The visible hand in economics

Archive for the ‘Economic theory’ Category

I have no doubt that my views here will be contentious – but they need to be put forward nonetheless.

I think that Treasury (or some mix of part of Treasury and IRD) should function at arms length in the same way as the Reserve Bank, and that they should set tax rates in the same way that the RBNZ sets interest rates.

Now, let me discuss why.

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In the same post that Dr Doyle commented on, Andrew W linked to an article which he wanted us to discuss here (article is here).

As a critique of applied economics I accept the article (as there is definitely issues associated with the desimenation of economic tools into policy making), as a critique of economic science the article is horrendously off the mark.

One of the main issues I have with the article is the way it view economics vs physics – it is far too simplistic.  For example, the article states:

But statistical regularities should emerge in the behaviour of large populations, just as the law of ideal gases emerges from the chaotic motion of individual molecules

That is just the thing – the behaviour of individuals is not equivalent to chaotic motion (although I am sure many people would disagree :P ) because individuals make choices.  This additional element makes the whole study of macroeconomics (which I believe they are attempting the criticise) that much more difficult.

The “axioms” that the article criticises are all assumptions about this choice – factors that economists decided over 100 years ago that they would have to assume because they CANNOT observe choices in a sufficient fashion.  Of course, since then empirical and observational techniques have improved such that “the observation of the process of choice” is becoming avaliable.  As a result, these axioms will be (and in fact are being) challenged and changed.

I think it would have been good for the article to look at work on the methodology of economics before assuming that they could just pull out the critique of 17th century science and apply it directly here.

A few weeks ago a fellow named Jeffrey Doyle posted a “history of economic thought” type comment/post on the blog, which can be found here.

Beyond this he also added one additional criticism of “neo-classical economics” – the focus on “monetary flows” instead of energy.  Of course, as a criticism of economic science this is a misnomer – economic science is the study of scarcity, and “monetary flows” are merely a convientent way of representing this scarcity.  Using energy as a representation should – if the models are sufficiently specified – provide the same results.  Now, in when applying models there may be substantial differences, given what is implicitly assumed to be useful or not in different models – while this argument is important for application it is not something I can argue about, as I do not have the scarce intellectual talent to go around and apply a new set of assumptions to an underlying framework of scarcity.

However, my impression is that Dr Doyle is not criticising the individualistic methodological process in economics – he is attacking the “economic unit” used when we study scarcity, something that is constantly occurring and is a healthy part of any discipline.

Over at Econlog Arnold Kling takes to task virtually all mainstream Macroeconomists for there “description” of the current economic crisis. This combined with my reading last night on reductionism in economics (I think it was Robert Frank Kevin Hoover – although I have now forgotten as it was an essay in a larger book) currently has me on the back foot – even though I’m a strong methodological (and even an ontological) individualist there are obviously issues with the current application of reductionism in economics.

However, let met put down some of the key bits from the Kling.

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Paul Krugman won the 2008 Economics Nobel prize for his work on trade theory.

This was a surprising result for me, as he is still relatively young and I expected Sargent to win. However, he is a deserving winner – congratulations are in order.

Anti-Dismal goes into more detail, and links to a number of economics blog reactions on the prize, enjoy.

BTW, No Right Turn is correct that it is not really a strict Nobel prize – but I don’t think that fundamentally knocks down its importance.  After all behind the Nobel peach prize I was say the “not-Noble” economics prize comes second in terms of international awareness.

Matt McCarten was someone I enjoyed listening to when I was a young Alliance supporter many years ago – however, even in the heyday of teenage communist sympathies I would not have agreed with his conclusion that the recent credit crisis is undeniable evidence that voluntary trade does not work.

Now Kiwiblog and Anti-dismal have already gone to task explaining why they don’t believe this is a fair criticism of free trade, and good on them I think they are on the money (David Farrar focuses on why the criticism doesn’t sit well while Paul Walker paints the case for regulation being the cause of the problem – more here). The Hive also mentions dis-satisfaction with his choice of historical comparison. However, even after reading these posts you may still harbour some confusion surrounding the fact that I said voluntary trade instead of free markets.

Ultimately, his criticism of the “invisible hand” draws out something incredibly naive about the point of view that the free market is bad. Supporters of the free market are not so much saying that corporations should be allowed to manipulate information and “defraud” the public as they are saying that voluntary trade among groups is a good thing.

If two people choose to trade, it must be in their benefit and therefore giving people the freedom to trade is an important part of a society – this is what free trade represents.

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Over at Econlog, Arnold King is telling us how he lost his macro religion. It is an interesting post, and it gives me the impression that he believes any type of technical macroeconomics (either empirical or theoretical) to be somewhat of a fraud – a fair description given the difficulty of stringing out cause and effect in macroeconomic data.

In the post he discusses a essay by Greg Mankiw called the Macroeconomist as scientist and engineer. Far from presuming that macroeconomists do the same thing as scientists and engineers, the point of the essay is to describe the difference between macroeconomists that thrive in the abstract and those that work in the face of policy and data. Although there is not a clear split between the two – the distinction allows him to discuss how many of the recent (last 20 years) conclusions in macroeconomics do not appear to be useful for forming policy.

The essay by Mankiw is very good, and it provides a much better description of the evolution of macroeconomics ideas then my earlier retort to Chris Trotters claim about Keynesianism. However, I would also beware the partisan element of what he states.
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Over at Econlog Bryan Caplan asks a good question – he asks why economists who often rail against the free market will also often state that they strongly support civil liberties. Fundamentally he is asking, why do these people not support freedom to trade but do support freedom of expression.

