Archive for January, 2009

Weekend reflections

January 30th, 2009 42 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.Weird Science film

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A bit more on bank nationalisation

January 30th, 2009 35 comments

Here’s my article from yesterday’s Fin

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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Charles Stross seminar at Crooked Timber

January 28th, 2009 11 comments

Among other things, I’ve been busy over the last few months putting together a Crooked Timber book event discussing the work of Scottish science fiction writer Charles Stross. The idea is that members of the CT group, and some invited guests write posts on the book(s) in question, the author responds and the whole thing is thrown open to comments. Our guest line-up this time is stellar, including Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman and Ken MacLeod. If you’re interested in SF, the literature of ideas in general or the future of book reviewing, go and have a look.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:

25 years of the Mac

January 27th, 2009 35 comments

The Macintosh computer just turned 25

Johnny Got His Gun move

. I bought one of the original 128K Macs not long after they came out. I remember being reluctation to shell out $50 for a box of 10 400k floppy disks (these were the the 3.5″ type that weren’t actually floppy, and became standard on IBM PCs quite a few years later). I thought I was unlikely ever to need 4 megabytes of storage, so I got the store to sell me what was left in a box they’d already opened. And I was pretty dubious that anyone could really use the 512K of RAM offered in w the top-of-the-line “Fat Mac” which came out soon afterwards. It didn’t take me long to discover my error and upgrade.

I’ve owned just about every model since then**, and Macs have been a huge part of my life. I’d find it hard to estimate the increase in my productivity* associated with using Macs instead of typewriters or command-line computers back in the 1980s and early 1990s. This question was the subject of long-running religious wars which persisted until quite recently, but after the emergence of Windows it became pretty clear that the Mac style of computing was the only serious option, and that people who didn’t want to use Apple Macs for one reason or another would only have to wait a few years for the MS knockoff (next instalment, Windows 7).

For a while in the 90s, it seemed likely that Windows would prevail, but the return of Steve Jobs to Apple changed all that. Now, there’s a lot of talk that minimal net-based computers will take over, but such talk has been round many times before (smart terminals, thin clients and so on) and never gone anywhere. At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident Macs will be around as long as I am.

* That was before blogs which soaked up an awful lot of that excess productivity, though with lots of compensating benefits.

** Though not, IIRC, the Mac SE/30, listed here as the best Mac ever. At the time it came out, I was using a Mac II at work, and a much-upgraded original Mac at home.

Categories: Mac & other computers Tags:

The Australian case for nationalisation

January 25th, 2009 71 comments

The speed with which bank nationalisation has risen to the top of the policy agenda has found the economics profession largely unprepared. The literature on property rights that developed in the 1970s produced a range of arguments in favour of private as opposed to public ownership which had at least some influence on the widespread adoption of privatisation policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Although subsequent theoretical and empirical developments, such as the discovery of the equity premium puzzle and developments in agency theory cast doubt on the claims of the original literature, the profession had moved on, and showed little interest in revisiting the issues. As Joshua Gans observes,

the main contributions have come from Australian economists who did this research a decade ago only to be told by international journals that as privatisation had occurred everywhere by then, no one was interested in the conditions under which government ownership would be preferable.

and notes “I guess that view is wrong.” Unsurprisingly, I was among those who tried, with limited success, to interest the international profession in this question.

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Weekend reflections

January 23rd, 2009 33 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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Refuted economic doctrines #4: individual retirement accounts

January 23rd, 2009 108 comments

The news that, on average, superannuation investments lost nearly 20 per cent of their value last year Johnny Got His Gun movie download comes as no surprise, and its likely that there are plenty of unrealised losses still on the books. Still, while the losses on the stockmarket have been as bad here as anywhere, we can take some comfort in the fact that Australian superannuation funds, like Australian banks, don’t seem to be in the same trouble as some of their overseas counterparts. As the government scrambles to keep the financial system operational, it’s natural to ask what, if anything can be done about this.

In the short term, the answer appears to be, nothing, or very little. Fortunately, for most people the losses are, in a sense, notional, wiping out the spurious gains of previous years. It’s only for those at or near retirement that the crash presents an immediate economic problem. Given that the demand for labour is plummeting, the government could perhaps consider an ex gratia payment to people who choose to retire now. There are all sorts of problems with this, and in normal times, such a proposal would never pass muster, but plainly, these aren’t normal times.

