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The Ultimate Nightmare: American Default

October 4th, 2013 16 comments

That’s the self-explanatory headline on my latest piece in The National Interest. I guess “ultimate” is a little hyperbolic, given the perils of nuclear war and climate catastrophe, but even a short-lived default on US debt could bring the global financial system to its knees.

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Market monetarism: a first look

September 1st, 2013 91 comments

One of the more confusing of the macroeconomic debate is the emergence of a profusion of schools of thought with very similar names, but very different viewpoints. The one I’ve had most to deal with is Modern Monetary Theory. I had a go at this topic here and . My brief summary is that MMT pretty much coincides with traditional Keynesian views in the context of a liquidity trap, but that I reject the claim commonly made in popular presentations of MMT, that increased government spending doesn’t imply increased taxation.

Then there’s New Monetarism, associated with Stephen Williamson. He and I had a set-to a while back, which entertained many but didn’t produce a lot of enlightenment, and left me disinclined to put a lot of effort into understanding the differences between New and Old Monetarism. (For the record, I’m pretty much an Old Keynesian, but I have learnt a fair bit from New Keynesians like Akerlof and Shiller).

The third entrant is “Market Monetarism” associated mainly with Scott Sumner (though Wikipedia tells me the term was coined by Lars Christensen). I was aware in general terms that Sumner advocated a more expansionary monetary policy in response to the current crisis (I agree), that he prefers Nominal GDP level targeting to inflation targeting as the basis for monetary policy (I agree again though I’d prefer targeting levels rather than growth rates) and that he thinks this would be sufficient to fix the problem without any role for fiscal policy (I disagree). However, I wasn’t really aware that these ideas formed the basis of a school of thought, and I still haven’t investigated the underlying theory in any detail.

Sumner has commented on my recent posts on fiscal and monetary policy with a couple of his own, so I guess it’s time for me to look more closely at what he is saying. A first response is over the fold.

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A note on the ineffectiveness of monetary stimulus (updated and corrected)

August 26th, 2013 98 comments

A commenter on the previous post raised the idea, promoted by the “market monetarist” school, that monetary policy is so effective as to make fiscal policy entirely unnecessary, at least when interest rates are above the zero lower bound. My views on this issue were formed by the experience of the late 20th century, and in particular, the recession that began in 1990, following steep increases in interest rates. Having planned a “short, sharp, shock”, the RBA started cutting rates in January 1990.

They didn’t go for 25 basis point moves in those days. Over the period to March 1993, rates were cut by more than 12 percentage points, from 17.5 per cent to 5.25 per cent. Over the same period, unemployment rose from 6 per cent to nearly 11 per cent, a record for the period since the Depression, and stayed around that level well into 1994, until the adoption of the Working Nation package of fiscal stimuuls active labour market policies. As I said in the previous post, tight monetary policy can reliably cause recessions, but expansionary monetary policy in a deep recession is “pushing on a string”.

Update As pointed out by Mark Sadowski in comments, these are nominal rates of interest. To get the real rate, which is more relevant, you need to subtract the expected rate of inflation, which fell from around 7 per cent to around 4 per cent over this period (as measured by surveys, and by the premium for inflation-adjusted Treasury bonds). So, you get a 9 percentage point reduction in the real rate from 10 per cent to 1 per cent. This doesn’t make much difference to the story. Most economists would regard policy as contractionar/expansionary if real interest rates are above/below the long-run neutral level, about 3 per cent. So, we still have a shift from strongly contractionary to moderately expansionary.

However, market monetarists want to argue that the stance of policy should be assessed relative to a policy rule (Taylor rule or NGDP) that already incorporates a prescription of cutting rates when GDP falls and unemployment rises. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It’s like arguing that Obama’s stimulus was actually a contractionary policy because it wasn’t as big as (according to a standard analysis based on Okun’s Law) it should have been. It’s partly a question of semantics, but it’s associated with the claim that, if only rates had been cut even more, we wouldn’t have had the recession, or would have recovered quickly. Having been around at the time, I disagree.