Now I agree with Dr Caplan that economists should use the same tools to discuss civil issues as they do trade issues – any limits on civil liberties should be the result of externalities, asymmetric information on the value or relevance of ideas, or the undue power of an idea which in turn reduces social welfare (in the same way that in trade, people will rally against externalities, asymmetric information, and undue market power).

However, this does not suddenly imply that I am a stanch supporter of a completely free market – in the same way that I am not a stanch support of blanket calls to remove regulations that reduce civil liberties. Ultimately, in both cases there are trade-offs, and our ultimate goal is to maximise social welfare.

Lets discuss the “social-democrat economist’s bias” a bit more below the flap:

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It is good to see the Frog Blog discussing happiness and policy – as fundamentally the goal of policy should be to promote the highest social happiness, not necessarily to promote the largest GDP number.

The article that Frog links to can be found here, and on Saturday there was an article in the paper by Chris Worthington on the subject as well. However, I get the feeling that Mr/Mrs/Miss Frog interprets this policy implication a little differently to me (and both are different to this previous post) – lets discuss.

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Is economics not transparent enough?

I ask this question after reading this awesome post from the Freakonomics post (ht Antidismal) (Disclaimer: It is really only awesome if you are into economics :P ). Specifically, these two points that are often raised in presentations:

23. The motivation of the agents in this theory is so narrowly egotistic that it cannot possibly explain the behavior of real people.
24. The flabby economic actor in this impressionistic model should be replaced by the utility-maximizing individual.

Now as you might notice – these two criticisms contradict :) .

Over time I have stated that one of the advantages of mainstream economics is that the assumptions it makes are transparent.  However, if us economists can’t agree on the appropriate characterisation of an economic actor (and thereby we adjust our characterisation in an ad hoc manner), how can the results of our economic models be transparent (as what determines the fundamental “rational agent” is unclear)?

Discuss :) (I will try to come up with an answer when I wake up ;) )

Over at Econospeak

There appears to be a fair amount of disdain in his post about the mathematical nature of economics. However, I will forgive him for this – he is a heterodox economist after all, so his very discipline is focused on critiquing areas where mainstream economic thought makes a wrong turn. Although I do not share the mis-trust of mathematical theory (infact I believe it is a very useful way to organise ideas (sort of like writing them down), I do agree with the concept that an over reliance on technical models, without an understanding of the underlying assumptions, can lead to spurious conclusions in economics (however, as we have said before, this is a problem with the subjective application of a model – it is not invalidate the model in of itself).

Anyway, the authour appears to believe that economists ignore the idea of a worker. Fundamentally, I get the impression that he is believes economics discusses the rights of capital owners in far more detail than we talk about the rights of workers. However, I’m not certain that I agree – let me try to explain:

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If you want to know, have a look at this post. It is completely non-technical, and explains the way macro-economists look at things pretty danged well! (ht Marginal Revolution).

Fundamentally, this view of the business cycle is highly focused on methodological individualism – the business cycle occurs in the context of individuals maximising their happiness given constraints.

Before this strain of thought came out, business cycle theory was a surprising holistic section of economics – something that did not match with the individualistic nature of microeconomics (see Schumpeter). Furthermore, business cycle theory, long-term growth theory, and near term macroeconomics (effectively old school Keynesianism) were relatively incompatible.

Following the collapse of the “consensus” in macroeconomics during the oil crisis the one ray of hope was that we macroeconomics could be recreated in a way that is consistent with microeconomics. According to Kids prefer cheese this research area is still active – which is exactly what we want to hear.

Update: Paul Walker discusses the same article.

Over at Econlog they mention a uncomfortable question that is asked at Instapundit:

If somebody offered us our current income tax system for the first time, would we buy it?

Now when we have defended progressive taxes on this blog we have often assumed that it is a revealed preference for society – in fact this is a favored measure we have for actually revealing (to some degree) what is optimal (here, here, can’t actually find any of the tax posts :) ).

How could this work? How could we have a system that is not optimal.
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One of the major questions I face when discussing economics is:

Why do we feel that prices are the appropriate measure for illustrating the value someone receives from a product?

Now I only have a limited understanding of welfare economics, but I am going to attempt to discuss the issue anyway ;) . If anyone more knowledgeable would like to correct me I would be happy to hear from them.

In a micro sense this idea could be criticised insofar as one person may have a lower “willingness to pay” for a product which may stem from having a higher opportunity cost (as they have a lower wealth level then other people) rather than truly receiving less value from the consumption of the good/service. If this is the case we may feel that we should re-distribute the resource from the wealth to the poor in order to increase the level of aggregate welfare.

Now accepting this relative ranking of preferences and the given endowment in the market this could be a suboptimal situation in terms of welfare. After all, we know that the poor person values both of these goods more than the wealthy person (assuming no linkages between them) so “total satisfaction” in society will be maximized by this implicit “redistribution” resources. However, this does not make the price mechanism pointless, let me attempt to explain.

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I recently mentioned that prospect theory tells us that most people are risk seeking in losses. CPW commented that this seems to be at odds with the fact that people buy insurance. After all, if people like risky losses, why would they pay money to avoid them by purchasing insurance? According to John Nyman the answer lies in a straightforward reframing of the choice consumers face when they buy insurance. Read the rest of this entry »


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