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September 5, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 05 Sep 2015 12:24 AM PDT
The summary "Deflation and money" by Hiroshi Yoshikawa, Hideaki Aoyama, Yoshi Fujiwara, and Hiroshi Iyetomiof says:
Deflation and money, Vox EU: Deflation is a threat to the macroeconomy. Japan had suffered from deflation for more than a decade, and now, Europe is facing it. To combat deflation under the zero interest bound, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank have resorted to quantitative easing, or increasing the money supply. This column explores its effectiveness, through the application of novel methods to distinguish signals from noises.
The conclusion:
...all in all, the results we obtained have confirmed that aggregate prices significantly change, either upward or downward, as the level of real output changes. The correlation between aggregate prices and money, on the other hand, is not significant. The major factors affecting aggregate prices other than the level of real economic activity are the exchange rate and the prices of raw materials represented by the price of oil. Japan suffered from deflation for more than a decade beginning at the end of the last century. More recently, Europe faces a threat of deflation. Our analysis suggests that it is difficult to combat deflation only by expanding the money supply.
Posted: 05 Sep 2015 12:15 AM PDT
Daniel Little:

Range of reactions to realism about the social world: My recent post on realism in the social realm generated quite a bit of commentary, which I'd like to address here.

Brad Delong offered an incredulous response -- he seems to think that any form of scientific realism is ridiculous (link). He refers to the predictive success of Ptolemy's epicycles, and then says, "But just because your theory is good does not mean that the entities in your theory are "really there", whatever that might mean...." I responded on Twitter: "Delong doesn't like scientific realism -- really? Electrons, photons, curvature of space - all convenient fictions?" The position of instrumentalism is intellectually untenable, in my opinion -- the idea that scientific theories are just convenient computational devices for summarizing a range of observations. It is hard to see why we would have confidence in any complex technology depending on electricity, light, gravity, the properties of metals and semiconductors, if we didn't think that our scientific theories of these things were approximately true of real things in the world. So general rejection of scientific realism seems irrational to me. But the whole point of the post was that this reasoning doesn't extend over to the social sciences very easily; if we are to be realists about social entities, it needs to be on a different basis than the overall success of theories like Keynsianism, Marxism, or Parsonian sociology. They just aren't that successful!

There were quite a few comments (71) when Mark Thoma reposted this piece on economistsview. A number of the commentators were particularly interested in the question of the realism of economic knowledge. Daniel Hausman addresses the question of realism in economics in his article on the philosophy of economics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link):
Economic methodologists have paid little attention to debates within philosophy of science between realists and anti-realists (van Fraassen 1980, Boyd 1984), because economic theories rarely postulate the existence of unobservable entities or properties, apart from variants of "everyday unobservables," such as beliefs and desires. Methodologists have, on the other hand, vigorously debated the goals of economics, but those who argue that the ultimate goals are predictive (such as Milton Friedman) do so because of their interest in policy, not because they seek to avoid or resolve epistemological and semantic puzzles concerning references to unobservables.
Examples of economic concepts that commentators seemed to think could be interpreted realistically include concepts such as "economic disparity".  But this isn't a particularly arcane or unobservable theoretical concept. There is a lot of back-and-forth on the meaning of investment in Keynes's theory -- is it a well-defined concept? Is it a concept that can be understood realistically? The question of whether economics consists of a body of theory that might be interpreted realistically is a complicated one. Many technical economic concepts seem not to be referential; instead, they seem to be abstract concepts summarizing the results of large numbers of interactions by economic agents.

The most famous discussion of realism in economics is that offered by Milton Friedman in relation to the idea of economic rationality (Essays in Positive Economics); he doubts that economists need to assume that real economic actors do so on the basis of economic rationality. Rather, according to Friedman this is just a simplifying assumption to allow us to summarize a vast range of behavior. This is a hard position to accept, though; if agents are not making calculating choices about costs and benefits, then why should we expect a market to work in the ways our theories say it should? (Here is a good critique by Bruce Caldwell of Friedman's instrumentalism; link.)