Fiscal multipliers and employment (wonkish)

August 26th, 2013 53 comments

With two weeks to go in the election campaign, we still haven’t seen anything resembling a budget proposal from Tony Abbott and the LNP. Various people have made estimates of the cost of his promises and the cuts likely to be needed to fund those promises and return to surplus. My main concern is that Abbott has locked himself so thoroughly into the rhetoric of surplus that, in the event of a downturn or recession, he will feel compelled to adopt the kinds of austerity measures that have had a disastrous impact in Europe and prevented any real recovery in the US. To make this point properly, we need some numbers. One way to get such numbers is with a macroeconomic model. That gives you some better precision, but often hides the key assumptions. Instead, I will give a very simple Keynesian analysis, yielding back-of-the-envelope estimates.

For illustration, I’ll assume a public expenditure cut of $10 billion a year – the calculation is linear so it can be scaled up or down as needed. In a recession, the fiscal multiplier is likely to be around 1.5 (that’s the value used by Christina Romer when she pushed for a larger fiscal stimulus in 2009, and consistent with recent estimates by the IMF). So, the impact of the cut, when multipliers are taken into account is $15 billion or around 1 per cent of national income (or GDP if you prefer that measure).

Now we can use Okun’s Law to estimate that the cut will raise the unemployment rate by around 0.5 percentage points. Taking participation rates into account, employment will also fall by around 0.5 per cent (about 50 000 jobs).

A bunch of qualifications and observations over the fold

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Cronyism and the global city again (crosspost from crookedtimber.org)

August 24th, 2013 15 comments

Alex Pareene at Salon points to a bunch of evidence showing, in essence, that the rich look out for themselves and their kids, and no one else, then to a piece by Andrew Ross Sorkin defending nepotism in the US, and by extension in China. There was a time, not so long ago, when Asia’s reliance on guanxi and similar networking practices was denounced as ‘crony capitalism’, to be contrasted with the pure and hard-edged version to be found in the US. This was supposed to explain the vulnerability of Asian economies to the crisis of 1997, and the stability of the US, then well into the Great Moderation.

A few years later, in the very early days of blogging, I wrote a post pointing out that the eagerness of financial sector workers to congregate in the same physical location, even though their work was supposed to be based on objective evaluation of data transmitted by computer, was pretty good evidence that the “global city” phenomenon, much in vogue at the time, was just guanxi writ large.

I turned that into a magazine article at Next American City (now Next City, whose web site seems to have lost it). Then I wrote a longer and more academic version and submitted it a lot of journals in economic geography, urban geography and so on, none of whom were interested. I think it stands up well in retrospect (much more so than most of the ‘global city’ literature, at any rate), but of course I’m biased.

At any rate, at least now everyone, and not least a defender and beneficiary of the system like Sorkin, is comfortable with the notion that capitalism is a rigged game, in which the ability to fix the next round is part of the prize for winning this one.

Update/clarification I’ve implicitly taken the efficient markets hypothesis as a benchmark, and assumed that features of the financial sector (for example, physical colocation) that can’t be explained by EMH are likely indicators of cronyism. It’s possible to take the view that the financial sector does things that are inconsistent with EMH, but nevertheless socially beneficial. An obvious example is the kind of opaque, over-the-counter derivatives that Dodd-Frank has tried to ban, and that the finance sector is lobbying hard to protect: it seems clear that doing these kinds of deals would benefit from face-to-face contact. So, if such deals are, in aggregate, socially beneficial, my argument fails – the converse also holds.

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Krugman, Keynes, Kalecki, Konczal

August 18th, 2013 22 comments

Paul Krugman’s recent columns, responding in various ways to JM Keynes, Michal Kalecki and Mike Konczal have made interesting reading, signalling a marked shift to the left both on economic theory and on issues of political economy.[^1] Among the critical points he has made

* Endorsement of Kalecki’s argument (which he got via Konczal) that “hatred for Keynesian economics has less to do with the notion that unemployment isn’t a proper subject of policy than about the notion of shifting power over the economy’s destiny away from big business and toward elected officials.”

