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Are natural disasters economic disasters ?

August 14th, 2015 14 comments

Yes. This has been the latest in our series “Short Answers to Misconceived Questions”.

Actually, there’s a longer answer over the fold, another extract from my book-in-progress Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

This extract is a subsection of Part 2, in which I explore the implications of Lesson 1:
Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
The conclusion is

if the damage bill measures the cost of restoring assets to their pre-disaster condition, it is also equal to the opportunity cost of the disaster, namely the goods and services that would otherwise have been produced.

I’ll be interested to see whether readers’ reaction is “That’s obvious” or “That’s obviously wrong”, assuming of course that you have any reaction at all. As always, civil comments of all kinds are welcome, particularly constructive criticism.

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Competitive equilibrium (excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons)

July 18th, 2015 45 comments

I’m now coming up to (what I hope will be) the most challenging part of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. The core theoretical point the first part of the book (Lesson 1) is that, under a set of ideal assumptions, competitive equilibrium prices both reflect and determine the opportunity costs faced by consumers and produces. This means that there is no way to rearrange consumption to make someone better off unless someone else is made worse off. (I’ve already mentioned my reasons for avoiding the term “Pareto-optimal” in this context.

What I’m trying to do here is to spell out the logic underlying these results in a way that foreshadows the discussion of market failure and income distribution, in Lesson 2, but still shows the power of market mechanisms. I’ll probably need a few goes at this, and this is my first try. Critical comments on everything from the underlying theory to editorial nitpicks are welcome. Sincere praise is also welcome of course, but constructive criticism is best of all.
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TISATAAFL

July 11th, 2015 32 comments

Another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the Two Lessons are

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In this section, I’m working on Lesson 1, leading up to the point (my restatement of what’s usually called the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics) that an ideal competitive equilibrium is one in which there are no unexploited potential gains from technical improvements or mutually beneficial exchange. For reasons I’ve spelt out already I don’t want to use the term “Pareto-optimal” to talk about this. I also want to confine “efficient” to its normal meaning of “technically efficient” and avoid the common economist practice of extending this to cover various definitions of “market efficiency”. So, I’m talking about “free lunches” or, more formally, benefits with no opportunity cost.

In Lesson 2, I’ll be looking, among other things, at the Second Welfare Theorem, which says any outcome with no free lunches corresponds to a particular initial allocation of property rights, broadly defined to include taxation obligations and entitlements of all kinds.

Now please comment, criticise and hopefully enjoy

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To help poor people, give them money (Draft excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons)

June 16th, 2015 97 comments

Here’s another draft excerpt from my book in progress, Economics in Two Lessons. To recap, the idea of the book is to begin with the idea that market prices represent opportunity costs for the households and business who face them (Lesson 1), and then go on to explain why market prices won’t in general equal opportunity costs for society as whole (Lesson 2). A lot of the book will be applications of the two lessons, and this section is an application of Lesson 1.

As before, all kinds of comment and criticism, from editorial points to critiques of the entire strategy are welcome.

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Economics in Two Lessons

June 12th, 2015 56 comments

I’m still redrafting the opening section of my book, on the concept of opportunity cost. Some applications to specific problems coming soon, I promise. In the meantime, comments and criticism, including editorial corrections and nitpicks, much appreciated.
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Opportunity cost: A Fabian idea?

May 26th, 2015 124 comments

As part of the research for Economics in Two Lessons, I’m looking in to the history of some of the ideas I’m talking about, including Pareto optimality, externalities and of course opportunity cost. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll include this material, perhaps as starred (skip if you feel like it) sections, or in an Appendix. Suggestions on this point are welcome.

My research on the intellectual history of opportunity cost has so far gone no further than Wikipedia, which attributes the term to Friedrich von Wieser, an Austrian economist in both the national (he was Minister for Finance there in 1917) and theoretical senses. Turning to the article on von Wieser, I was surprised to read that he put forward an argument very similar to mine regarding the relationship between opportunity cost and the distribution of wealth

Instead of the things that would be more useful, there are things that pay better. The greater the difference in wealth, the more striking are the anomalies of production. The economy provides luxury to the capricious and greedy, while it is deaf to the needs of the miserable and poor. It is therefore the distribution of wealth that decides what will be produced, and leads to a consumer of a more anti-economic variety: a consumer wastes on unnecessary, guilty enjoyment that which could have served to heal the wounds of poverty. —Friedrich von Wieser, Der Wert Natürliche (The Natural Value), 1914.

It turns out, even more surprisingly to me, that von Wieser was linked to a Viennese group of Fabians.

I’m still trying to digest this, and work out where to go next with it. Can anyone point to useful information about von Wieser?

