time.

A Nobel laureate complained that ''the watered-down encyclopaedia which constitutes the present course in beginning college economics does not teach the student how to think on economic questions. The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student with no basic economic logic with which to analyse the economic questions he will face as a citizen.'' That was George Stigler, writing as long ago as 1963.

The authors say that ''if we are not able to instil in our students a deep and intuitive understanding of one of the most fundamental ideas that the discipline has to offer (and the idea whose frequent application could do most good in peoples' private and public lives) then we wonder what we can claim as our value-added to the college curriculum''.

It makes me wonder whether, in its preoccupation with using maths to make itself more ''rigorous'' and thus academically respectable, economics has lost its way.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Economist proposes a socio-economic model

What can economists tell us about love and power, why people are loyal, how groups form and how they get their members to abide by the group's norms of acceptable behaviour? Not much.
Everyone knows conventional economics is built on a stick-figure conception of humans and the way they work.
Until now. An economics professor at the University of Queensland, Paul Frijters, has attempted the remarkably ambitious project of developing a unified theory of human behaviour, turning the mainstream model of the economic system into a model of the socio-economic system.

With help from Dr Gigi Foster, of the University of NSW, he's set it all out in the book An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups and Networks. We'll find out soon enough what the rest of the economics profession makes of it.

He starts with the principles of mainstream economics, then adds and integrates selected ideas his research has determined have considerable power in explaining human behaviour.

The bit he starts with, which comes straight from the mainstream, is the assumption that humans are carefully calculating maximisers of their personal benefit. Or, as Frijters prefers to put it, ''humans are mainly motivated by greed''.

This conception of ''homo economicus'' - economic man - emerged in the Enlightenment period. In the early Middle Ages, by contrast, materialism was seen in society as strongly immoral, Frijters explains.
Even so, it's a quite one-dimensional conception of human behaviour. We're a lot more complicated than that. This assumption accounts for much of the criticism of conventional economics (including from yours truly).

So the ''core concepts'' Frijters adds to the conventional assumption of ''greed'' aim to broaden the model's explanation of human motivations and behaviour.

The first concept he adds is ''love'', by which he means love for other humans, but also love for one's beliefs. ''Love is defined as a form of unconditional loyalty, and will be said to be present whenever a person would be willing to help advance the interests of the object of his love, even if the object of his love would not notice the help and even if the loving person would receive no observable reward,'' Frijters says. So love includes the ideas of altruism and loyalty.

''Selfish materialism is extremely powerful in explaining many of our laws, our customs, our politics, and our choices as consumers. Yet selfish materialism alone cannot lead to the kind of human organisations we see in reality.

''I expect to see love as a major player involved in almost every facet of an individual's decision making ? Love within companies should be an integral part of how teams of people actually get things done within organisations.''

Another major criticism of the simple model of conventional economics is its assumption that each of us acts only as an individual, unaffected by the behaviour of those around us. This means no ''economic actor'' has more power than another.

In truth, humans are a group animal whose self-image is inextricably linked to the groups of which they are part. And the reality is that the dominant power relations in modern societies aren't between one individual and another, but rather between individuals and groups.

So the second feature Frijters adds to the mainstream view is groups and the power they generate. Each of us is a member of any number of groups, affecting our family life, social life and working life. Beyond that, our religion, ethnicity and nationality make us members of more, often powerful, groups.

It's because groups generate and exercise power that they need to be added to the model. Power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others. Part of this power comes from the development of norms of acceptable behaviour within the group. Many of us feel considerable loyalty to the groups we're in, which partly explains why we confirm to group norms.

Frijters argues there are five basic types of social groups: small hierarchies, with a clear leader, a few of high rank and a group of underlings totalling no more than a few dozen individuals in all; small circles of reciprocity, with people who are equals and share a common goal; large hierarchies, where members don't know each other; large circles of reciprocity; and networks.

Networks are his third addition to the mainstream view. They are facilitators of exchange - of goods and services, or just information. They exists because of the need to overcome ''frictions'' in markets arising from the information and transactions costs the simple mainstream model assumes away.
Individuals search for goods, buyers and suppliers within networks of small size or large anonymous networks such as the internet.

So how does Frijters' model improve on the answers to questions from the mainstream model? What questions does it answer that the mainstream can't?

On the common questions of whether international trade should be encouraged or protected against, what governments should do about monopolies and how to discourage firms from polluting, his model doesn't much change the conventional answers.