Looking to the longer view, this is more than a bad year for superannuation funds. The crash and the way it came about undermines the fundamental premise that has driven Australian retirement income policy for the past decade: that allowing individuals, with good financial advice, to make their own investment decisions on the basis of defined contributions from employers to personal accounts, is the best way of financing retirement. The old age pension, in this view, serves as a residual for those who don’t manage to save enough.

This privatised approach (also represented in Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security in the US) is has been largely discredited by the crash. Financial advisers, even the honest ones, have proved to be useless. Lots of investments that were marketed as low-risk have turned out to be little more than junk. Morover, the idea that stocks will always perform better than bonds over the medium term (say a decade) has been proved false. This is a central premise of long-term investment advice.

We need to look again at the alternatives: either a return to employer-based defined benefit schemes, with portability of service, or some kind of national superannation schemes. In the short term, the call for an increase in the aged pension will also gain strength.

Update 27/1/09 The New York Times agrees. And today’s Fin has a piece from Robert Shiller denouncing the efficient markets hypothesis. I’d better get cracking with more refutations, while there are still plenty of doctrines left to refute.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

The fallout

January 22nd, 2009 24 comments

Back in November, I observed that Australia’s economic situation felt something the opening of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach, where a nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere. Australia has not been hit, but a lethal cloud of fallout is gradually drifting southwards.

The fallout has certainly hit now. Huge job losses are being announced across the board, but particularly in the mining sector, which was booming only a few months ago. The government is already contemplating radical action to respond to the likely withdrawal of most foreign banks from our financial markets, and it needs to be similarly radical in its response to the imminent collapse of the labour market. For now, I’ll restate what I wrote in November, hopefully with more to come on this topic

Job creation gets a bad name from silly projects exemplified by the (apparently apocryphal) case of ‘painting rocks white’, so they tend to be a last resort. But the alternative of wage subsidies is least effective during the initial contraction phase of a recession, when employers are cutting back or freezing their staff numbers.

It’s precisely at this time when some well-timed projects could do a lot of good. In this respect the recently-announced assistance to local governments looks like a good idea.

Finally, while there are good reasons for governments to pick up the private sector slack as regards infrastructure investment, it’s important to remember that the days of large gangs of workers swinging picks and shovels are long gone. Physical infrastructure projects have many potential merits, but large-scale job creation is not among them.

The biggest employment gains nowadays come from expanding the services sector, and particularly human services such as health and education. The financial services sector has also been an important source of growth since the 1970s, but the jobs being cut there now are unlikely to return for some years, if they ever do.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

In which I disagree with Paul Krugman

January 21st, 2009 22 comments

As James Surowiecki points out here, my views on what’s entailed in bank nationalisation differ significantly from those of Paul Krugman[1]. Krugman, like quite a few other advocates of nationalisation, has in mind models like the Resolution Trust Corporation and the Swedish nationalizations of the 1990s, where the government took insolvent institutions into temporary public ownership, liquidated the bad assets and returned them to the private sector. These solutions worked well because the global financial system as a whole was solvent and liquid, even though some sectors (US S&Ls, Swedish banks) were not.

What’s needed in the present case is not only to fix the problems of individual banks, problems on a much bigger scale than have been seen before (even in the leadup to the Great Depression, the financial sector played a smaller role in the economy than in the recent bubble), but to reconstruct a failed global financial system. It’s kind of like rewiring an electrical system in near-meltdown, while keeping the power on (this is possible, but tricky and dangerous). The job is likely to be much slower than the rescues mentioned above, and the institutions that emerge from it will be very different from those that went in.

But, contra Surowiecki this time, this only strengthens the argument for nationalisation. Financial restructuring is going to be a huge challenge, involving both a radical redesign of national regulations and the construction of an almost completely new global financial architecture. To attempt this task while leaving the banks under the control of discredited managers nominally responsible to shareholders whose equity has, in the absence of massive transfers from taxpayers, been wiped out by bad debts, seems like doing live electrical work while wearing a blindfold and standing in a pool of water.

fn1. Krugman is well-known for being right when lots of others have been wrong, so take this into account in assessing the arguments.

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It's over

January 21st, 2009 67 comments

For the first time in the history of this blog, George Bush is not the President of the United States.

