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July 23, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Macroeconomic Models

Robert Skidelsky doesn't always get things completely right. For example, he often talks about "New Classical economics" as if that is the dominant paradigm today, but that term has a very specific meaning and refers to a class of models that is no longer popular in macroeconomics.

Let's back up. The New Classical model had four important elements, the assumption of rational expectations, the assumption of the natural rate hypothesis, the assumption of continuous market clearing that Skidelsky refers to below, and an assumption that agents have imperfect information. The imperfect information assumption was quite clever in that it allowed proponents of this model to explain correlations between money and income without acknowledging that systematic, predictable policy based upon something like a Taylor rule would have any effect at all (put another way, only unexpected changes in monetary policy matter, expected changes are fully neutralized by private sector responses to the policy).

The New Classical model did contribute to the movement in macroeconomics toward microeconomic foundations and to the use of rational agents within macro models, but the model itself could not simultaneously explain both the duration and magnitude of actual cycles, it had difficulty explaining some key correlations among macroeconomic variables, and it was difficult to understand why a market for the absent information did not develop if the consequences of imperfect information were as large as the New Classical model implied. In addition, one of the model's key results that only unexpected changes in money can affect real variables did not hold up when taken to the data (though there are still a few die-hards on this). So the profession moved on.

The New Classical model had replaced the old Keynesian model after it became widely believed that the models' shortcomings were partly responsible for the problems we had in the 1970s, and for the theoretical reasons that will be described in a moment. But while the New Classical economists were having their day in the sun, the Keynesians were quietly working behind the scenes to fix the problems that caused the old Keynesian model to go out of favor (or not so quietly in a few cases). The old Keynesian model had a poor model of expectations - if expectations were considered at all they were usually modeled as a naive adaptive process - and in addition, it was not clear that the relationships embedded within the old Keynesian model were consistent with optimizing behavior on behalf of households and firms. The New Keynesian model solved this by deriving macroeconomic relationships from microeconomic optimizing behavior, and by adopting the rational expectations framework. And they made one other change important change. In order for systematic monetary policy such as following a Taylor rule to affect real variables such as output and employment, there must be some type of friction that prevents the economy from immediately moving to it long run equilibrium value. The friction in the New Classical model is informational, agents optimize given the information that they have, but because the information is imperfect the decisions they make take the economy away from its optimal long-run path.

In the New Keynesian model the friction that gives monetary policy its power to affect output and employment is sluggish movement of prices and wages (generally modeled through something called the Calvo pricing rule, a source of controversy because there are questions about the extent to which this rule is consistent with micro-founded optimizing behavior, though others assert there are rationales for the Calvo structure that are sufficient - to some - to overcome these concerns).

To me, the New Keynesian model is about as mainstream as they get, so I'm puzzled by the opening to this column that claims modern macro completely embraces fully flexible prices. I think what he has in mind is some version of a Real Business Cycle model where prices are, in fact, assumed to be fully flexible, agents are rational etc. so that actual output is always equal to potential (so there's no need for policy to do anything but maximize the growth of potential output, hence the supply-side orientation of advocates of this approach). And I'm sure we could have a lively debate about which model has more proponents, but to say that mainstream economics subscribes fully to the notion of continuous market clearing when price rigidities are at the heart of a major class of modern models seems to miss the mark (and the assertion that agents are assumed to have perfect information is equally puzzling, they optimize given what they know, but they are not assumed to know everything and the efficient market hypothesis he discusses does not require this).

I don't disagree with the main message of the column that prevention of financial crashes through regulation is better than trying to cure them with policy, though I might quibble with particulars, but as someone who has been an advocate of the New Keynesian model, and quite resistant to pure Real Business Cycle approaches, I wanted to make clear that not all of us believe that assuming fully flexible prices and continuous market clearing is the proper way to model the economy. (A synthesis of the New Keynesian and Real Business Cycle models is what I have pushed in the past, though I'm now reconsidering the types of frictions that ought to be embedded in these models given recent events, and whether the mechanisms for generating bubbles in these structures are sufficient. I am also quite sympathetic to learning models as a replacement for the assumption of strict rationality):