But it can answer some questions the conventional approach can't. With its assumption of calculating, self-interested behaviour, the old approach can't explain why people go to the bother of voting when the chance one vote will change the outcome is minuscule.

Frijter's model says people vote because they're idealistic and identify with the group that is Australian voters.

Nor can the old approach explain why people don't avoid or evade paying tax a lot more than they do. Rates of ''voluntary compliance'' are, in fact, surprisingly high (though not as high as in the old days).
Frijter's model says people feel loyalty to the group of fellow Australians and conform to the social norm that paying taxes is a form of reciprocity that's reasonable to expect of members of the group.

And this is no idle question. He says getting people to pay taxes is probably the single most important ingredient supporting our system of governance.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Top economist says what we hardly dare to think

Just as it s taking the world a lot longer to recover from the global financial crisis than we initially expected, so it s taking a lot longer than we might have expected for voters and their governments to learn the lessons and make the changes needed to ensure such devastation doesn t recur. But the penny has dropped for some.

Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, is one of the biggest-name economists in the world. Yet in his book, The Price of Civilisation: Economics and Ethics after the Fall, he admits America s greatest problem is moral, not economic. Actually, he says that at the root of America s economic crisis lies a moral crisis. He puts into words thoughts most of us have hardly dared to think.

Sachs says America s weaknesses are warning signs for the rest of the world. The society that led the world in financial liberalisation, round-the-clock media saturation, television-based election campaigns and mass consumerism is now revealing the downside of a society that has let market institutions run wild over politics and public values, he says.

His book tracks the many ills that now weigh on the American psyche and the American financial system: an economy of hype, debt and waste that has achieved economic growth and high incomes at the cost of extreme income inequality, declining trust among members of the society and the public s devastating loss of confidence in the national government as an instrument of public well-being .

Even if the American economy is on the skids, he says, the hyper-commercialism invented in America is on the international rise. So, too, are the attendant ills: inequality, corruption, corporate power, environmental threats and psychological destabilisation.

A society of markets, laws and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty and compassion toward the rest of society and towards the world. America has developed the world s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way.

Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.

America s crisis developed gradually over several decades, he argues. It s the culmination of an era the baby-boomer era rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is a bipartisan affair: both Democrats and Republicans have played their part.

On many days it seems that the only difference between the Republicans and Democrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns the Democrats.

Too many of America s elites the super rich, the chief executives and many academics have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned, he says.

We need to reconceive the idea of a good society. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilisation through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society s needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together.

The American people are generally broadminded, moderate and generous, he says. But these are not the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come to mind when we think of America s rich and powerful elite.

America s political institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longer holds these elites to account. And the breakdown of politics also implicates the public. American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain habits of effective citizenship.

Sachs says a healthy economy is a mixed economy, in which government and the marketplace play their roles. Yet the federal government has neglected its role for three decades, turning the levers of power over to the corporate lobbies.

The resulting corporatocracy involves a feedback loop. Corporate wealth translates into political power through campaign financing, corporate lobbying and the revolving door of jobs between government and industry; and political power translates into further wealth through tax cuts, deregulation and sweetheart contracts between government and industry. Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth.

How have American voters allowed their democracy to be hijacked? Most voters are poorly informed and many are easily swayed by the intense corporate propaganda thrown their way in the few months leading to the elections.

We have therefore been stuck in a low-level political trap: cynicism breeds public disengagement from politics; the public disengagement from politics opens the floodgates of corporate abuse; and corporate abuse deepens the cynicism.

Sachs says globalisation and the rise of Asia risks the depletion of vital commodities such as fresh water and fossil fuels, and long-term damage to the earth s ecosystems.

For a long time, economists ignored the problems of finite natural resources and fragile ecosystems, he writes. This is no longer possible. The world economy is pressing hard against various environmental limits, and there is still much more economic growth and therefore environmental destruction and depletion in the development pipeline.

Two main obstacles to getting the global economy on an ecologically sustainable trajectory exist, he says. The first is that our ability to deploy more sustainable technologies, such as solar power, needs large-scale research and development.

The second is the need to overcome the power of corporate lobbies in opposing regulations and incentives that will steer markets towards sustainable solutions. So far, the corporate lobbies of the polluting industries have blocked such measures.