Categories: World Events Tags:

China, me old China

January 20th, 2009 22 comments

This is a long overdue post, promised as a thankyou to my old friend Martin Ellison who managed the transfer of the blog from the old, slow and unreliable shared server to the new accelerated server a few months back. Anyone who has noticed the difference is welcome to add their thanks in comments.

As a return in kind, I promised a post on any selected topic within reason, and Martin asked about the Chinese economy, a subject on which I’ve regularly promised myself I will get up to date. So, here goes.

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What to do with nationalised banks ?

January 19th, 2009 38 comments

All reasonableTM commentators now agree that nationalisation of big banks like Citigroup, Bank of America and Royal Bank of Scotland must take place soon, explicitly or otherwise. As I said at just before the second (failed) Citigroup bailout) banks like Citi are not only too big to fail, they’re too big to rescue with any of the half-measures that have been tried so far.

It’s obvious that “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly” and cleanly, without any dodges designed to hide the reality of nationalisation. The longer these zombie institutions are allowed to run on public money, but under the existing discredited managers, legally answerable to the private shareholders, the bigger the costs the public will ultimately face.

Nationalisation would resolve a lot of the difficult questions around ideas such as the creation of a “bad bank” to hold all the toxic assets accumulated during the boom. That’s critical as long as policy is aimed at turning the troubled banks around while keeping them private, but it’s unimportant once all the debts and assets have been taken on to the public balance sheet. Once the big banks are nationalized, the government can take its time salvaging whatever assets are still worthwhile and preparing for the reconstruction of a private banking system under a completely new system of regulation, a task that is likely to take several years.

The big question is, what should governments do with the banks once they own them? Clearly, there’s an imperative for banks to start lending again, but there is no benefit in making yet more bad loans. And, right at the moment, credit-worthy borrowers are hard to find. The immediate concern must be to ensure that commercially sound loans aren’t being constrained by the need to bolster bank balance sheets. Then, governments need to consider whether some form of support for loans, such as interest rate subsidies or guarantees (secured against assets seen as having a long-term value that exceeds their current market value) should be part of the policy response to the recession. Such policies have plenty of risk associated with them, but the risks are mitigated a bit if the guarantor and the bank owner are ultimately the same (in this case, the public).

Obviously, this is not the kind of question economists have spent a lot of time thinking about until fairly recently. I don’t imagine many of us would have expected, a year ago, to be reading the Wall Street Journal castigating Henry Paulson and the Bush Administration for the (partial) nationalisation of the Bank of America. No doubt plenty of mistakes will be made. But there is no time for leisurely reflection here. As in 1933, the next hundred days will make a big difference, one way or another.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Monday Message Board

January 19th, 2009 26 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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Windschuttles and weathercocks

January 17th, 2009 82 comments

Amid the voluminous commentary on the Windschuttle hoax(es), the most telling, for me, was a summary of his political peregrinations from Guy Rundle at Crikey. It’s paywalled but I’ll quote the best bit:

The man who’s now editing Australia’s premier conservative magazine was advocating the revolutionary potential of LSD in the 60s, media studies as “radical pedagogy” in the early 70s, was enthusiastic for Pol Pot peasant-style revolts in the late 70s (“the oil is almost gone — soon the Aborigines and poor whites will rise up” he wrote in Nation Review in the late 70s) and re-emerged in the 90s, after the global collapse of the left, as a man who thought there was no Tasmanian genocide, that the White Australia policy was a left-wing plot, that John Steinbeck made up the Great Depression and that the British Empire could not have been cruel because its officers were Christians.

Like a mendicant Pope, he’s spent his life wandering from one state of certainty to the next, in the search for godknowswhat.

The only stage missed was his (“Killing of History”) period as a scourge of postmodernist and relativist theory and fan of the empirical approach of researchers like Henry Reynolds.

That brings to mind the more general phenomenon of migration from dogmatic left to dogmatic right, which I discussed quite a while ago here, and linked to Paul Norton.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

As good as gold

January 16th, 2009 28 comments

My passing remark about the role of gold in the Panic of 1873 provoked plenty of discussion, so I thought I’d have a preliminary go at a post I’ve been thinking about for a while.

