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September 1, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 30 Aug 2015 03:33 AM PDT
Daniel Little:
The case for realism in the social realm, Understanding Society: The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because we cannot directly observe or measure the properties of the hypothetical entities. But the theories as wholes have a great deal of predictive and descriptive power, and they permit us to explain and predict a wide range of physical phenomena. And the best explanation of the success of these theories is that they are true: that the world consists of entities and forces approximately similar to those hypothesized in physical theory. So realism is an inference to the best explanation, based on the engineering and observational successes of physics, chemistry, and biology. (In the diagram above we might hypothesize that the foraging strategies of the albatross have evolved towards a combination of random walk and orderly search pattern through a process of natural selection; this hypothesis can be empirically investigated in a variety of ways.)
If we lived in a more chaotic physical world, with a larger number of more variable forces at work, our physical theories would be greatly less successful at representing the behavior of observable physical systems, and we would have much less confidence in the idea that various snippets of our physical theories are "true" of the world. If space were more like a pudding with abrupt variations in curvature and gravitational force, and were in addition subject to a numerous other factors and forces, our confidence in the science of mechanics would be greatly undermined. We would never know even approximately where the fly ball will go.
The situation in political science and sociology is quite different from astronomy, atomic theory, and mechanics. First, there are no theories in the social sciences that have the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. Second, the social world is more like the fantastic and chaotic scenario just mentioned than it is an ice rink with frictionless surfaces and predictable mechanics. The social world embodies multiple heterogeneous causal and structural influences that aggregate in contingent and surprising ways. Third, sociologists and political scientists sometimes make hypotheses about unobservable or hypothetical social entities. But these hypotheses do not assume the logical role of that played by hypotheses in the natural sciences. Hypothetical social entities may be unobservable in a fairly ordinary sense -- no one can directly observe or measure a social class. But in fact, these concepts do not depend on holistic confirmation in the way that hypotheses in the natural sciences do. Rather, it is perfectly possible to further refine our ideas about "social class", "prisoners' dilemma", or "bipolar security field" and then investigate the manifold aspects of these concepts through direct social research. Sociology and political science do not consist of unified deductive systems whose empirical success depends upon a derivation of distant observational consequences; instead, it is possible to investigate essentially every sociological or political concept through various direct methods of research and inquiry. (This ability is not unique to the social sciences. The study of animal behavior likewise admits of a variety of hypotheses at various levels that can be independently studied.)
In short, the social sciences do not possess the remarkable coherence and predictive accuracy of physics, so confidence in realism is not grounded in the high level of success of the enterprise. Sociology is not like physics.
But equally, the concepts of the social sciences are not "hypothetical constructs" that depend upon their role in a developed theoretical system for application. It is therefore possible to be piecemeal realists. Again, sociology is not like physics.
So it seems that two specific ideas follow. First, the inference to the best explanation argument for realism doesn't work at all in sociology or political science. We simply don't have the extraordinary predictive successes of a theoretical system that would constitute the ground of such an argument. Social science theories and models remain heuristic and suggestive, but rarely strongly indicative of the reality of the social factors they highlight.
But second, there is a very different kind of argument for social realism that is not available in the natural sciences: the piecemeal investigation of claims and theories about social entities, properties, and forces. If we believe that class conflict is a key factor in explaining political outcomes, we can do sociological research to further articulate what we mean by class and class conflict, and we can investigate specific social and political processes to piece together the presence or absence of these kinds of factors.
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.
This perspective converges unexpectedly with some of the thinking that Peter Manicas put forward in his book on social-science realism, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding. What is realism, in the natural sciences, he asks? It is not a general claim to have discovered the universal laws of everything.
Rather, more modestly, theory (at least in one of its clear senses) aims to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience. We understand why the planets move in ellipses, why materials burn, and why salt dissolves in water (if and when it does) when we have a physical theory that provides a causal mechanism. By providing the principles detailing the nature of molecules, the atomic structure of salt and water, the principles of their action, and so on, we can understand combustion and solubility – and other chemical processes. (1)
So what are the generative mechanisms in the social world? Manicas argues that these mechanisms proceed from the actions and relations of social agents:
The foregoing has also argued that persons are the dominant causal agents in society – even while, of course, they work with materials at hand. It follows, accordingly, that in the social sciences, the generative mechanisms of social outcomes are the actions of persons and no further reduction is either plausible or demanded. (75)
So his most general idea about the social world is "social mechanisms as agent-generated causal mechanisms" (2).
If this is the approach we take, then our claims about what is "real" in the social realm will be more modest that some have thought. We will understand that there are real social processes, mechanisms, and powers; that they derive from the actions and agency of actors; and that these processes can be traced out through fairly direct sociological and historical research. And we will understand too that claims about the reality of "capitalism", the world financial system, or fascism are to be understood less weightily than they first appear. Capitalism exists in a time and place; but it is understood to be an ensemble of relations and actions by the people of the time. It is not a "thing" in the way that deoxyribonucleic acid is a thing.