In Australia, of course, the public interest has so far triumphed over corporate resistance. But the survival of both the carbon tax and the mining tax remains under threat.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Economists help cause gutless government

I hope I'm wrong, but I fear the all-in fight over the resource super profits tax will in time be seen to have brought the era of micro-economic reform to an end. If so, the economics profession will bear its share of the blame.

You could argue (as I did on Saturday) that, though the compromise deal Julia Gillard came up with is far from perfect, it still represents a net increase in economic efficiency relative to the present arrangements. But that ignores the psychological scars this dog fight will leave on the pollies.

You have to ask yourself what conclusions the politicians - of both sides; they're very similar animals - will draw, first from Kevin Rudd's palpable loss of credibility following his decision to dump the emissions trading scheme, and second from the government's near-death experience with the resource tax.

There is a host of useful lessons you'd hope the pollies would draw: don't over-promise and under-deliver, don't announce contentious reforms just before an election, don't take on too much, don't underestimate the attention and effort needed to sell unpopular reforms to a confused electorate, and more.

But the lesson the pollies are more likely to draw is much more damaging: don't let economists sell you complex reforms that are almost impossible to explain to mere mortals because the economists will fall to arguing among themselves and leave you in the lurch.

Think about it: what is reform? It's governments making changes that economic theory says will make us all better off, but in the process arousing intense resistance from those who fear their rents are threatened.

Governments then face the problem that the great number of modest winners stay mute while the small number of big losers scream blue murder. As we've just seen, the political problem is greatly compounded by the ease with which powerful vested interests can convince the public the interests' problem is actually the public's problem.

The antidote to this propaganda involves economic reasoning that's beyond most of the public's comprehension and which the pollies find almost impossible to explain without the help of economists capable of speaking plain English.

When people don't understand policy debates and don't know what to believe, they fall back on the opinions of presumed experts, such as prominent business people. But business people are either on the make or they're adhering to an honour-among-thieves ethic that you keep mum while fellow business people are trying it on (we've just seen the Business Council doing exactly this on the resource tax).

The other, better qualified authority source is the economics profession. But reforming pollies have learnt economists always let you down. You think you're fighting their good fight, but they're more inclined to attack you or muddy the water than support you. There are different kinds of economists, of course. The econocrats generally aren't free to speak publicly on policy.

Most market and private sector economists are prevented by their employers from joining the non-macro policy debate, prevented from offending clients or potential clients and sometimes required to spruik their firm's interests.

Then you have the self-employed economic consultants, whose arguments are for hire - sometimes by governments trying to side-step the econocrats, but usually by vested interests battling the government.

Apart from a handful of media economic commentators who are free to express their opinions (those working for Fairfax, anyway) that leaves only the academic economists free to take sides and speak out.

The great majority of academics don't say boo beyond the staff room. But the few who do are far more likely to argue the toss with government policies than support them.

(The 21 academic economists who issued a statement supporting the resource super profits tax are an honourable exception.) I have sympathy for the Treasury secretary's expression of the frustration ministers of both colours feel at the unsupportive contributions of academics.

Ken Henry acknowledged the value of the academic "contest of ideas", but said there were "occasions on which economists might, at least for a period, put down their weapons and join a consensus".

The reaction of the academics wasn't just defensive, it dripped with righteous indignation. Professor Warwick McKibbin, of the Australian National University, said Henry "can't believe you should have consensus because it is better to have bad policy that everyone agrees with than eventually get good policy that will work".

Note the assumptions in that remark: the policies governments advance are always bad and always in need of correction by that fount of wisdom, W. McKibbin. It tells you more about his personality than the state of public policy. I don't remember him ever doing anything but criticise. McKibbin was among the first economists to propose a detailed solution to climate change and is an expert of international rank. But no government has accepted his solution and now he tears down every proposal different from his own.

He's so negative the opponents of action see him as an ally.

Professor Joshua Gans, of Melbourne Business School, said "you have to believe Ken Henry really doesn't understand academics at all when he publicly says stuff like this". He had supported various government policies, but was never invited to help improve those policies ("something they could clearly use"). Failing that, he would "speak my mind from the sidelines".

It's a free country, and if academics are willing only to advocate (their personal version of) policy perfection and not support policies that inevitably and unavoidably are less than first-best, no one can make them.

But let's not hear any economists whose only contribution is a counsel of perfection complain governments lack the "political will" to implement economic reform policies even economists refuse to support.