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November 19, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

What Happened to the Public Option

Robert Reich refuses to give up on the public option:

Harry Reid, and What Happened to the Public Option, by Robert Reich: First there was Medicare for all 300 million of us. But that was a non-starter because private insurers and Big Pharma wouldn't hear of it, and Republicans and "centrists" thought it was too much like what they have up in Canada -- which, by the way, cost Canadians only 10 percent of their GDP and covers every Canadian. (Our current system of private for-profit insurers costs 16 percent of GDP and leaves out 45 million people.) So the compromise was to give all Americans the option of buying into a "Medicare-like plan" that competed with private insurers. Who could be against freedom of choice? Fully 70 percent of Americans polled supported the idea. Open to all Americans, such a plan would have the scale and authority to negotiate low prices with drug companies and other providers, and force private insurers to provide better service at lower costs. But private insurers and Big Pharma wouldn't hear of it, and Republicans and "centrists" thought it would end up too much like what they have up in Canada. So the compromise was to give the public option only to Americans who wouldn't be covered either by their employers or by Medicaid. And give them coverage pegged to Medicare rates. But private insurers and ... you know the rest. So the compromise that ended up in the House bill is to have a mere public option, open only to the 6 million Americans not otherwise covered. The Congressional Budget Office warns this shrunken public option will have no real bargaining leverage and would attract mainly people who need lots of medical care to begin with. So it will actually cost more than it saves. But even the House's shrunken and costly little public option is too much private insurers, Big Pharma, Republicans, and "centrists" in the Senate. So Harry Reid has proposed an even tinier public option, which states can decide not to offer their citizens. According to the CBO, it would attract no more than 4 million Americans. It's a token public option... And yet Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson mumble darkly that they may not even vote to allow debate on the floor of the Senate about the bill if it contains this paltry public option. And Republicans predict a "holy war." But what more can possibly be compromised? ... Make it available to only twelve people? Our private, for-profit health insurance system, designed to fatten the profits of private health insurers and Big Pharma, is about to be turned over to ... our private, for-profit health care system. Except that now private health insurers and Big Pharma will be getting some 30 million additional customers, paid for by the rest of us. Upbeat policy wonks and political spinners ... will point out some good things: no pre-existing conditions, insurance exchanges, 30 million more Americans covered. But... Most of us will remain stuck with little or no choice -- dependent on private insurers who care only about the bottom line, who deny our claims, who charge us more and more for co-payments and deductibles, who bury us in forms, who don't take our calls.

I'm still not giving up. I want every Senator who's not in the pocket of the private insurers or Big Pharma to introduce and vote for a "Ted Kennedy Medicare for All" amendment to whatever bill Reid takes to the floor. And if this fails, a "Ted Kennedy Real Public Option for All" amendment. Let every Senate Democratic who doesn't have the guts to vote for either of them be known and counted.

I think it's important to have a public option in the bill in some form, even an unsatisfactory one, because it will be much easier to expand the option once it's in place than it would be to pass new legislation in the future that creates a public option.

"Transgressing Planetary Boundaries"

Jeff Sachs says that if world population doesn't stabilize relatively soon, we're headed for trouble:

Transgressing Planetary Boundaries, by Jeff Sachs, Scientific American: We are eating ourselves out of house and home. ... The green revolution that made grain production soar gave humanity some breathing space, but the continuing rise in population and demand for meat production is exhausting that buffer. ...
Food production accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions... Through the clearing of forestland, food production is also responsible for much of the loss of biodiversity. Chemical fertilizers cause massive depositions of nitrogen and phosphorus, which now destroy estuaries in hundreds of river systems and threaten ocean chemistry. Roughly 70 percent of worldwide water use goes to food production, which is implicated in groundwater depletion and ecologically destructive freshwater consumption from California to the Indo-Gangetic Plain to Central Asia to northern China.
The green revolution, in short, has not negated the dangerous side effects of a burgeoning human population, which are bound to increase as the population exceeds seven billion around 2012 and continues to grow as forecast toward nine billion by 2046. ...
It is not enough to produce more food; we must also simultaneously stabilize the global population and reduce the ecological consequences of food production—a triple challenge. A rapid voluntary reduction in fertility rates in the poor countries, brought about by more access to family planning, higher child survival and education for girls, could stabilize the population at around eight billion by 2050.
Payments to poor communities to resist deforestation could save species habitats. No-till farming and other methods can preserve soils and biodiversity. More efficient fertilizer use can reduce the transport of excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. Better irrigation and seed varieties can conserve water and reduce other ecological pressures. And a diet shifted away from eating beef would conserve ecosystems while improving human health.

Those changes will require a tremendous public-private effort that is yet to be mobilized. ... The window of opportunity to achieve sustainable development is closing.