These thoughts should perhaps lead us to consider that the topic of realism is less important in sociology, political science, and economics than it might appear to be. Social scientists have every reason to be realist about the actions, relations, and interactions of individuals. They are justified in thinking that the practices of education and socialization that bring children to adulthood are "real" and can be empirically investigated. And they are justified in observing that there are higher-order configurations of action, power, and social relationship that are "real", insofar as they are present in the activities of the individuals who constitute them and they possess some stable characteristics over time. In other words, social scientists are justified in postulating the social reality of the social processes and institutions that they postulate and investigate. But this is a very weak and qualified conception of realism, and it suggests a fairly weak social ontology.
It will be noted that this conclusion is somewhat in tension with the argument I offered in the prior post on "flat social ontology". That's the virtue and the challenge of open-source philosophy: conclusions and arguments shift over time.
Posted: 30 Aug 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 29 Aug 2015 10:39 AM PDT
[A speech by Stanley Fischer at Jackson Hole turned into a pretend interview]
Hello, and thank you for talking with us.
 Let me start by asking if you feel like it gives the Fed a bad image to have a conference in an elite place like Jackson Hole. Why not have the conference in, say, a disadvantaged area to send the signal that you care about these problems, to provide some stimulus to the area, etc.?
I am delighted to be here in Jackson Hole in the company of such distinguished panelists and such a distinguished group of participants.
Okay then. Let me start be asking about your view of the economy. How close are we to a full recovery?:
Although the economy has continued to recover and the labor market is approaching our maximum employment objective, inflation has been persistently below 2 percent. That has been especially true recently, as the drop in oil prices over the past year, on the order of about 60 percent, has led directly to lower inflation as it feeds through to lower prices of gasoline and other energy items. As a result, 12-month changes in the overall personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index have recently been only a little above zero (chart 1).
Why are you telling us about headline inflation? What about core inflation? Isn't that what the Fed watches?
...measures of core inflation, which are intended to help us look through such transitory price movements, have also been relatively low (return to chart 1). The PCE index excluding food and energy is up 1.2 percent over the past year. The Dallas Fed's trimmed mean measure of the PCE price index is higher, at 1.6 percent, but still somewhat below our 2 percent objective. Moreover, these measures of core inflation have been persistently below 2 percent throughout the economic recovery. That said, as with total inflation, core inflation can be somewhat variable, especially at frequencies higher than 12-month changes. Moreover, note that core inflation does not entirely "exclude" food and energy, because changes in energy prices affect firms' costs and so can pass into prices of non-energy items.
So are you saying you don't believe the numbers? Why bring up that core inflation is highly variable unless you are trying to de-emphasize this evidence? In any case, isn't there reason to believe these numbers are true, i.e. doesn't the slack in the labor market imply low inflation?
Of course, ongoing economic slack is one reason core inflation has been low. Although the economy has made great progress, we started seven years ago from an unemployment rate of 10 percent, which guaranteed a lengthy period of high unemployment. Even so, with inflation expectations apparently stable, we would have expected the gradual reduction of slack to be associated with less downward price pressure. All else equal, we might therefore have expected both headline and core inflation to be moving up more noticeably toward our 2 percent objective. Yet, we have seen no clear evidence of core inflation moving higher over the past few years. This fact helps drive home an important point: While much evidence points to at least some ongoing role for slack in helping to explain movements in inflation, this influence is typically estimated to be modest in magnitude, and can easily be masked by other factors.
If that's true, if the decline in the slack in the labor market does not translate into a notable change in inflation, why is the Fed so anxious to raise rates based upon the notion that the labor market has almost normalized? Is there more to it than just the labor market?
...core inflation can to some extent be influenced by oil prices. However, a larger effect comes from changes in the exchange value of the dollar, and the rise in the dollar over the past year is an important reason inflation has remained low (chart 4). A higher value of the dollar passes through to lower import prices, which hold down U.S. inflation both because imports make up part of final consumption, and because lower prices for imported components hold down business costs more generally. In addition, a rise in the dollar restrains the growth of aggregate demand and overall economic activity, and so has some effect on inflation through that more indirect channel.
That argues against a rate increase, not for it. Anyway, I interrupted, please continue.
Commodity prices other than oil are also of relevance for inflation in the United States. Prices of metals and other industrial commodities, and agricultural products, are affected to a considerable extent by developments outside the United States, and the softness we've seen in these commodity prices, has in part reflected a slowing of demand from China and elsewhere. These prices likely have also been a factor in holding down inflation in the United States.
So you must believe that all of these forces holding down inflation (many of which are stripped out by core inflation measures, which are also low) that these factors are easing, and hence a spike in inflation is ahead?
The dynamics with which all these factors affect inflation depend crucially on the behavior of inflation expectations. One striking feature of the economic environment is that longer-term inflation expectations in the United States appear to have remained generally stable since the late 1990s (chart 6). ... Expectations that are not stable, but instead follow actual inflation up or down, would allow inflation to drift persistently. In the recent period, movements in inflation have tended to be transitory.
Let's see, lots of factors holding down inflation, longer-term inflation expectations have been stable throughout the recession and recovery, remarkably so, yet the Fed still thinks a rate raise ought to come fairly soon?
