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November 17, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

"The Very Best Short Summary of Adam Smith's Life and Work"

Adam Smith, the "Newton of political economy," may not be quite the "advocate of 'market forces', the enemy of government regulation, and believer in something called the 'invisible hand" as you've been led to believe:

The Very Best Short Summary of Adam Smith's Life and Work, by Gavin Kennedy: Chris Berry, Professor of Political Theory at University of Glasgow is a leading expert on the life and work of one of the University of Glasgow's most famous academics, Adam Smith. He has created a 10 minute talk ... that describes the making of the man, the global significance of his writing and explains why Smith's work still resonates with us today:

Adam Smith in 10 Minutes: Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723. He entered Glasgow University at the early - but for the time not unusual - age of fourteen. He studied logic, metaphysics, maths and later Newtonian physics and moral philosophy under some of the leading scholars of the day. In 1740 Smith was awarded a Snell Scholarship (which is still in existence today) to study at Balliol College, Oxford. Smith preferred Glasgow, however, because Oxford's curriculum was antiquated and he thought the teachers were lazy since, in contrast to Glasgow, their salary did not depend on the number of students taught. ...
The seeds of Smith's two great books were sown in his professorial years. The Theory of Moral Sentiments appeared in 1759 and drew on his lectures. It went through six editions in his lifetime. ... Although his second great book the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 we know that he had already considered many of its leading themes at Glasgow as he lectured on as he put it: 'those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent movements or alterations in law and government'. ...
If Smith of popular repute is the 'father of capitalism', the advocate of 'market forces', the enemy of government regulation and believer in something called the 'invisible hand' to produce optimum economic outcomes then he would be a disappointed parent. All his work is deeply steeped in moral philosophy. Indeed the simple fact that the final edition of the Moral Sentiments containing extensive revisions appeared in 1790, the year of his death, tells us is that Smith's commitment to the moral point of view endured alongside and beyond the publication of the Wealth of Nations.

The Moral Sentiments is a leading example of a particular approach to moral philosophy – one that regards it not as sets of rationally or Divine ordained prescriptions but as the interaction of human feelings, emotions or sentiments in the real settings of human life. In many ways it is a book of social and moral psychology. What we can call economic behaviour is necessarily situated in a moral context. But more than that the key theme of the book is an opposition to the view that all morality or virtue is reducible to self-interest. Indeed his opening sentence declares that everyday human experience proves that false, he writes:

How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

Our morality is founded on certain truths about human nature. Everyone is capable of sympathy, or fellow-feeling, and that ability enables us to imagine what we would feel if we were in the situation of another and, once we have made that imaginative move, we can then judge whether those feelings are appropriate. We have to learn about 'situations' but Smith believes that happens because humans are social creatures. Smith illustrates the natural fact of human sociality by likening society to a mirror. It is this responsiveness to others - pleasure in their approval, pain in their disapproval - that Smith used to explain why the rich parade their wealth while the poor hide their poverty. The rich value their possessions more for the esteem they bring than any use they get from them and it is this disposition to "go along with the passions of the rich and powerful" that establishes the foundation for distinctions of status. And it is this desire for esteem that explains the incentive, we all possess, to better our condition. This is one of the links between the Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. In many ways the moral interactions Smith describes in Moral Sentiments bear on the practices that characterise his contemporary commercial society. The very complexity of that society meant that the bulk of inter-personal dealings were with strangers.
A 'society of strangers' is a commercial society which Smith identifies in the Wealth of Nations as one where 'everyman is a merchant'. A commercial society's coherence - its social bonds - do not depend on love and affection. You can coexist socially with those to whom you are emotionally indifferent. As Smith famously said:
it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens
Nothing in this means that Smith is denying the virtuousness of benevolence. When Smith came to write the Wealth of Nations he made it clear that the 'wealth' lay in the well-being of the people. This covered not only their material prosperity but also their moral welfare. Accordingly he thought to be in poverty is to be in a miserable condition and commerce is to be praised for improving human life.
The great achievement of the Wealth of Nations was to discern the principles of order in the seeming chaos of commercial or market behaviour – it wasn't random, it could be reduced to some simple principles. It was for this reason that Smith was described as the Newton of political economy. It is no idle fact that the full title is Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
He identifies basic principles such as the human propensity to 'truck, barter and exchange' that he argues underlies the division of labour but says that this depends on a market and that requires some institutional structures like those that uphold justice such as government and how that in turn mutually relies on principles of public finance.
All of this is placed by Smith into a historical narrative. In his Glasgow lectures he had outlined an account of four stages of social organisation focused around the characteristic form of economic endeavour – hunter-gatherer, herder, farmer, commerce - and in the Wealth of Nations he gives a set-piece account of the transition from the farming to commerce. This process of social change was not brought about by deliberate human policy. This fact reveals for Smith a general truth about social life, namely, that it is pervaded by unintended consequences. This supports the widely-held view of Smith as an opponent of attempts to direct 'the market' but, in fact, what he really opposes is the attempt to direct individual's activities, their 'natural liberty' to pursue their own ends in their own way. This is itself a 'moral' position and Smith never abandons that perspective.