And what about the concept of a market itself? Can we understand this concept realistically? Do markets really exist? Maybe the most we can say is something like this: there are many social settings where stuff is produced and exchanged. When exchange is solely or primarily governed by the individual self-interest of the buyers and sellers, we can say that a market exists. But we must also be careful to add that there are many different institutional and social settings where this condition is satisfied, so there is great variation across the particular "market settings" of different societies and communities. As a result, we need to be careful not to reify the concept of a market across all settings.
Michiel van Ingen made a different sort of point about my observations about social realism in his comment offered on Facebook. He thinks I am too easy on the natural sciences.
This piece strikes me as problematic. First, because physics is by no means as successful at prediction as it seems to suggest. A lot of physics is explanatorily quite powerful, but - like any other scientific discipline - can only predict in systemically closed systems. Contrasting physics with sociology and political science because the latter 'do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences' is therefore unnecessarily dualistic. In addition, I'm not sure why the 'inference to the best explanation' element should be tied to predictive success as closely as it is in this piece. Inference to the best explanation is, by its very definition, perfectly applicable to EXPLANATION. And this applies across the sciences, whether 'natural' or 'social', though of course there is a significant difference between those sciences in which experimentation is plausible and helpful, and those in which it is not. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that natural sciences are experimental and social ones aren't. There are plenty of natural sciences which are largely non-experimental as well. And lest we forget, the hypothetico-deductive form of explanation DOES NOT WORK IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES EITHER!
This critique comes from the general idea that the natural sciences need a bit of debunking, in that various areas of natural science fail to live up to the positivist ideal of a precise predictive system of laws. That is fair enough; there are areas of imprecision and uncertainty in the natural sciences. But, as I responded to Delong above, the fact remains that we have a very good understanding of much of the physical realities and mechanisms that generate the phenomena we live with. Here is the response I offered Michiel:
Thank you, Michiel, for responding so thoughtfully. Your comments and qualifications about the natural sciences are correct, of course, in a number of ways. But really, I think we post-positivists need to recognize that the core areas of fundamental and classical physics, electromagnetic theory, gravitation theory, and chemistry including molecular biology, are remarkably successful in unifying, predicting, and explaining the phenomena within these domains. They are successful because extensive and mathematicized theories have been developed and extended, empirically tested, refined, and deployed to help account for new phenomena. And these theories, as big chunks, make assertions about the way nature works. This is where realism comes in: the chunks of theories about the nature of the atom, electromagnetic forces, gravitation, etc., can be understood to be approximately true of nature because otherwise we would have no way to account for the remarkable ability of these theories to handle new phenomena.
So I haven't been persuaded to change my mind about social realism as a result of these various comments. The grounds for realism about social processes, structures, and powers are different for many social sciences than for many natural sciences. We can probe quite a bit of the social world through mid-level and piecemeal research methods -- which means that we can learn quite a bit about the nature of the social world through these methods. Here is the key finding:
So it seems that we can justify being realists about class, field, habitus, market, coalition, ideology, organization, value system, ethnic identity, institution, and charisma, without relying at all on the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific knowledge upon which the "inference to the best explanation" argument depends. We can look at sociology and political science as loose ensembles of empirically informed theories and models of meso-level social processes and mechanisms, each of which is to a large degree independently verifiable. And this implies that social realism should be focused on mid-level social mechanisms and processes that can be identified in the domains of social phenomena that we have studied rather than sweeping concepts of social structures and entities.
(Sometimes social media debates give the impression of a nineteenth-century parliamentary shouting match -- which is why the Daumier drawing came to mind!)
Posted: 05 Sep 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 04 Sep 2015 11:17 AM PDT
The latest from Robert Reich begins with:
What Happened to the Moral Center of American Capitalism? : An economy depends fundamentally on public morality; some shared standards about what sorts of activities are impermissible because they so fundamentally violate trust that they threaten to undermine the social fabric.
It is ironic that at a time the Republican presidential candidates and state legislators are furiously focusing on private morality – what people do in their bedrooms, contraception, abortion, gay marriage – we are experiencing a far more significant crisis in public morality.
We've witnessed over the last two decades in the United States a steady decline in the willingness of people in leading positions in the private sector – on Wall Street and in large corporations especially – to maintain minimum standards of public morality. They seek the highest profits and highest compensation for themselves regardless of social consequences.
CEOs of large corporations now earn 300 times the wages of average workers. Wall Street moguls take home hundreds of millions, or more. Both groups have rigged the economic game to their benefit while pushing downward the wages of average working people.
By contrast, in the first three decades after World War II – partly because America went through that terrible war and, before that, the Great Depression – there was a sense in the business community and on Wall Street of some degree of accountability to the nation.
It wasn't talked about as social responsibility, because it was assumed to be a bedrock of how people with great economic power should behave.
CEOs did not earn more than 40 times what the typical worker earned. Profitable firms did not lay off large numbers of workers. Consumers, workers, and the community were all considered stakeholders of almost equal entitlement. The marginal income tax on the highest income earners in the 1950s was 91%. Even the effective rate, after all deductions and tax credits, was still well above 50%.
Around about the late 1970s and early 1980s, all of this changed dramatically. ...[continue]...
Posted: 04 Sep 2015 08:32 AM PDT
Dean Baker:
Job Growth Weakens in August: The rate of wage growth was under 2.0 percent for the last 3 months.
The Labor Department reported that the economy added 173,000 jobs in August, somewhat less than most predictions. However, the prior two months' numbers were revised upward by 44,000, bringing the average gain over the last three months to 221,000. The story on the household side was mixed. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.1 percent, as employment increased by 196,000. However the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) was little changed at 59.4 percent, a number that is still three  percentage points below the pre-recession peak. ...
While the drop in unemployment in the August report is encouraging, the overall report is not especially positive. There is no evidence that wage growth is accelerating and there is a real risk that employment growth is slowing. The big question is whether the 140,000 private sector job growth in August is the new trend or whether it was weakened by the strong growth in prior months.
Calculated Risk:
The unemployment rate decline in August to 5.1%.