The global financial crisis has been an intellectual disaster for those supporters of free markets who rely on mainstream arguments such as the efficient capital markets hypothesis. But it’s been something of a boon for fringe free-market viewpoints such as those of the Austrian school and (an overlapping group), advocates of the gold standard. Members of this group have been predicting disaster at least as long, and (relative to their numbers) at least as loudly, as social democratic critics of financial deregulation.

So, it’s worth presenting my critique of the gold standard in several parts, which can be classed as microeconomic, macroeconomic, empirical and political, along with some miscellaneous points. I don’t claim any particular originality for it, but I’m presenting on the basis of my own analysis rather than directly citing a source (I’d welcome pointers on this)

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Weekend reflections

January 16th, 2009 16 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

Short and sharp ?

January 15th, 2009 151 comments

Writing in the Oz, Alan Moran begins a case for wage cuts as a response to recession with the claim

Until the 1930s, recessions tended to be short and sharp, and financial ruin was largely confined to the speculators whose exuberance had diverted capital into ventures where it was less than productive.

Much the same assumption appears to underlie the thinking of those who propose a return to the macroeconomic policies of the 19th century, such as the gold standard. Economic statistics for this period aren’t exactly comparable to those available today, but, such as they are, they don’t support the claim. In the US, for example, the longest-ever recession, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research was that of the 1870s (following the Panic of 1873, which in turn followed the US shift from bimetallism to a gold standard). As the NBER data shows, 19th century recessions commonly lasted for more than a year.

In Australia, the long and deep depression of the 1890s, and the substantial wage cuts imposed during that depression (with employers getting the full backing of governments) were a major factor in the formation of the Labor Party and the shift to a parliamentary, as opposed to a purely industrial strategy, for the labour movement.

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Are sockpuppeteers criminals?

January 14th, 2009 10 comments

The Lori Drew case, in which a US woman set up a Myspace account under the name “Josh Evans” to torment a teenage girl who had fallen out with Drew’s daughter, and drove her victim to suicide, has some legal implications of interest to bloggers. Drew was ultimately sentenced to jail, not for her cruel prank and its fatal consequences, but for “unauthorized access to a computer system” by virtue of the false name under which the account was created. On the face of it, the same offence is committed (at least under US law) every time a commenter on a blog or noticeboard uses a sockpuppet to evade bans or blocks, or to post under multiple identities in violation of contractual terms.

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Monday Message Board

January 12th, 2009 23 comments

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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Science vs the Right: state of play

January 11th, 2009 140 comments

I stopped arguing with self-described “skeptics” on the topic of global warming some time ago, and I don’t intend to start again. I am however interested both in trying to promote sensible policy outcomes and in considering the broader political and cultural implications of the debate. For this purpose, there is no need to argue about hockey sticks, global warming on Mars or any of the other talking points that chew up so much time on the Internets (for anyone who is actually in doubt on any of these points, this is a useful resources

I’ll start with some facts that are, if not indisputable, at least sufficiently clear that I don’t intend to engage in dispute about them
(i) All major scientific organisations in the world[1] endorse, in broad terms, the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which states that the world is getting warmer and that, with high (> 90 per cent) probability, this warming is predominantly due to human action
(ii) Most prominent politicians[2], thinktanks, activists, commentators and bloggers on the political right in Australia, the US and Canada (along with a large section in the UK) reject, or express doubts about, this analysis. The uniformity of views is particularly notable among conservative thinktanks.

The dispute between mainstream science and the political right has now been going on for at least fifteen years, and has already had some profound impacts. At the beginning of this period, the right could plausibly present itself as the pro-science side of the “Science Wars” in which the enemies were the massed forces of leftwing postmodernism (a powerful force, given their near-total control over departments of English literature), sociologists of science and the wilder fringes of the environmental movement. However, this was always a storm in a teacup, ignored by the vast majority of scientists.

By contrast, the current war is being fought for high stakes, with the end result either a disastrous defeat for the institutions of mainstream science or the intellectual discrediting of the entire political right. There has been no significant convergence between the two sides. On the contrary, even as confidence in the mainstream scientific consensus was solidified be the released of the IPPP Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the rightwing opponents of science were buoyed by the La Nina event of early 2008, which produced a sharp, but temporary drop in temperatures, particularly in the Pacific. Comparisons with the El Nino peak of 1998 enabled them to announce that global warming had stopped, a point which was amplified in vast numbers of opinion pieces, blog posts and public statements, though not, to my knowledge, defended by any peer-reviewed statistical analysis.