* Rejection of the Hicks-Samuelson synthesis of Keynesian macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics and advocacy of (at a minimum) comprehensive financial controls

* Abandonment of the idea that the economics profession is engaged in honest intellectual debate, in favor of the conclusion that the rightwing of the profession, including leading economists, is characterized by denialism and bad faith. As he says, while many economists would like to believe otherwise ” you go to economic debates with the profession you have, not the profession you want.”

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NZ & Oz: why it matters

July 30th, 2013 46 comments

My previous posts put up various bits and pieces about the sharp economic divergence between NZ and Australia, but I didn’t say much about why this topic is of interest right now. The issue has come up in several different contexts, where the contrast between the two countries, starting from fairly similar positions, seems to me to provide some pretty strong evidence. The questions include

* Do recessions have sustained effects on income levels, or does the economy rapidly return to its previous growth path? The evidence from NZ (six recessions since 1975) and Australia (two) suggests that effects are sustained
* Is market-oriented microeconomic reform a major determinant of economic growth? NZ reformed more, and more vigorously than did Australia and did drastically worse in economic terms.
* Do more flexible labour markets yield better macroeconomic performance? Again, the evidence from NZ and Australia suggests the answer is No.

Obviously, given the points above, I take the view that bad macroeconomic policy in NZ, particularly during the reform era of the 1980s and 1990s, is an important reason for poor economic performance. Important examples include the adoption of a contract-based 0-2 per cent inflation target in the early 1990s, and the misconceived idea of the Monetary Conditions Index at the time of the Asian crisis. I don’t think bad macro policy is a sufficient explanation, but the gap is so large and persistent, it’s hard to explain in terms of standard microeconomic analysis.

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NZ & Oz – a bit more

July 29th, 2013 19 comments

Readers have sent in a couple more instances of claims that the NZ economy has done, or was about to do, better than competitors, most notably Australia. Here’s Tony Abbott on the alleged success of NZ macro policy

there are other countries which have chosen a different path and there’s no evidence that their response has been any less effective than ours. For instance, in New Zealand they have tried to reform their way through the global financial crisis under the new government’s leadership and they seem to be doing pretty well

and here’s a picture from 1989 of then Finance Minister, David Caygill, showing what he thought the reforms could achieve.

Caygill1989

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Declining electricity consumption in Australia

July 25th, 2013 68 comments

I missed this when it came out a few weeks ago, but the Australian Energy Market Operation (AEMO) has released new forecasts of electricity demand to 2020. The forecasts represent a further reduction on the big cuts in estimated demand made between 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the medium forecast was for nearly 250 000 GWH by 2020, up from 200 000 in 2010. The latest medium forecast is 211 000 GWh for 2020, and the low forecast stays below 200 000 out to 2022-23. These forecasts would be even lower if it were not for three large export LNG projects in Queensland.

Even more striking is the forecast for residential and commercial consumption per persom. In much of the debate around energy issues, it is assumed that increases in living standards must go hand in hand with higher consumption of all forms of energy. But AEMO, assuming moderate rates of economic growth, is predicting that consumption per person will drop to 6000 KwH per year by 2020. In 2005, it was around 7200 KwH, so that’s a drop of more than 15 per cent. Over that time, income per person is likely to rise by around 30 per cent.

The AEMO measures don’t include rooftop solar, but they do include large-scale renewable energy (wind and grid-connected PV). Current policy calls for an additional 20 000 GWh of large-scale renewables by 2020, which would imply a significant reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions over the next decade.

Of course, a lot of this is the fortuitous result of high electricity prices, driven mainly by distribution costs. But it’s certainly an impressive demonstration that lower energy consumption does not mean lower living standards.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Why gold is different from Bitcoins

June 6th, 2013 35 comments

I have a new piece out in the National Interest, explaining why gold, unlike Bitcoins, will remain valuable for many years to come. In essence, gold has an intrinsic value derived from its industrial and decorative uses, and this value is enhanced by the demand for gold as a store of value, and by the belief (mistaken in my opinion, and certainly not an option I would favor) that gold-backed currencies may be restored.