We should however be cautious in our assessment that inflation expectations are remaining stable. One reason is that measures of inflation compensation in the market for Treasury securities have moved down somewhat since last summer (chart 7). But these movements can be hard to interpret, as at times they may reflect factors other than inflation expectations, such as changes in demand for the unparalleled liquidity of nominal Treasury securities.
I have to be honest. That sounds like the Fed is really reaching to find a reason to justify worries about inflation and a rate increase. Let me ask this a different way. In the Press Release for the July meeting of the FOMC, the committee said it can be " reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term." Can you explain this please? Why are you "reasonably confident" in light of recent history?
Can the Committee be "reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term"? As I have discussed, given the apparent stability of inflation expectations, there is good reason to believe that inflation will move higher as the forces holding down inflation dissipate further. While some effects of the rise in the dollar may be spread over time, some of the effects on inflation are likely already starting to fade. The same is true for last year's sharp fall in oil prices, though the further declines we have seen this summer have yet to fully show through to the consumer level. And slack in the labor market has continued to diminish, so the downward pressure on inflation from that channel should be diminishing as well.
Yet when these forces were absent -- they weren't there throughout the crisis -- inflation was still stable. But this time will be different? I guess falling slack in the labor market will make all the difference? More on labor markets in a moment, but let me ask if you have more to say about inflation expectations first.
...with regard to expectations of inflation, it is possible to consult the results of the SEP, the Survey of Economic Projections, which FOMC participants complete shortly before the March, June, September, and December meetings. In the June SEP, the central tendency of FOMC participants' projections for core PCE inflation was 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent this year, 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent next year, and 1.9 percent to 2.0 percent in 2017. There will be a new SEP for the forthcoming September meeting of the FOMC.
Reflecting all these factors, the Committee has indicated in its post-meeting statements that it expects inflation to return to 2 percent. With regard to our degree of confidence in this expectation, we will need to consider all the available information and assess its implications for the economic outlook before coming to a judgment.
You will need to consider all the available information, I agree wholeheartedly with that. I just hope that information includes how poor forecasts like those just cited have been in the past, and the Fed's own eagerness to see "green shoots" again and again, far before it was time for such declarations.
What might deter the Fed from it's intention to raise rates sooner rather than later?
Of course, the FOMC's monetary policy decision is not a mechanical one, based purely on the set of numbers reported in the payroll survey and in our judgment on the degree of confidence members of the committee have about future inflation. We are interested also in aspects of the labor market beyond the simple U-3 measure of unemployment, including for example the rates of unemployment of older workers and of those working part-time for economic reasons; we are interested also in the participation rate. And in the case of the inflation rate we look beyond the rate of increase of PCE prices and define the concept of the core rate of inflation.
I find these kinds of statement difficult to square with the statement that labor markets are almost back to normal. Anyway, what, in particular, will you look at?
While thinking of different aspects of unemployment, we are concerned mainly with trying to find the right measure of the difficulties caused to current and potential participants in the labor force by their unemployment. In the case of the core rate of inflation, we are mainly looking for a good indicator of future inflation, and for better indicators than we have at present.
How do recent events in China change the outlook for policy?
In making our monetary policy decisions, we are interested more in where the U.S. economy is heading than in knowing whence it has come. That is why we need to consider the overall state of the U.S. economy as well as the influence of foreign economies on the U.S. economy as we reach our judgment on whether and how to change monetary policy. That is why we follow economic developments in the rest of the world as well as the United States in reaching our interest rate decisions. At this moment, we are following developments in the Chinese economy and their actual and potential effects on other economies even more closely than usual.
I know you won't answer this directly, but let me try anyway. When will rates go up?
The Fed has, appropriately, responded to the weak economy and low inflation in recent years by taking a highly accommodative policy stance. By committing to foster the movement of inflation toward our 2 percent objective, we are enhancing the credibility of monetary policy and supporting the continued stability of inflation expectations. To do what monetary policy can do towards meeting our goals of maximum employment and price stability, and to ensure that these goals will continue to be met as we move ahead, we will most likely need to proceed cautiously in normalizing the stance of monetary policy. For the purpose of meeting our goals, the entire path of interest rates matters more than the particular timing of the first increase.
As expected, that was pretty boilerplate. When rates do go up, how fast will they rise?
With inflation low, we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace. Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening. Should we judge at some point in time that the economy is threatening to overheat, we will have to move appropriately rapidly to deal with that threat. The same is true should the economy unexpectedly weaken.
The Fed has said again and again that it's 2 percent inflation target is symmetric with respect to errors, i.e. it will get no more worried or upset about, say, a .5 percent overshoot of the target than it will an undershoot of the same magnitude (2.5 percent versus 1.5 percent). However, many of us suspect that the 2 percent target is actually a ceiling, not a central tendency, or that at the very least the errors are not treated symmetrically, and statements such as this do nothing to change that view.
I have quite a few more questions, and I wish we had time to hear your response to the charge that the 2 percent target is functionally a ceiling, but I know you are out of time and need to go, so let me just thank you for talking with us today. Thank you.

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