Risky Risk Management, by Robert Skidelsky, Project Syndicate: Mainstream economics subscribes to the theory that markets "clear" continuously. The theory's big idea is that if wages and prices are completely flexible, resources will be fully employed, so that any shock to the system will result in instantaneous adjustment of wages and prices to the new situation. This system-wide responsiveness depends on economic agents having perfect information about the future, which is manifestly absurd. Nevertheless, mainstream economists believe that economic actors possess enough information to lend their theorizing a sufficient dose of reality. The aspect of the theory that applies particularly to financial markets is called the "efficient market theory," which should have blown sky-high by last autumn's financial breakdown. But I doubt that it has. Seventy years ago, John Maynard Keynes pointed out its fallacy. When shocks to the system occur, agents do not know what will happen next. In the face of this uncertainty, they do not readjust their spending; instead, they refrain from spending until the mists clear, sending the economy into a tailspin. It is the shock, not the adjustments to it, that spreads throughout the system. The inescapable information deficit obstructs all those smoothly working adjustment mechanisms ― i.e., flexible wages and flexible interest rates ― posited by mainstream economic theory. An economy hit by a shock does not maintain its buoyancy; rather, it becomes a leaky balloon. Hence Keynes gave governments two tasks: to pump up the economy with air when it starts to deflate, and to minimize the chances of serious shocks happening in the first place. Today, that first lesson appears to have been learned... But, judging from recent proposals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to reform the financial system, it is far from clear that the second lesson has been learned. Admittedly, there are some good things in these proposals. For example, the U.S. Treasury suggests that originators of mortgages should retain a "material" financial interest in the loans they make, in contrast to the recent practice of securitizing them. This would, among other things, reduce the role of credit rating agencies. ... The underlying problem, though, is that both regulators and bankers continue to rely on mathematical models that promise more than they can deliver for managing financial risks. Although regulators now place their faith in "macro-prudential" models to manage "systemic" risk, rather than leaving financial institutions to manage their own risks, both sides lumber on in the untenable belief that all risk is measurable (and therefore controllable), ignoring Keynes's crucial distinction between "risk" and "uncertainty." Salvation does not lie in better "risk management" by either regulators or banks, but, as Keynes believed, in taking adequate precautions against uncertainty. As long as policies and institutions to do this were in place, Keynes argued, risk could be let to look after itself. Treasury reformers have shirked the challenge of working out the implications of this crucial insight.

"The Fed is Lending to 'Foreigners' instead of Americans!"

All of the people praising Alan Grayson for his gotcha questioning of Ben Bernanke might want to reconsider. Some deserved Economics of Contempt:

Dear God, Alan Grayson is a Tool, Economics of Contempt: I just saw this video, which shows Rep. Alan Grayson questioning Ben Bernanke during his Humphrey-Hawkins testimony, and was being promoted by Zero Hedge and others a couple days ago. It's embarrassing....for Grayson.

He asks Bernanke about the currency swap lines that the Fed established with other central banks during the financial crisis, which he clearly doesn't understand (although he obviously thinks he does). He harps on the fact that Bernanke doesn't know which foreign financial institutions "got the money." Of course Bernanke doesn't know that. The Fed entered into currency swaps with foreign central banks, like the ECB and the BoE. Who those central banks then lent the dollars to is irrelevant—the Fed doesn't bear the credit risk of loans made by other central banks. The Fed only bears the credit risk of the central banks it established swap lines with, which, obviously, is vanishingly small.

Grayson then focuses on the Fed's swap line with New Zealand's central bank, which is where the wheels really come off the wagon. He apparently thinks a swap is the same thing as a loan, and that the Fed extended $9bn of credit to New Zealanders, which he considers an outrage (the Fed is lending to "foreigners" instead of Americans!). Of course, he doesn't even get his facts right (which is what happens when you hire people with no experience on Capitol Hill as Senior Policy Advisors). The Fed's swap facility with New Zealand central bank is $15bn, not $9bn, and more importantly, NZ's central bank never even drew on its swap line, which has $0 outstanding (pdf):

Grayson arrogantly laughs when Bernanke denies that the expansion of the swap lines on September 18th caused the dollar to rise 20%, which is amusing because the swap lines relieved the extraordinarily high demand for dollars from foreign financial institutions.

The best part of the video is when Barney Frank (easily my favorite Congressman) cuts Grayson off, which draws another of his arrogant laughs. Maybe Grayson should go back to losing millions in Ponzi schemes.

"Carbon Sequestration from Forestry and Agriculture"

Michael Roberts responds to Rob Stavins post on the potential benefits from sequestering carbon:

Carbon sequestration from forestry and agriculture, Greed, Green, and Grains: Rob Stavins writes about curbing potential climate change by sequestering carbon rather than, or in addition to, reducing emissions from fossil fuel consumption. Stavins focuses mainly on preserving and increasing forest coverage. There are two good reasons for this focus: (1) deforestation is responsible for about 20% of CO2 emissions worldwide and (2) preventing deforestation and planting new forests appear to be low-cost ways of reducing total emissions.