By contrast, in my view, this piece by Robert Murphy misses the crucial distinction. Monetary demand can enhance intrinsic value, but it can’t make an intrinsically worthless asset valuable. He also fails to state the crucial point about fiat money. The “fiat” comes from the fact that a state can demand taxes can declare (“fiat”) that its money is acceptable in payment of those obligations. Hence, as long as the state can enforce its demands, its money has real value.

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Some electricity links

April 30th, 2013 21 comments

The Australia Institute has a report out making the point that the growth in the administrative and marketing costs of electricity companies, following the reforms of the 1990s, has added more to electricity prices than has the carbon price.

Also, the Centre for Policy Development has a nice piece on solar PV coming out soon. Look for it.

Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for the The Economic and Labour Relations Review in 2001. Conclusion over the fold. I think it stacks up pretty well, certainly compared to the gushing praise for reform that was commonplace at the time.

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The Bitcoin Bubble and a Bad Hypothesis

April 17th, 2013 93 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece at The National Interest. The blurb sums it up pretty well. Under the efficient-markets hypothesis, a worthless digital currency should have never gotten off the ground.

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Another encouraging graph

March 30th, 2013 90 comments

Wandering around the web, I found this OECD graph on per-capita oil use in residential/commercial/agricultural uses reproduced here

45-Per-capita-oil-use-in-residential-commercial-agriculture-1971-2009-OPEC-WOO2012

It raises some interesting points
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The good news

March 14th, 2013 58 comments

Discussions about reducing CO2 emissions often have a dismal tone, saying that we can’t reduce emissions without a drastic reduction in living standards. Sometimes the inference is that we should do nothing, other times that we should embrace drastically lower living standards (but probably won’t). Most people share this intuition to some extent, particularly as regards activities like driving, that seem central to a modern lifestyle. So, it’s striking to see what’s been happening to per capita gasoline consumption in the US

gasoline-volume-sales-per-capita-vs-price

There’s a lot going on here: prices, fuel economy regulations, ethanol and general cultural shifts which have reduced distances driven. But the big point is that this drastic decline has happened with only modest policy measures, and without any obvious impact on living standards (US living standards haven’t done well in the 2000s, but for entirely different reasons). Looking ahead, Obama’s fuel economy regulations and sustained high prices should drive US gasoline consumption much lower.

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Starting as I mean to go on (updated)

March 13th, 2013 125 comments

As I said in my last post, I’m giving as good as I get from now on, and today I seem to be getting plenty

Over at Catallaxy (Google it if you want), Sinclair Davidson is complaining about my Australian Laureate Fellowship (total budget, including lots of postdocs, PhD students etc, $2 million over 5 years) as an imposition on the taxpayer. Sinclair also receives a taxpayer funded salary of at least $150K. The standard assumption is that 30 per cent of a professorial salary is for research, the rest for teaching, administration, community service and so on. By contrast, I’m funded 100 per cent for research, my own and that of my students and collaborators. So, let’s see who is goofing off on the taxpayer dollar.

Here’s Sinclair: two journal articles\, and zero working papers in the last five years. On my arithmetic, allowing 30 per cent of salary for research, that’s a rate of over $100k per publication.
Here’s me 29 journal articles and 36 working papers in the same period. That’s about $30k per publication, without allowing for material produced by the postdocs and PhD students funded by my grant.

Those aren’t exhaustive lists of publications by any means, but I doubt that the relativities would change if we had a more complete list, including books, reports and so on. Adjusting for journal quality, as perceived by the profession, would make the difference even sharper.

Updated With their usual affinity for conspiracy theories, commenters here at and Catallaxy are suggesting that my current Fellowship is a favor from my Labor mates (readers here will be aware of my slavish devotion to our PM, which has, it seems, finally paid off). Of course, the great thing with conspiracy theories is that, the longer you look, the more conspirators you find. I’m sure the Catallaxians will be unsurprised to discover that this is, in fact, my fifth fellowship of this kind (the publication count above refers to my previous one), and that the previous four were all awarded by the Howard government.