In the opening chapters of the Wealth of Nations, he celebrates the productiveness of the division of labour with the example of pin-makers but later notes that those whose lives were spent performing a "few simple operations" were rendered "stupid and ignorant" and were incapable of "forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life". The 'morality' into which these individuals are socialised is defective; the 'mirror' in which they see themselves reflects back to them to their "mutilated" condition. This is the probable course of events, says Smith, unless "the public" takes remedial steps by instituting a subsidised system of elementary schooling. This example clearly illustrates how Smith's social and moral theories cannot be fully understood in isolation and must be seen as a whole. ...`


"China and the American Jobs Machine"

Robert Reich says China won't be abandoning its currency policy anytime soon:

China and the American Jobs Machine, by Robert Reich, Commentary, WSJ: President Barack Obama says he wants to "rebalance" the economic relationship between China and the U.S. as part of his plan to restart the American jobs machine. "We cannot go back," he said in September, "to an era where the Chinese . . . just are selling everything to us, we're taking out a bunch of credit-card debt or home equity loans, but we're not selling anything to them." He hopes that hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers will make up for the inability of American consumers to return to debt-binge spending.
This is wishful thinking. True, the Chinese market is huge and growing fast. ... But in fact China is heading in the opposite direction of "rebalancing." Its productive capacity keeps soaring, but Chinese consumers are taking home a shrinking proportion of the total economy. Last year, personal consumption in China amounted to only 35% of the Chinese economy; 10 years ago consumption was almost 50%. Capital investment, by contrast, rose to 44% from 35% over the decade. ...
Chinese companies are plowing their rising profits back into more productive capacity—additional factories, more equipment, new technologies. China's massive $600 billion stimulus package has been directed at further enlarging China's productive capacity... So where will this productive capacity go if not to Chinese consumers? Net exports to other nations, especially the U.S. and Europe. ...
The Chinese government also wants to create more jobs in China, and it will continue to rely on exports. Each year, tens of millions of poor Chinese pour into large cities from the countryside in pursuit of better-paying work. If they don't find it, China risks riots and other upheaval. Massive disorder is one of the greatest risks facing China's governing elite. That elite would much rather create export jobs, even at the cost of subsidizing foreign buyers, than allow the yuan to rise and thereby risk job shortages at home.
To this extent, China's export policy is really a social policy, designed to maintain order. Despite the Obama administration's entreaties, China will continue to peg the yuan to the dollar... This is costly to China, of course, but for the purposes of industrial and social policy, China figures the cost is worth it. ...

While China's currency policy is certainly a worthy topic for discussion, lately we are spending a lot of time pointing our fingers at others and blaming them for our problems rather than engaging in the more difficult task of getting our own house in order. I'm not saying that we should ignore things that unfairly disadvantage us, whatever those might be, just that a continued focus on external factors provides a convenient excuse to avoid going through the difficult changes needed to reform our own economy, an excuse that can be exploited by powerful interest groups opposed to needed change (though Reich at least touches on the US side of the equation in a part I left out).