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up Macroeconomics

When Paul DeGrauwe presented this paper at the What's Wrong with Modern Macroeconomics conference (papers here), his argument that rational expectations models are the intellectual heirs of central planning seemed to ruffle a few feathers:

Top-down versus bottom-up macroeconomics, by Paul De Grauwe, Commentary, Vox EU: There is a general perception today that the financial crisis came about as a result of inefficiencies in the financial markets and economic actors' poor understanding of the nature of risks. Yet mainstream macroeconomic models, as exemplified by the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models, are populated by agents who are maximising their utilities in an intertemporal framework using all available information including the structure of the model – see Smets and Wouters (2003), Woodford (2003), Christiano et al. (2005), and Adjemian, et al. (2007), for example. In other words, agents in these models have incredible cognitive abilities. They are able to understand the complexities of the world, and they can figure out the probability distributions of all the shocks that can hit the economy. These are extraordinary assumptions that leave the outside world perplexed about what macroeconomists have been doing during the last decades.
Evidence on rationality from other sciences
These developments in mainstream macroeconomics are surprising for other reasons. While macroeconomic theory enthusiastically embraced the view that some if not all agents fully understand the structure of the underlying models in which they operate, other sciences like psychology and neurology increasingly uncovered the cognitive limitations of individuals (see e.g. Kahneman 2002, Camerer et al. 2005, Kahneman and Thaler 2006, and Della Vigna 2007). We learn from these sciences that agents only understand small bits and pieces of the world in which they live, and instead of maximising continuously taking all available information into account, agents use simple rules (heuristics) in guiding their behaviour (Gigerenzer and Todd 1999). The recent financial crisis seems to support the view that agents have limited understanding of the big picture. If they had understood the full complexity of the financial system, they would have understood the lethal riskiness of the assets they piled into their portfolios.
Top-down and bottom-up models
In order to understand the nature of different macroeconomic models, it is useful to make a distinction between top-down and bottom-up systems.
  • In its most general definition, a top-down system is one in which one or more agents fully understand the system. These agents are capable of representing the whole system in a blueprint that they can store in their mind. Depending on their position in the system, they can use this blueprint to take command or to optimise their own private welfare. An example of such a top-down system is a building that can be represented by a blueprint and fully understood by the architect.
  • Bottom-up systems are very different in nature. These are systems in which no individual understands the whole picture. Each individual understands only a very small part of the whole. These systems function as a result of the application of simple rules by the individuals populating the system. Most living systems follow this bottom-up logic (see the beautiful description of the growth of the embryo by Dawkins 2009).
The market system is also a bottom-up system. The best description made of this bottom-up system is still the one made by Hayek (1945).
Hayek argued that no individual is capable of understanding the full complexity of a market system. Instead, individuals only understand small bits of the total information. The main function of markets consists in aggregating this diverse information. If there were individuals capable of understanding the whole picture, we would not need markets. This was in fact Hayek's criticism of the "socialist" economists who took the view that the central planner understood the whole picture and would therefore be able to compute the whole set of optimal prices, making the market system superfluous.
Rational expectations models as intellectual heirs of central planning
My contention is that the rational expectations models are the intellectual heirs of these central-planning models. Not in the sense that individuals in these rational expectations models aim at planning the whole, but in the sense that, as the central planner, they understand the whole picture. These individuals use this superior information to obtain the "optimum optimorum" for their own private welfare. In this sense, they are top-down models.
In a recent paper, I contrast the rational expectations top-down model with a bottom-up macroeconomic model (De Grauwe 2009). The latter is a model in which agents have cognitive limitations and do not understand the whole picture (the underlying model). Instead, they only understand small bits and pieces of the whole model and use simple rules to guide their behaviour. I introduce rationality in the model through a selection mechanism in which agents evaluate the performance of the rule they are following and decide to keep or change their rule depending on how well it performs relative to other rules. Thus agents in the bottom-up model learn about the world in a "trial and error" fashion.
These two types of models produce very different insights. I mention three differences here. First, the bottom-up model creates correlations in beliefs that in turn generate waves of optimism and pessimism. The latter produce endogenous business cycles which are akin to the Keynesian "animal spirits" (see Akerlof and Shiller 2009).
Second, the bottom-up model provides for a very different theory of the business cycle compared to the business cycle theory implicit in the rational expectations (DSGE) models. In the DSGE models, business cycle movements in output and prices arise because rational agents cannot adjust their optimal plans instantaneously after an exogenous disturbance. Price and wage stickiness prevent such instantaneous adjustment. As a result, these exogenous shocks (e.g. productivity shocks, or shocks in preferences) produce inertia and business cycle movements. Thus it can be said that the business cycle in DSGE models is exogenously driven. As an example, in the DSGE model, the financial crisis and the ensuing downturn in economic activity is the result of an exogenous and unpredictable increase in risk premia in August 2007.
In contrast to the rational expectations model, the bottom-up model has agents who experience an informational problem. They do not fully understand the nature of the shock or its transmission. They use a trial-and-error learning process aimed at distilling information. This process leads to waves of optimism and pessimism, which in a self-fulfilling way create business cycle movements. Booms and busts reflect the difficulties of economic agents trying to understand economic reality. The business cycle has a large endogenous component. Thus, in this bottom-up model, the financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn should be explained by the previous boom.
Finally, the bottom-up model confirms the insight obtained from mainstream macroeconomics (including the DSGE models) that a credible inflation targeting is necessary to stabilise the economy. However, it is not sufficient. In a world where waves of optimism and pessimism (animal spirits) can exert an independent influence on output and inflation, it is in the interest of the central banks not only to react to movements in inflation but also to movements in output and asset prices so as to reduce the booms and busts that free market systems produce quite naturally. ...

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