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 😛 ) 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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