Further update Sinclair Davidson has responded with a more complete list of his publications, including quite a few that appear neither on the IDEAS database (because it doesn’t include low-grade journals like Agenda and Policy nor on his personal webpage at RMIT. As I said above, it doesn’t change the relativities.

Yet further update Davidson has managed to convince the ever-gullible Andrew Bolt that pieces in Policy (not even ranked as a peer-reviewed journal by the ARC ranked C by the ARC), Agenda (ranked B) and a bunch of CIS/IPA publications constitute a stellar publication record. There’s nothing wrong with publishing in magazines like these (I do plenty of it), but it’s supposed to be a by-product of academic research, not a substitute for it. Bolt (innumerate, and out by two orders of magnitude on the impact of emissions policy), also repeats his claim that I’m the math-challenged one.

Monday Message Board

March 11th, 2013 20 comments

Another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpits, please.

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Trifecta

January 17th, 2013 101 comments

If there were still magazine stands, I’d be all over them today. Three pieces of mine have (coincidentally) come out on in the last day or so, in fairly disparate publications

* In Aeon (a new British “digital magazine of ideas and culture, publishing an original essay every weekday”), I have a followup to my first essay there, which argued the case for a Keynesian utopia, with a drastic reduction in market working hours. In my follow-up, I look at the environmental sustainability of the idea. The tagline for the essay “For the first time in history we could end poverty while protecting the global environment. But do we have the will? ”

* Continuing on the utopian theme, Jacobin magazine has published The Light on the Hill, a reply to Seth Ackerman’s piece on market socialism

* And, at The National Interest, a piece with the self-explanatory title, Will Banks Finally Be Brought to Heel?

While I’m plugging my own work, I thought some readers might be interested in this paper on financial liberalisation and asset bubbles, written in the leadup to the global financial crisis. There’s not much I would change now, and it’s still a pretty good summary of how I think about the financial bubble that created the crisis. The linked working paper version is from 2004, and it eventually appeared in the Journal of Economic Issues, the main journal of the institutionalists who carry on the tradition started by Veblen and Commons in early C20. Not surprisingly, given this obscure outlet, it hasn’t had a lot of attention.

BHL on JMK

January 14th, 2013 28 comments

My essay in (the new and exciting) Aeon magazine looking at Keynes’ suggestion that we could achieve decent living standards for all with an average of 15 hours a week of market work has had mostly favorable responses. But Kevin Vallier at the Bleeding Hearts Libertarian blog has now written a lengthy response and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say, since he throws a lot of adjectives (sectarian, morally impoverished and so on) at me without actually spelling out an objection.

Vallier’s response is in three parts. The first is a lengthy and fairly accurate, though hostile, summary of my general political position. He doesn’t offer a substantive criticism, but snipes about semantics Vallier objects, for example, to my “derisive” use of the term “market liberalism’ to describe “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years”. In fact, as I said in Zombie Economics, I picked the term precisely to avoid the pejorative connotations of the more commonly used “neoliberalism”[1]. What does Vallier propose here? I can’t spell out “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years” every time I want to refer to the ideas I’m criticising. In essence, I think he is upset that, by giving any name to the dominant ideas of recent decades, I am pointing out that they represent an ideology, with a history, rather than a set of timeless truths.

The second part of Vallier’s response is a summary of the main argument of my essay, but so brief that a reader who didn’t follow the link would have a very limited idea of what I was saying. The third part criticises me for advocating “coercion” against people who want to work hard and make money. Vallier doesn’t say what he means by this. The obvious incorrect inference, drawn by quite a few of his readers, is that I’m advocating statutory limits on hours of paid work[2]. However, he doesn’t seem to mean that. Rather, he seems to object to high income earners being required to pay taxes to support people who don’t work.

But this raises a puzzle. The only policy proposal I discuss in any detail is that for a guaranteed minimum income. But Vallier supports this – in fact, it’s pretty much the central distinction between Bleeding Heart Libertarians and the regular Republican+legal drugs kind.[3] So, is he inferring (correctly) that I’d propose a higher minimum than the BHLs? Or something else? I really don’t know.