Yes, China needs to change its currency policy, and the fact that it won't or can't change will probably lead to further economic imbalances, perhaps to dangerous levels, and cause increased political tension in the future. But I hope we don't allow the financial industry and others wishing to deflect blame for the crisis and avoid stricter regulation to use the controversy over China's currency policy to divert our attention elsewhere and alter the narrative about how we got into this mess.


The Fed "Refused to Use its Considerable Leverage"

A report on the NY Fed's role in the AIG bailout is less than flattering:

Audit Faults New York Fed in A.I.G. Bailout, by Mary Williams Walsh, NY Times: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York gave up much of its power in high-pressure negotiations with the American International Group's trading partners last year, according to a government report made public on Monday.
Just two days before the New York Fed paid A.I.G.'s partners 100 cents on the dollar to tear up their contracts with the insurance giant, one bank volunteered to take a modest haircut — but it never got the chance. UBS, of Switzerland, alone offered to give a break to the New York Fed... It would have accepted 98 cents on the dollar.
But UBS's good-faith gesture was quickly drowned out by Goldman Sachs and the top French bank regulator. They argued, with others, that it would be improper and perhaps even criminal to force A.I.G.'s trading partners to bear losses outside of bankruptcy court.
The banks and the regulator were confident that the New York Fed was not willing to push A.I.G. into bankruptcy... The New York Fed, led then by Timothy F. Geithner, who is now the Treasury secretary, therefore had little leverage in the negotiations...
The Fed "refused to use its considerable leverage," Neil M. Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote in a report to be officially released on Tuesday, examining the much-criticized decision to make A.I.G.'s trading partners whole when people and businesses were taking painful losses in the financial markets.
There have been suggestions that the Fed chose to negotiate weakly, Mr. Barofsky said, to give a "backdoor bailout" to A.I.G.'s banks. He said Mr. Geithner and the Fed's lawyers had denied this, but added that "irrespective of their stated intent," there was no doubt about the result: "Tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.'s counterparties." ...
Mr. Barofsky said the facts also undermined the Fed's arguments that banking secrecy was an essential part of bank stability.

"The default position, whenever government funds are deployed in a crisis to support markets or institutions, should be that the public is entitled to know what is being done with government funds," he said.

For the other side, see Economics of Contempt's Geithner Vindicated in TARP Watchdog Report.


An Impossible Task

I don't think the Chamber of Commerce could possibly hire a "respected economist" because any economist working for this group would lose whatever respect they might have:

Health bill foes solicit funds for economic study, by Michael D. Shear, Washington Post: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of national business groups opposed to President Obama's health-care reform effort are collecting money to finance an economic study that could be used to portray the legislation as a job killer and threat to the nation's economy, according to an e-mail solicitation from a top Chamber official.
The e-mail ... proposes spending $50,000 to hire a "respected economist" to study the impact of health-care legislation ... would have on jobs and the economy.
Step two, according to the e-mail, appears to assume the outcome of the economic review: "The economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document." ... In the e-mail, Gelfand writes that the proposal was "suggested by our Congressional allies" but does not specify who those allies are. ...
Randy Johnson, the Chamber's senior vice president who handles health-care issues, called the e-mail "inartfully worded" and said the group never intended to suggest that the outcome of the study would be preordained.
"It's not saying that we would tell the economist how it should come out. Perhaps it wasn't artfully phrased," Johnson said. "It's based on what we think the economist will come out with. It doesn't mean we know what the economist will come out with." ... Asked whether the Chamber would release the study if it concluded that the health bill would increase jobs and improve the economy, he initially said, "We would cross that bridge if we came to it."
Moments later, he said, that on reflection, a positive finding from the economist would help to educate the business groups and would play a role in the position they take on the legislation. "If it was like, oh wow, well, it doesn't have the kind of adverse impact we thought, that would educate us," he said.

What are the odds that this is the first time the Chamber of Commerce has commissioned a "study" like this?


links for 2009-11-16

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