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Economics in Two Lessons: Draft Preface

May 23rd, 2015 38 comments

Over the page, the draft preface for my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons

I got some great comments first time round, but I can see it would be easier if I presented my drafts in a more orderly fashion, though not necessarily sequential. So, I’ll begin at the beginning. Comments, both critical and favorable, much appreciated.

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The most misleading definition in economics (draft excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons)

May 19th, 2015 33 comments

After a couple of preliminary posts, here goes with my first draft excerpt from my planned book on Economics in Two Lessons. They won’t be in any particular order, just tossed up for comment when I think I have something that might interest readers here. I’ll update as I go, in response to comments and criticism; this may create some difficulties reading the comments thread, but hopefully the improvement in the final product will be worth it.

To remind you, the core idea of the book is that of discussing all of economic policy in terms of “opportunity cost”. My first snippet is about

Pareto optimality

The situation where there is no way to make some people better off without making anyone worse off is often referred to as “Pareto optimal” after the Italian economist and political theorist Vilfredo Pareto, who developed the underlying concept. “Pareto optimal” is arguably, the most misleading term in economics (and there are plenty of contenders). Before explaining this, it’s important to understand Pareto’s broader body of thought, one which led him in the end to embrace fascism.

Pareto and the libertarian path to dictatorship

Pareto sought to undermine the version of liberalism that dominated 19th century economics, according to which the optimal (most desirable) economic outcome was the one that contributed most to human happiness, often (if somewhat loosely) summed up as ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’. Particularly as developed by the great philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, this is a naturally egalitarian doctrine.
The egalitarian implications of the classical framework reflect the fact that the needs of poor people are more urgent than those of the better off. So, the happiness of the community as a whole all be increased by policies that benefit the poorest members of the community, even if these benefits come at the expense of those who are better off. It follows that a substantial degree of income redistribution will be social desirable and that large accumulations of individual wealth, which contribute only marginally to the happiness of a small number of people are undesirable in themselves, though they may in some circumstances be a by-product of desirable policies.
Pareto’s big achievement, further developed by a large number 20th century economists, was to show that much of economic analysis could be undertaken without invoking the concept of utility. Hence, interpersonal comparisons of happiness, which invariably lead to the conclusion that redistributing wealth more equally is beneficial, could be dismissed as ‘unscientific’.
Pareto didn’t stop with an attack on the economic implications of Mill’s approach. Mill’s philosophical framework implied support for political democracy, including the enfranchisement of women. Since everyone’s welfare counts equally in the classical calculus, the political process should, as far as possible, give everyone equal weight.
Pareto reversed this reasoning, arguing that a highly unequal distribution of income was both inevitable and desirable; he proposed what he called a power law, described by a statistical distribution which also bears his name. Pareto’s “Law” may be summed up the 80-20 proposition, that 20 per cent of the population have 80 per cent of the wealth.
The supposed constancy of income distribution implies that any attempt at redistribution must be essentially futile. Even the aim is to benefit the poor at the expense of the rich, the effect will simply be to make some people newly rich at the expense of those who are currently rich. Pareto called this process ‘the circulation of elites’. (In his dystopian classic 1984, Orwell has the Trotsky-like character Emmanuel Goldstein present the same idea as the starting point of The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism. Orwell almost certainly derived the idea from James Burnham, an admirer of Pareto whose work Orwell saw as the embodiment of ‘power worship))
All of this led Pareto to become one of the first advocates of a political position combining an extreme free-market position on economic issues with hostility to political liberalism and democracy. Pareto welcomed the rise of Mussolini’s fascist regime, and accepted and accepted a “royal” nomination to the Italian senate from Mussolini. However, he died in 1923, less than a year after
Pareto was not really a fascist however. Rather, he developed a version of liberalism similar to that of his more famous successors, Hayek and Mises, both of whom embraced and worked for murderous regimes that had come to power by suppressing democratic socialist parties. Like Pareto, neither Hayek nor Mises can properly be described as fascists – they weren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism was hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any authoritarian regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics. (Fn Supporters of Hayek and Mises commonly describe themselves as “libertarians”, but their alliance with brutal dictators makes a travesty of the term – they have been derisively described as “shmibertarian”).

Pareto optimality

Now back to “Pareto optimality”, and why it is such a misleading term. Describing a situation as “optimal” implies that it is the unique best outcome. As we shall see this is not the case. Pareto, and followers like Hazlitt, seek to claim unique social desirability for market outcomes by definition rather than demonstration.