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More than a hacktivist

January 13th, 2013 23 comments

Many of you will have heard by now of the tragic death, by suicide, of Aaron Swartz, who was facing felony charges for an alleged attempt to distribute academic articles free of charge. It’s probably inevitable, as Henry Farrell says at Crooked Timber, that coverage of Aaron Swartz’ tragic death will focus narrowly on the story of Aaron as persecuted hacker. My main debt to him is almost entirely outside the tech sphere in which he made such big contributions. Early on in my blogging career, I came across the rightwing myth, that bans on DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson cost millions of lives. In fact, this was one of my first encounters with the rightwing parallel universe with which we are all familiar nowadays. At the time, most people hadn’t woken up to this, and the DDT myth was promulgated with great success. Tim Lambert and I spent years fighting the myth, ending up with this piece in Prospect. Along the way, we discovered the surprising fact that the myth was originally pushed by the tobacco industry, as a flank attack on public health bodies like WHO, which were trying to fight tobacco, and had (quite correctly) scaled back use of DDT, after early campaigns were defeated by the growth of resistance.

A crucial piece of the puzzle came from Aaron, who pointed out the central role of Roger Bate, an all-purpose anti-science activist based at the American Enterprise Institute (he’s largely moved on from DDT these days and is now fighting “counterfeit”, that is, unlicensed, versions of patented drugs). The DDT myth lives on in various corners of the blogosphere and still pops up from time to time in the mainstream media, but it’s now at least as easy to find refutations.

I honestly can’t imagine how someone could pack so much achievement into 26 years. Aaron’s loss is a tragedy for all of us, and the vindictive campaign against him by the Massachusetts prosecutors office (whose head, Carmen M. Ortiz, is regularly mentioned as being destined for higher office) was a crime.

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Who are the criminals here?

January 12th, 2013 20 comments

I’m not a big fan of hoaxes, but the Whitehaven coal hoax (or rather, the reaction to it) has certainly provided plenty of teachable moments. Media stories are still calling it a $300 million hoax (while throwing stones at online reporting H/T Megan), and suggesting that Mums and Dads are big losers. Now we have some actual data, showing that clients of Morgan Stanley and Macquarie gained from the trades made during the hoax while those of Citigroup and UBS lost. [1]

Given the claim that hoaxes like this might destroy faith in the stock market, it’s worth looking at the track record of some of these banks. Looking just at the last few months, we have:

Morgan Stanley fined over Facebook IPO, 19/12/12
Citi fined $2 mln over Facebook IPO October 2012
Deutsche Bank, UBS Convicted by Milan Judge for Fraud Role
19/12/12

UBS in particular has a rap sheet so long that Bloomberg news recently published a call for it to be shut down

By comparison with these global titans, Macquarie Bank looks pretty good, despite being well-known as a sharp-elbowed practitioner of regulatory arbitrage
Regulator eyes millionaires factory

It’s now clear that this systematic criminality is part and parcel of modern financial markets, and that nothing can or will be done about it. After HSBC got a slap on the wrist for a long-term money laundering operation on behalf of drugdealers, dictators and terrorists, the US Department of Justice openly admitted that the big banks are not only too big to fail, but too important to be subject to the law. Modest fines are just a cost of doing business, exactly as they are for other businesses that routinely operate at the edge of, or outside the law.

Perhaps the clients of these firms are unaware of these facts. If so, this event might help to inform them. If not, they can scarcely complain about something as trivial as a hoax press release.

fn1. Apparently Morgan Stanley bought about $2.6 million of shares, which would imply a profit of around $500k, a significant sum, but several orders of magnitude below the $300 million quoted

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Krugman on 2013 vs 1958 macro

January 10th, 2013 44 comments

At the recent American Economic Association meeting in San Diego, Brad DeLong chaired a panel on ” Stimulus or Stymied?: The Macroeconomics of Recessions“, and has posted a transcript. Paul Krugman was there and picked up my claim that macroeconomics has, on balance, gone backwards since 1958. I’ve extracted his section here. Lots of useful stuff, but I’d stress this:

the whole basis on which we constructed monetary policy during the Great Moderation, which is that stabilizing inflation and stabilizing output are the same thing, is all wrong: you can have a sustained period of low but not negative inflation consistent with an economy operating far below its potential productive capacity. That is what I believe is happening now. If so, we are failing dismally in responding to this economic crisis. This is in contrast to what some central bankers are saying—that we have done well because inflation has stayed relatively stable.

