Moral arbitrage


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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The great Windschuttle hoax

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.

Refuted economic doctrines #3: The Great Moderation

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.

Refuted economic doctrines #2: The case for privatisation

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

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.

Refuted economic doctrines #1: The efficient markets hypothesis

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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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.