If that were true, then only the market outcome associated with the existing distribution of property rights would be Pareto optimal. Hazlitt, like many subsequent free market advocates, implicitly assumes that this is the case. In reality, though there are infinitely many possible allocations of property rights, and infinitely many allocations of goods and services that meet the definition of “Pareto optimality”. A highly egalitarian allocation can be Pareto optimal. So can any allocation where one person has all the wealth and everyone else is reduced to a bare subsistence.

Recognising the inappropriateness of describing radically unfair allocations as “optimal”, some economists have used the description “Pareto efficient” instead, but this is not much better. It corresponds neither to the ordinary meaning of “efficient” nor to the meaning with which the term is commonly used in economics, which is also misleading, but in a different way.

The concept of opportunity cost gives us a better way to think about the possibility of making some people better off while no one is worse off. If such possibilities exist, then there are potential benefits that have no opportunity costs. Conversely, if there is a positive opportunity cost for any benefit, then we can’t make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. So, a “Pareto optimal” situation may be described, more simply as one where all opportunity costs are positive.

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The political is personal

May 18th, 2015 39 comments

Working on my Economics in Two Lessons book, I’ve had to address the concept of Pareto optimality, which naturally raises the question of how it fits into Pareto’s larger body of anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian thought, which culminated, at the end of his life, in his embrace of Mussolini’s fascism. This led me to an article (paywalled, sorry) published by Renato Cirillo, in 1983, defending Pareto against the charge of being a precursor of fascism. Cirillo asserts that, far from being a fascist, Pareto

“manifested consistently a strong attachment to a type of liberalism not dissimilar to the one later attributed to Mises and Hayek”

These are rather unfortunate examples, in view Mises writings in praise of fascism and work for the Dollfuss regime, and (even more), Hayek’s embrace of Pinochet, at the very time Cirillo was writing [^1].

This, along with my discovery that Locke was actively involved in the expropriation of the native American population, justified by his theory of property, led me (back) to the question of the relationship between the writings of political theorists (broadly defined to include economists, sociologists and philosophers engaged with these issues) and their personal political activity and commitments. I’ve come to two conclusions about this.

First, for serious writers on political theory, political engagement is and ought to be the rule rather than the exception. I don’t mean that philosophers should (necessarily) run for office. Rather someone whose political theory doesn’t lead them to have and express views on the great political issues of their day probably doesn’t much of interest to say about theory either (unless of course, their theory leads them to some form of quietism). That’s true of the writers whose commitments were creditable (for example, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell) as well as the discreditable cases I’ve mentioned.

Second, it makes no sense to look at the theoretical writings and ignore the political commitments with which they are associated. For example, it is easy to construct readings of Pareto, Mises and Hayek in ways that make them appear either as friends or as enemies of political liberalism. Their (remarkably similar) actions make it clear which reading is correct. Eventually, of course, ideas outgrow their creators to the point where original intentions, and the texts in which they were expressed, cease to be relevant. But, as the Locke example shows, that’s a very slow process. As long as a writer is regarded as having any personal authority, the weight of that auhtority must be assessed in the light of their actions as well as their words.

[^1]: To be sure, none of these writers can properly be described as fascists – they aren’t interested in nationalism or in the display of power for its own sake. Rather, their brand of liberalism is hostile to democracy and indifferent to political liberty, making them natural allies of any fascist regime which adheres to free market orthodoxy in economics.

Economics in Two Lessons

May 16th, 2015 6 comments

I’ve been promising for a long time to write a new book, framed as a reply to a free-market tract Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, published in 1946, but still in print and popular among free market advocates. Its popularity reflects the fact that it’s a reworking of Bastiat’s “What is Seen and What is Not Seen”, still one of the best statements of the case for free markets.

Bastiat’s argument is implicitly based on the concept of opportunity cost but, since the term wasn’t coined until 1914, he doesn’t use it. Neither, more surprisingly, does Hazlitt. Once this is made explicit, Hazlitt’s rather ponderous, and misleading statement of his “One Lesson”

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

can be boiled down to the much simpler statement “Market prices reflect opportunity cost”. In important respects, this is true, particularly when we consider the problem from the perspective of choices about how to allocate an individual, family or government budget. With fixed aggregate levels of public expenditure, for example, more money for the military means less for schools, and vice versa.

There are plenty of other questions about private and public decisions for which Hazlitt’s One Lesson is useful. Another example is the well-supported finding that the best way to fight poverty is to give money to poor people. This is unsurprising given that poor people themselves will usually have a much better idea of the opportunity costs they face than will those seeking to help them.

But as a general statement, Hazlitt’s One Lesson is false, which is why my working title is Economics in Two Lessons”. Lesson Two is “Market prices do not reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society”
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