To push this a bit further, I’d argue that there will be no real recovery as long as central banks continue to treat the inflation-targeting polices of the (spurious) Great Moderation as the pre-crisis normal to which we should strive to return

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How effective is fiscal policy: Guest post from Roger Farmer (crosspost at CT)

January 8th, 2013 14 comments

Roger Farmer, professor of economics at UCLA, has sent a response to my post on the fiscal multiplier, which is over the fold. I’ll make some substantive points in comments, but I’d like to start by saying that this is a good example of a discussion to which blogs are ideally suited. Contributions from people like Roger who have something important to say, but not the time or inclination for a regular blog, make it even better.

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The state of macroeconomics: it all went wrong in 1958

January 5th, 2013 35 comments

Much of the recent discussion in the “state of macroeconomics” has concerned the question

* Is macroeconomics making progress?
* If not, when did it stop?

I’m not going to survey the whole debate, but I will point to a good contribution from Robert Gordon (linked by JW Mason in comments to a previous post). Gordon argues that 1978-era New Keynesian macro is better than the DSGE approach dominant today. That implies 30 years of retrogression.

My own view is even more pessimistic. On balance, I think macroeconomics has gone backwards since the discovery of the Phillips curve in 1958 [1][2]. The subsequent 50+ years has been a history of mistakes, overcorrection and partial countercorrections. To be sure, quite a lot has been learned, but as far as policy is concerned, even more has been forgotten. The result is that lots of economists are now making claims that would have been considered absurd, even by pre-Keynesian economists like Irving Fisher.

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The big issues in macroeconomics: the fiscal multiplier

January 4th, 2013 39 comments

The biggest theoretical issue in macroeconomics is “what causes unemployment”. As discussed in the last post, the classical answer, that unemployment is caused by problems in labor markets, is obviously wrong as an explanation of the simultaneous emergence of sustained high unemployment in many different countries. Unemployment is a macroeconomic problem.

The central macroeconomic policy issue, then, is “what, if anything, can macroeconomic policy do to move the economy back to full employment”. If you accept that, under current conditions of zero interest rates, there’s not much positive that can be done with monetary policy[1], and you stay within the bounds of mainstream policy debate, this question can be restated as “how effective is expansionary fiscal policy” or, in Keynesian terms, “how large is the fiscal multiplier in a depression”.

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The big issues in macroeconomics: unemployment

January 3rd, 2013 30 comments

Following up my previous post, I want to look at the main areas of disagreement in macroeconomics. As well as trying to cover the issues, I’ll be making the point that the (mainstream) economics profession is so radically divided on these issues that any idea of a consensus, or even of disagreement within a broadly accepted analytical framework, is nonsense. The fact that, despite these radical disagreements, many specialists in macroeconomics don’t see a problem is, itself, part of the problem.

I’ll start with the central issue of macroeconomics, unemployment. It’s the central issue because macroeconomics begins with Keynes’ claim that a market economy can stay for substantial periods, in a situation of high unemployment and excess supply in all markets. If this claim is false, as argued by both classical and New Classical economists, then there is no need for a separate field of macroeconomics – everything can and should be derived from (standard neoclassical) microeconomics.

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The (failed) state of macroeconomics (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

January 1st, 2013 23 comments

When econbloggers aren’t arguing about cyborgs, they spend a fair bit of time arguing about the state of macroeconomics[1], that is, the analysis of aggregate employment and unemployment, inflation and economic growth. Noah Smith has a summary of what’s been said, which I won’t recapitulate. Instead, I’ll give my take on some of the issues that have been raised (what follows is inevitably monkish wonkish)

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Économie Zombie

December 17th, 2012 7 comments

The French edition of Zombie Economics, published by Editions Saint-Simon, will be out early next year. French is the only language other than English that I can read reasonably well, so it will be very interesting for me to see this edition.