Even such an obvious fact as the melting of Arctic ice, confirmed in the most direct fashion possible by the announcement of regular shipping routes around the Pole, with associated territorial claims, has been the subject of endless quibbles (attempts to restate these quibbles in comments will be deleted).

Furthermore, unlike the endless culture war disputes where the debating tactics of the right have been developed, there is a fact of the matter regarding anthropogenic global warming, which will sooner or latter become undeniable. Either global warming will continue, finally confirming the mainstream scientific viewpoint, or it will not.

Given the accumulation of scientific evidence, the odds are pretty strongly in favour of the first outcome. Scientific conclusions supported by a diverse range of independent theory and evidence sometimes turn out to be wrong, but you wouldn’t want to bet on it. Even more rarely, non-scientists with an axe to grind turn out to be right where scientists are wrong, but you really wouldn’t want to bet on that.

This raises the question of why the right has been so keen to double down on this issue. Of course, there’s no organised process by which an anti-science viewpoint on climate change and other issues is agreed on as a central orthodoxy from which dissent is prohibited, but you only have to look at the output of the political right in the English speaking countries to see that this outcome has been realised.

There are many explanations, perhaps so many that the outcome was overdetermined – powerful economic interests such as ExxonMobil, the hubris associated with victories in economic policy and in the Cold War, tribal dislike of environmentalists which translated easily to scientists as a group, and the immunisation to unwelcome evidence associated with the construction of the rightwing intellectual apparatus of thinktanks, talk-radio, Fox News, blogs and so on.

The issue is not going to go away, regardless of the short-term success or failure of attempts to reach a global agreement to stabilise the climate. The more clearly the political right is identified with the anti-science side of this debate, the harder it will be to salvage any of its existing institutions.

In a two-party system, even total intellectual incoherence will not prevent a political party from winning office when its opponents fail. But I’m surprised at the extent to which supporters of free markets have been willing to tie their case to an obvious imposture.

fn1. The only partial exception of which I am aware is the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which takes an equivocal position
fn2. For reasons of political necessity, some rightwing politicians occasionally make statements endorsing mainstream science on global warming. But only a handful (John McCain being the most prominent) give more than a half-hearted assent, and many (Brendan Nelson is an archetypal example) give different positions depending on the audience and the way the political wind is blowing on the day.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Moral arbitrage

January 10th, 2009 32 comments

I posted this in response to some discussion at Crooked Timber on the Iraq war, Gaza and so on.

Looking at the discussion, it seems as if nearly everyone is concerned about the (foreseeable) consequences of their actions, but there are a lot of claims that some consequences should be treated differently from others (intended vs unintended, direct vs intermediated by the predictable reactions of others, and so on).

To an economist, what this naturally suggests is the possibility of moral arbitrage.

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Weekend reflections

January 10th, 2009 7 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

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The great Windschuttle hoax

January 7th, 2009 134 comments

The publication by Keith Windschuttle of a hoax article on science has been all over the papers and the blogs. I agree with Tim Lambert (who gives lots of links) that the article sounds reasonable by comparison with the nonsense commonly published on scientific topics by Quadrant.

Just before this, I was thinking about another hoax, namely the repeated promise of a Volume 2 of The Fabrication of Australian History. When Volume 1 came out back in 2002, Windschuttle promised further volumes on an annual schedule, covering Queensland and WA. Since Queensland in particular was the focus of Henry Reynolds’ main work, and since the evidence of numerous massacres seems incontrovertible, this promised volume was central to Windschuttle’s claims of fabrication. The promise was repeated year after year, but no Volume 2 ever appeared, and the “research” supposedly already undertaken has stayed out of sight.

Then in February 2008, Windschuttle published extracts from a Volume 2, promised for publication “later this year”, but now on a totally different topic, that of the Stolen Generation. His target this time was Peter Read, an eminent historian who’s done a lot of practical work reuniting Aboriginal children with their birth families. It’s 2009, the promised volume hasn’t appeared, and there hasn’t been any reference to it on Windschuttle’s site for some time.

The real hoax victims here have been those on the political right, who’ve repeatedly swallowed Windschuttle’s promises to refute well-established facts about Australian history “later this year” and who are now getting their “science” from his discredited magazine.