This was well below expectations of 223,000 jobs, however revisions were up, the unemployment rate declined significantly, and there was some wage growth ... overall a decent report.
Posted: 04 Sep 2015 08:17 AM PDT
"We can learn a lot by following the dollars":
Other People's Dollars, and Their Place in Global Economics, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Soon after arriving here, I stopped at an A.T.M.; I needed some dollars, and all I had were dollars.
O.K., weak joke. What I needed were Australian dollars... There are actually four English-speaking countries with dollars of their own; the others are the Canadian loonie and the New Zealand kiwi. And you can learn a lot about the global economy, busting some popular monetary myths, by comparing those currencies and how they serve their economies.
All four dollar nations are, if you take the long view, highly successful economies..., we're all wealthy nations that have weathered economic storms better than most of the rest of the world. ...
So what can we learn from these dollar success stories? What myths can we bust?
First, we learn that even relatively small countries closely linked to big neighbors can maintain monetary independence..., that should have been made obvious by the example of Canada...
Second, we learn that what right-wingers call currency "debasement" ... can be a very good thing. Canada was able to combine spending cuts with strong growth in the 1990s because exports were raised by the depreciation of the loonie. Australia rode through the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 with little damage thanks largely to a falling Aussie. In both cases times would have been much tougher if the countries had been using U.S. dollars, or worse yet been on the gold standard.
Third, we learn that people pay far too much attention to the role national currencies play in the international monetary system..., a glance at Australia shows that both positive and negative claims about the international role of the dollar are wildly exaggerated. The Aussie dollar plays no special role in the world monetary system, yet Australia has consistently attracted bigger inflows of capital relative to the size of its economy — and run proportionately bigger trade deficits — than the United States.
What's important for both capital and trade, it turns out, is whether your economy offers good investment opportunities under an umbrella of legal and political stability. Whether you control an international currency is a trivial concern by comparison.
So we can learn a lot by following the dollars... And what we learn in particular is that monetary economics should be approached pragmatically, not in terms of mystical notions of value.
Take it from those who share our language, but not our currency: There are many ways to make money work.

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