Here’s the cover

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Rachel Nolan on the case for privatisation

December 2nd, 2012 60 comments

During the long debate over the Bligh government’s sale of public assets, I was frustrated by the government’s refusal to mount a serious case in favour of the sales. The official argument, that the money gained from the sale of income-earning assets could be used to finance the building of schools and hospitals was such obvious nonsense that even strong advocates of privatisation like Henry Ergas were willing to sign a letter I organized pointing this out and calling for a proper debate. Now finally, former Transport Minister Rachel Nolan has given us some idea of what the government was really thinking.

Nolan has a piece in Quarterly Essay (paywalled, but there is a summary from Laura Tingle here), in which she laments that Australians “have little philosophical grasp of the (rightful) diminution of governmental power which deregulation has brought” . She retails some anecdotes of being besieged by “rent-seekers” wanting her to direct Queensland Rail in various ways[1], and complains about constituents wanting her to fix various things outside her control.
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Categories: Economics - General, Oz Politics Tags:

The Great Oil Fallacy

November 27th, 2012 117 comments

That’s the headline for a piece I published in The National Interest last week. Opening paras

Among the unchallenged verities of U.S. politics, the most universally accepted is that of the crucial strategic and economic significance of oil, and particularly Middle Eastern oil. On the right, the need for oil is seen as justifying an expanded and assertive military posture, as well as the removal of restrictions on domestic drilling. On the left, U.S. foreign-policy is seen through the prism of “War for Oil,” while the specter of Peak Oil threatens to bring the whole system down in ruins.
The prosaic reality is that oil is a commodity much like any other. As with every major commodity, oil markets have some special features that affect supply, demand and prices. But oil is no more special or critical than coal, gas or metals—let alone food.

This piece expands on my earlier argument that the US has no national interest at stake in the Middle East, just a set of mutually inconsistent sectional interests and policy agendas. I don’t talk about climate change explicitly, but we’ll never have a sensible debate about climate change until oil is demystified.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:

In which I agree with Megan McArdle (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

November 23rd, 2012 20 comments

For quite a while, I’ve been arguing that the simultaneous occurrence of sustained depression in most developed countries provides fairly conclusive evidence that both new classical macroeconomics and standard versions of real business cycle theory cannot explain actual macroeconomic outcomes. That argument is directed both against US-based economists like Casey Mulligan and Narayana Kocherlakota, who are trying to explain the US experience in terms of problems specific to the US labor market[1] and to European advocates of austerity who blame the crisis in peripheral European countries on (mostly falsely) alleged government profligacy in those countries.

An immediate implication, drawn out here by Paul Krugman, is that the success or otherwise of the limited stimulus undertaken by the Obama Administration should be assessed by comparison to the performance of other countries, most of which undertook less stimulus, returned to austerity faster, and have experienced correspondingly weaker growth (as some Oz tweeps are pointing out, he might have mentioned Australia, which undertook a big stimulus and avoided recession altogether).

But, as Megan McArdle snarks here, there’s an implication more appealing to Republicans. If Obama can’t be blamed for a global recession, neither can Bush. Although McArdle’s argument isn’t watertight (the US is big enough that US actions have a big effect on the world as a whole), the conclusion is broadly correct. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent depression, and the Bush Administration deserves only a small share. Bush’s main contribution was to introduce unfunded tax cuts at a time when the budget should have been in surplus, thereby reducing the fiscal space available for stimulus when the crisis came. But, given the weakness of the stimulus and the ferocity of the political response, it’s not clear that was a binding constraint in any case.

The primary culprit is market liberal economics, which may be considered both as a set of ideas with its own internal logic and as an expression of the class interests of those who benefit from the finance-dominated form of capitalism that produced the crisis and has prevented any recovery. My book Zombie Economics is a critique of market liberalism considered as an economic theory, showing how market liberalism produced the crisis. Colin Crouch’s Strange Non-Death of NeoLiberalism gives more of the class interpretation, explainign why these discredited ideas remain dominant.