Categories: Oz Politics Tags:

Monday Message Board (on Tuesday)

January 6th, 2009 26 comments

It’s (past) time once again for the Monday Message Board. As usual civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Refuted economic doctrines #3: The Great Moderation

January 5th, 2009 20 comments

The “Great Moderation” is a phrase coined by Ben Bernanke in 2004 to describe one particular interpretation of evidence showing that the volatility of output has declined over time in the US and other developed countries (though not, by then, Japan). Bernanke starts by citing the work of Blanchard and Simon, who offer both a different view of the evidence and a different explanation. Blanchard and Simon say that output volatility has been declining since the 1950s (fn: reliable national accounts don’t go back before WWII, but obviously output volatility was very high in the 1920s and 1930s), with an interruption in the 1970s and 1980s. However, they note that the data could also be interpreted as having a single structural break in the mid-1980s, and this is the view of the evidence taken by Bernanke.

A variety of explanations have been put forward for the Great Moderation. To the extent that the Moderation has been seen as more than a run of good luck, it has typically been explained either by a combination of improvements in macroeconomic management associated with central bank independence and reliance on monetary rather than fiscal policy and the benefits of economic liberalism, as in this piece by Gerard Baker

Economists are debating the causes of the Great Moderation enthusiastically and, unusually, they are in broad agreement. Good policy has played a part: central banks have got much better at timing interest rate moves to smoothe out the curves of economic progress. But the really important reason tells us much more about the best way to manage economies.

It is the liberation of markets and the opening-up of choice that lie at the root of the transformation. The deregulation of financial markets over the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1980s had a damping effect on the fluctuations of the business cycle. These changes gave consumers a vast range of financial instruments (credit cards, home equity loans) that enabled them to match their spending with changes in their incomes over long periods.

The Great Moderation has vanished with surprising rapidity, though in retrospect its unsustainability has been evident since the late 1990s. It is clear that the global economy is undergoing a severe recession, which will generate a substantial increase in the volatility of output. But even if the recession ends by mid-2009, as is suggested by some optimistic forecasters, crucial elements of the Great Moderation hypothesis have already been refuted. Over the period of the Great moderation, all the major components of aggregate output (consumption, investment and public spending) became more stable. By contrast, if a deep recession is avoided in 2009, this will be the result of a massive fiscal stimulus, with a huge increase in public expenditure (net of taxes) offsetting large reductions in private sector demand.

Just as the failure of the efficient markets hypothesis has destroyed much of the theoretical basis of the policy framework dominant in recent decades, the collapse of the Great Moderation has destroyed the pragmatic justification that, whatever the inequities and inefficiencies involved in the process, the shift to economic liberalism since the 1970s delivered sustained prosperity. If anything can be salvaged from the current mess, it will be in spite of the policies of recent decades and not because of them.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Weekend reflections

January 4th, 2009 28 comments

I tend to lose track of the days at this time of year, but, being Sunday it’s past time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

The Recruit dvdrip
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Refuted economic doctrines #2: The case for privatisation

January 3rd, 2009 63 comments

This is the second in a planned series of posts assessing the implications of the global financial crisis for the economic ideas and policies that have been dominant for the past few decades. The large-scale privatisation of publicly-owned enterprises both in capitalist countries like the UK and Australia and in formerly communist countries after 1989 played a big role in promoting the kind of triumphalism that characterised much commentary about free-market capitalism in the 1990s and (to a somewhat lesser extent) in the years leading up to the crisis. How well do arguments for privatisation stand up in the light of the financial crisis.

The case for privatisation had two main elements. First, there was the fiscal argument for privatisation, namely, that governments could improve their financial position by selling government business enterprises. This argument assumed that privately owned firms would have higher levels of operating efficiency, and therefore that the value of those firms would be increased by privatisation. The second argument was a dynamic one, that the allocation of capital between alternative investments would be improved if governments were not involved in the process. Both of these arguments have been fatally undermined by the collapse of the efficient markets hypothesis.