Within the Waxman-Markey bill, CO2 emissions can be offset from agriculture and forestry activities. I'm not convinced much sequestration gains are to be had from agriculture. But farmer interests smell an opportunity, and with 80 years of rent-seeking under their collective belts, they are quite good at capitalizing on them. Under the bill (at least some versions of it) USDA will run the offset program, not EPA. That's probably essential given political constraints.

Some environmentalists smell a rat in the offset provision. They seem to see offsets as a loophole to avoid actual emissions reductions. There may be some truth to this.

My view is a little different (see earlier post). The problem is that by restricting emissions from carbon-based fuels and ultimately increasing the price of energy, there will be increased demand for other resources, including those from agriculture and forestry. Instead of using oil and gas people will use wood and ethanol. If carbon emissions from wood and ethanol are not counted they will be under-priced in a cap-and-trade world. Besides wood and ethanol, there are surely a zillion other indirect market implications we are unlikely to imagine.

So, in the end, we must at least try to count all the carbon. Otherwise we'll be squeezing a balloon--reducing emissions in one part of the global economy just to have them pop out somewhere else. It's not much different from having cap-and-trade in the U.S. and then buying Chinese goods produced using their uncapped carbon emissions. Eventually, we'll need to get China, India, and the rest of the developing world on board. Everyone knows this. But not everyone seems to recognize that we need to count all the carbon.

An offset policy doesn't capture these indirect effects. Even a painfully complicated offset policy that attempts to trace market impacts far and wide to make sure they are "additive." Even if there are no offsets, energy price changes will shift demand for all kinds of resources, from firewood to ethanol, all which affect the carbon balance.

I don't think many are yet willing to seriously consider the difficulty of this problem. It almost surely won't get into the first bill. But sooner or later we'll see fewer emission reductions than we expected. Maybe then we'll start counting all the carbon. Hopefully it won't be too late.

Reliable and transparent measurement of carbon emissions and sequestrations from forestry and agriculture will be key. While current [proposed] offset policies may do little in the way of actually influencing the carbon balance, they will spur research and debate about measurement issues. That's a good first step.

In comments to this post, Richard Serlin adds:

A fascinating and potentially very powerful idea for ramping this up greatly is genetically engineered super carbon eating trees. The best short article I've been able to find so far on this is a recent New York Times guest column by science journalist Oliver Morton.

"The Power Elite"

Are the boards of major corporations, and the elite and powerful more generally, too interconnected to fail?:

Power elites after fifty years, by Daniel Little: When C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956, we lived in a simpler time. And yet, with a few important exceptions, the concentration of power that he described continues to seem familiar by today's standards. The central idea is that the United States democracy -- in spite of the reality of political parties, separation of powers, contested elections, and elected representation -- actually embodied a hidden system of power and influence that negated many of these democratic ideals. The first words of the book are evocative:

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.

And a page or two later, here is how he describes the "power elite":

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.

Mills offers a sort of middle-level sociology of power in America. He believes that power in the America of the 1950s centers in the economic, political, and military domains -- corporations, the state, and the military are all organized around networks of influence at the top of which stands a relatively small number of extremely powerful people. (It seems that Mills's description of the military is less apt today; perhaps not surprising, given that Mills was writing in the middle of the Cold War.) Power is defined as the ability to achieve what one wants over the opposition of others; and the levers of power are the great institutions in society -- corporations, political institutions, and the military. And the thesis is that a relatively compact group of people exercise hegemony in each of these areas. Moreover, power leads often to wealth, in that power permits firms and individuals to gain access to society's wealth. So a power elite is often also an economic elite.

The central thrust of the book stands in sharp opposition to the fundamental assumption of then-current democratic theory: the idea that American democracy is a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others (Robert Dahl (1959), A Preface to Democratic Theory). Against this pluralistic view, Mills postulates that members of mass society are dominated, more or less visibly, by a small group of powerful people in the elite. (See an earlier posting on power as influence for discussion of how power works.)

So what is Mills's theory, exactly? It is that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

And, of course, there needs to be a theory about recruitment and the social mechanisms of steering given individuals into the elite group. Is it family background? Is it the accident of attendance at Yale? Is it a meritocracy through which talented young people eventually grasp the sinews of power through their own achievement in the organizations of power? We need to have an account of the social means of reproduction through which a set of power relations is preserved and reproduced throughout generational change.

