The visible hand in economics

Archive for the ‘Methodology’ Category

So we are going to have to cut our consumption and it’s not going to make us better off. How come NewScientist’s authors seem to agree that we won’t necessarily be unhappier? Where evidence is given it tends to be in terms of happiness measures. Kate Soper (London Metropolitan University) points out that wealth doesn’t correlate with happiness over USD15,000 of income, while Andrew Simms (New Economics Foundation) makes much of the fact that people with vastly different living standards report the same level of happiness. The difficulty is that happiness isn’t the kind of measure that works for cross-country comparisons. Read the rest of this entry »


Everywhere I look I am being told that the RBNZ must slash rates into heavily stimulatory territory.  There are calls for tax cuts, infrastructure spending, further unemployment relief.  There are calls that commodity prices will collapse – but the price we pay for things won’t.  Pretty much anything that could be wrong, we’re are being told is wrong.

It is easy to get caught up in this.  All the negative news and statements that the Bank MUST cut between 150-200 basis points makes me feel like “maybe they should”.  Ultimately, you start to feel that they know things you don’t.  This type of analyst is a “fast follower”.

Now pulling back from all this talk, as an analyst I may try to be “objective”.  I may try to forget about these things, and take special notice of the “good things.  Wholesale funding pressures are falling, petrol prices have collapsed, income growth is still strong, and the labour market is still in tight territory.  A little bit of a slowdown is not a bad thing if it helps to clean up the economy.  However, this view is just as wrapped up in subjective feelings – in this case I have heavily devalued the actual evidence of difficulties in the economy, and the fact that a drastic slowdown is never completely in the data till well after the event.  Analysts that suffer in this way are facing “recession fatigue”.

Analysts must try to remember that this inherent biases exist – as by doing so they can help themselves make more objective, and more useful, statements about what is going on in the economy.  Noticing your ideological blindspot will help you to be a better analyst – so don’t hide from it, face it!  If only I knew how 😛

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Frog has again attacked economics – however, this time the attack has been painted out in a more substantive manner, a manner that will allow us to actually discuss the methodology of economics and see where this critique fits in.

Frog’s claim is that:

The neoclassical economic model is failing us. It is based on some pretty poor assumptions and defies the laws and rigour of science

I find this, interesting. In order to analyse it we have to step back and ask: What is the neo-classical model? and how is it “failing us”?

I will have a first crack at saying what I think neo-classical economics is and what is going on with it. Then you guys can attack it and hopefully teach me a thing or two – as I am very interested in trying to understand “what is economics” in more detail.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Paul Romer states that the current crisis represents the gap between the Fundamentalist economist and the Realist economist (ht Economist’s View, Greg Mankiw, Econlog – as I had them all open at the same time and would have felt mean only picking one 😛 ). I find this characterisation a bit extreme, and definitely subjectively loaded.

Fundamentally, a better characterisation (which more fairly divides up the discipline) was provided by Mankiw, comparing the groups to scientists and engineers (we have discussed this here).

Anyway, let us put down the definitions that Romer provides, and see what we can get out of them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hi all, For some reason I can’t post anything particularly long at the moment – as the site doesn’t like me.

As a result, none of the ideas I have for posts can be satisfactorily placed on the site. I can still comment though – its just taking a while.

If you want you can comment on this in the comments section of the post (ht Marginal Revolution, Econlog). I will try to get some posts up tonight.

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

at LAANTA has replied to my reply on his post on the problems with utilitarianism.

In this reply he states two issues that he sees with my view of utilitarianism, namely:

  1. The assumption that utilitarianism doesn’t involve assumptions between what is right and wrong is plainly false,
  2. Justice and efficiency concerns are incomparable because one is non-consequential and the other is consequential.

I plan to reply to the reply of the reply under the flap 😛

Read the rest of this entry »

What is a discount factor? A discount factor tells us the rate of time preferences between periods of time – in other words it gives us a measure for how much “stuff” we are willing to sacrifice in the future in order to consumer now.

Economists often use “exponential discounting“. Furthermore Rauparaha has discussed how hyperbolic discounting more accurately reflecting peoples true time preference at a given point in time. However, there are other issues that influence the way people discount. The one I want to focus on today is death.

Read the rest of this entry »

Economics seems to endure an awful lot of criticism for using models which simplify reality. I really like the analogy Free Exchange draws between economic models and geographical maps:

If a map included every detail in the geography (trees, country roads, etc.) it would be intractable, rendering it useless. Maps do give you a sense of scale and how variables relate. This facilitates your journey, but does not eliminate unforeseen diversions and the potential for accidents.

Our models are far from perfect and are constantly improving. However, it is our ability to simplify that makes the models useful. If we had to REALLY model reality we’d be neuroscientists, not economists, and have yet to contribute anything to an understanding of markets, policy or finance.

Here I am going to discuss an issue that is way over my head – but is extremely important for the practical application of economic concepts. I am going to discuss how changes in economic policies can influence social structure.

I decided that I would attempt to write about this after reading this post. In the post the daily dissident laments the collapse of community and the movement in consumerism and its impact on individuals.

The first argument against this view is the idea of individual freedom – individuals have the right to make their own choices, and the frame of communal society alienates that right. However, it is possible to look at the idea of community while providing individuals with rights.

The most basic way to frame this problem initially is as a prisoners dilemma. Read the rest of this entry »

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