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An echo of Y2K

January 3rd, 2009 11 comments

Microsoft Zune music players stopped working on New Years Day because of a software bug, raising the inevitable comparisons with the Y2K fiasco. The way in which the largely spurious Y2K problem was handled raises some interesting comparisons with the all too real problem of climate change. Although many billions of dollars were spent on making systems Y2K-compliant, there was no serious scientific study of the problem and its implications. The big decisions were made on the basis of anecdotal evidence, and reports from consultants with an obvious axe to grind. Even the simplest objections were never answered (for example, many organisations started their fiscal 2000 year in April or July 1999, well before remediation was completed, and none had any serious problems). There was nothing remotely resembling the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, let alone the vast scientific literature that needs to be summarised and synthesised for an understanding of climate change.

Thus, anyone who took a genuinely sceptical attitude to the evidence could safely predict that 1 January 2000 would pass without any more serious incidents than usual, even for the many countries and businesses that had ignored the problem. The retrospective evaluations of the policy were even more embarrassingly skimpy. I analysed some of the factors involved in this paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

A really interesting point here is the fact that, in the leadup to 1 January 2000, self-described global warming sceptics, for the most part, went along with the crowd. If any of them rallied to the support of those of us who called for a “fix on failure” approach, I didn’t notice it. By contrast, the moment that the millennium had arrived without incident, retrospective scepticism about Y2K became a staple of their rhetoric. The IPA, for example, started its commentary on 15 January 2000 and it’s been a staple ever since. Of course, I’m open to correction here. I’d be very interested if anyone could point to a piece published before 2000 taking a sceptical line both Y2K and AGW.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Refuted economic doctrines #1: The efficient markets hypothesis

January 2nd, 2009 108 comments

I’m starting my long-promised series of posts on economic doctrines and policy proposals that have been refuted or rendered obsolete by the financial crisis. There will be a bit of repetition of material I’ve already posted and I’ll probably edit the posts in response to points raised in discussion.

Number One on the list is a topic I’ve covered plenty of times before (in fact, I was writing about it fifteen years ago

), the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. It’s going first because it is really the central microeconomic issue in a wide range of policy debates that will (I hope) be covered later in this series. Broadly speaking, the efficient markets hypothesis says that the prices generated by financial markets represent the best possible estimate of the values of the underlying assets.

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January 1st, 2009 34 comments

2009 is upon us, and making any predictions about it seems even more difficult than usual. The one event that is as certain as such things can be is that the disastrous Bush presidency will come to an end in a few weeks time. But how will Obama respond to the many and intertwined crises that he faces? Based on his own rhetoric and actions so far, and on the normal logic of politics, one would expect him to seek out the middle ground, which has shifted a long way to the right under Bush.

But these are not normal times. The logic of economic events has already pushed governments to take measures that would have seemed unthinkable only a few months ago. While bailouts and bank nationalisations have staved off total economic collapse, it’s clear that much more will need to be done, and that governments will have to do most of it.

At present, all of this is being treated as a temporary interruption to business as usual. The Rudd government, for example, having provided one massive stimulus to the economy and preparing for more, guaranteed bank deposits, bailed out childcare centres and so on, is still touting its credentials as “economically conservative”, a phrase that appears to entai a new search for possible cuts in public expenditure, and continued adherence to limits on the ratio of tax revenue to GDP. But (I’ll try to spell all this out more in later posts) the notion of economic conservatism, interpreted as strict adherence to the policy doctrines that have been generally accepted for the past twenty-five years or so, no longer makes any sense.

The picture is similarly cloudy in relation to foreign policy issues. While Obama has garnered immense goodwill simply for not being Bush, that will dissipate fast in the absence of concrete steps, many of which are likely to be resisted by the Foreign Policy Community. Starting with the closure of Guantanamo Bay and an unequivocal repudiation of torture, extraordinary rendition and so on, the US government needs to admit that it is not above both international law and the laws of the United States itself.[1] The increasing evidence that military victory in Afghanistan is unattainable implies the need to think about possible routes to a partial and negotiated peace – as one of the few participants in the conflict from anywhere near the region, Australia should be particularly concerned.

Last but not least, there’s climate change. The Rudd government has given a pretty clear demonstration of how not to adjust climate change policy in the light of a macroeconomic crisis. It remains to be seen whether Obama will do better, whether he can carry the US with him and whether the world as a whole can come to an agreement that has any chance of success.

fn1. All this will be complicated by the latest disastrous events in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as they develop over coming weeks. As this topic tends to hijack comments threads, while adding nothing to our understanding, I’m going to delete anything about it, except in the specific context of US policy.

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