What is interesting in rereading Mills's classic book today, is how scarce the empirical evidence is within the analysis. It is not really an empirical study at all, but rather a reflective essay on how this sociologist has been led to conceptualize American society, based on his long experience and study. The most empirical chapter is the section on chief executives of corporations; Mills provides an historical and quantitative narrative of the rise and consolidation of the corporation over the prior 75 years. But overall, there is quite a bit of descriptive assertion in the book; relatively little analysis of the social mechanisms that reproduce this social order; and very little by way of empirical validation of the analysis as a whole.

So how does it look today? To what extent is there a compact set of powerful people in contemporary America who have a disproportionate ability to bend the future to their interests and desires? One thing is strikingly clear: the concentration of wealth in America has increased significantly since 1956. Edward Wolff provides a summary graph for the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% of wealth holders since 1920 in Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. In 1955 the top 1% held 30% of the nation's wealth; from 1970 to 1980 this percent declined to about 22%; and from the Reagan administration forward the percentage climbed past its previous highs to about 38% in 2000. So plainly there is an economic super-elite in the United States. This is a group that benefits from durable privileges and inequalities of access to wealth and income.

But this isn't exactly what Mills had in mind; he was interested in a power elite -- a fairly compact group of people who had the ability to make fundamental decisions in the three large areas of modern life that he highlights. And though he doesn't say very much about this point, he implies that it is an interconnected group -- through interlocking directorships in corporations, for example. So how can we assess the degree to which contemporary society in the United States is run through such a system? Is there a power elite today?

In one sense it is obvious what the answer is. Corporations continue to have enormous influence on our society -- banks, energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, food corporations. In fact, the collective power of corporations in modern societies is surely much greater than it was fifty years ago, through direct economic action and through their ability to influence laws and regulations. Their directors and CEOs do in fact constitute a small and interlocked portion of the population. And these leaders continue to have great ability to determine social outcomes through their "private" decisions about the conduct of the corporation. Moreover, as we have learned only too well in the past year, there is very little regulative oversight over their decisions and choices. So the existence of a "power elite" is almost a visible fact in today's world.

But to get more specific -- and to make more precise comparisons over time -- it seems that we need some way of identifying and quantifying the idea of a sociologically real "power elite." One way of trying to do that is by making use of the tools of social network analysis. For example, here is a network graph of corporate America compiled by kiwitobes. What the graph demonstrates is that the boards of America's largest corporations are populated with directors who overlap substantially across companies; there is a high degree of interconnectedness across the boards of directors of major corporations. So this bears out part of Mills's thesis in today's corporate social reality.

But even more compelling would be a study that doesn't exist yet -- a social network map that represents something like the whole population of a community, linking individuals to the institutions in which they occupy a position of power. The vast majority of the population would exist in single points at the bottom of the map; most people don't have a position of power at all. But, if Mills is right, there will be a small subset of people who are interconnected through many relationships to institutional sources of power: memberships in boards, offices in corporations, directorships of banks, trustees of universities. And we might give our thought experiment one additional feature: we might look at snapshots of the same data for each generation identified by families. Now we have Mills's hypothesis in a nutshell: at a given time there is a small subset of the population who occupy most of the positions of power; and the probability is great that the sons and daughters of this group will occupy similar positions of power in the next generation. And in fact, it is perfectly visible in our society that the likelihood of occupying a position of power in one generation is highly influenced by the power status of the antecedent generation.

Regrettably, we don't have a direct ability to carry out this experiment. But we might consider a test case invoking an important decision and a large number of "stakeholders", large and small: the current effort to reform the health care system in the United States. Will this issue be resolved in a fully democratic way, with the interests of all elements of society being represented fairly in the outcome? Or will a relatively small group of corporations, political interests, and professions be in a position to invisibly block reforms that would be democratically selected? And if this is in fact the case, then doesn't that speak loudly in support of the power elite hypothesis?

With the advantage of fifty years of perspective, I think two observations can be made about Mills's book. First, he seems to have diagnosed a very important thread in the sociological reality of power in America -- albeit in a way that is more intuitive and less empirical than contemporary sociologists would prefer. And second, he illustrates a profoundly important ability to exercise his sociological imagination: to arrive at a way of looking at contemporary society that allows us to make sense of many of the observations that press upon us.

(Another important voice on this subject is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967). Domhoff has a very nice web version of his theory on his web page.)

links for 2009-07-23

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