Archive for February, 2012

David Frum Savages Charles Murray — And Rightly So

February 6th, 2012 7 comments

David Frum was excommunicated from the Righties Club a few years back because he insisted on occasionally saying sane and accurate things.

He continues that aberrational behavior today in his review of AEI uber-zealot Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (which I will not link to here — no Google love from me).

Frum’s takedown is so good that I won’t try to recap it. I’ll just comment on one quote that he provides from Murray (paragraph break and emphasis added):

Recall figure 2.1 at the beginning of the book, showing stagnant incomes for people below the 50th income percentile.** High-paying unionized jobs have become scarce and real wages for all kinds of blue-collar jobs have been stagnant or falling since the 1970s.

But these trends don’t explain why [working-class white] men in the 2000s worked fewer jobs, found it harder to get jobs than other Americans did, and more often dropped out of the labor market than they had in the 1960s.

It doesn’t?  Doesn’t “textbook economics” — not to mention common sense — tell us that if you pay people less, they’ll have less incentive to work?

But Murray knows better — they’ve got plenty of incentive:

Insofar as men need to work to survive – an important proviso – falling hourly income does not discourage work.

As long people are reduced to the level of  survival — so they have to take any available job, no matter how shitty or badly compensated, or die (along with their families and children) — it’s no problem getting them to work.

That takes a big load off my mind.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.


David Beckworth Scott Sumner talks very good sense sometimes

February 4th, 2012 Comments off

Don’t tell me that the Dems favor fiscal stimulus because they like big government. The payroll tax cut will make it a bit more difficult to expand the size of government in future years.  (As Clinton found in 1993, when he was told the “bond markets” (i.e. the Reagan tax cuts) wouldn’t allow him to enact all his policy ideas.

TheMoneyIllusion » An odd question.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

A Surfeit of Dearth Revisited: The Global Shortage of Safe Assets

February 3rd, 2012 4 comments

David Beckworth:

global economic growth over the past few decades has outpaced the capacity of the world economy to produce truly safe assets

Really? The U.S. could have just deficit-spent more, crediting people’s/businesses’ checking accounts and thereby increasing the global stock of the world’s safest asset: U.S. dollars.

It could (by U.S. law is required to) simultaneously issue bonds in/borrow an equivalent amount, but it comes to the same thing as regards the inflationary impact. (Issuing bonds is actually a bit more inflationary because of the future money-creation needed to pay the interest.)

That fear of inflation — and the resultant unwillingness to provide the safe assets that Beckworth thinks the world needs — is the only constraint on Beckworth’s “capacity.”

If he is correct that the supply of dollars is, has been, insufficient to meet global demand, then inflation is not currently a concern — arguably quite the contrary.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

What Will Be the New Economic Paradigm?

February 2nd, 2012 5 comments

Matt Yglesias has a great post over at Moneybox (paragraph breaks added):

The need for regime change.

… The Depression discredited the gold standard and a whole set of related notions.

The Great Inflation discredited ideas about the Phillips Curve …

We had, until recently, the Great Moderation Consensus that … the Federal Reserve has the ability to stabilize the macroeconomy by fiddling with interest rates.

Well now here we are and the Federal Reserve can’t stabilize the macroeconomy by fiddling with interest rates.

That calls for the creation of a new regime.

I’ve dumbed it down a bit here. He also talks about employment, for instance, including this great line:

…if the government isn’t abandoning the idea of full employment then they have a mighty strange way of showing it.

But I think I’ve imparted the main question. We’ve been or are going through a paradigm-falsifying “moment.” (As always, some good thinking will be cast aside along with some bad.)

What will move into the vacuum left by the (at least partially) ravaged Great Moderation paradigm?

Courtesy of David Beckworth and The Kauffman Foundation (PDF), here’s how econobloggers would like that question to be answered (thanks, FTA, for the great question):

Personally, I fondly envision some coherent amalgam of the M&M gang: Market Monetarists (NGDPers) and Modern Monetary Theorists (with a decent dose of the Austrian’s insight into real-economy production and productivity). I’m guessing that some have already ventured (some parts of) this amalgamation, quite possibly in posts I’ve already read and since forgotten. Thoughts? Links?

(Even as I post this I find that vimothy, JKH, and Steve Randy Waldman are worrying productively at parts of this very question in the comments here.)

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.


Why Economists Don’t Understand Accounting, or Business

February 1st, 2012 14 comments

I just searched Harvard, U Chicago, and a few other top econ departments’ course offerings and major requirements. The string “account” barely appears.

Chicago says quite explicitly:

Courses such as accounting, investments, and entrepreneurship will not be considered for economics elective credit.

Much less requirements!

No wonder so many economists:

• Have such profound misunderstandings of the National Income and Product Accounts and the Fed Flow of Funds reports (and how they relate to each other). Nobody ever taught them how to read or understand the darn things.

• Have such crazy notions about how producers think when they’re setting prices.

Speaks volumes.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.


How Accounting “Constrains” Economics

February 1st, 2012 164 comments

There’s been a running discussion of this on various blogs (sorry if I missed linking some!), inflated simultaneously by Krugman and by magisterial and mysterious commenter JKH’s “paradigm riff,” here.

That discussion has brought me to the following conclusions.

Assuming you have a coherent and accurately representative System of National Accounts*:

• Accounting, and accounting identities, do (or should) impose a constraint on our economic reasoning and predictions.

• If some piece of economic reasoning predicts something that simply can’t happen according to the accounting (things don’t add up, balance), that reasoning/prediction is wrong.

• Accounting can’t tell us whether a piece of economic reasoning is right. It can only tell us if it’s wrong.

• Accounting won’t necessarily tell us that a piece of economic reasoning is wrong. There are plenty of economic ideas out there — behavioral notions about how people (will) respond to incentives and constraints – that conform to accounting identities and balances, but are nevertheless wrong.

• Accounting tells us exactly nothing about how people will behave, nor can it cause or constrain that behavior. It can only tell us that that it’s logically impossible for them (all) to behave in a given way.

Takeaway: Conformance to the rules and balances of accounting is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic reasoning and predictions to be correct.

Or to put it another way: Accounting is a constraint on economics, not economies.

Simple example: if somebody suggests that all countries should/can get out of depression by increasing their net exports, it’s false/bad reasoning. Because global imports equals global exports; the books can’t add up that way.

Or suppose someone says:

1. We should reduce government debt.

2. There’s not much we can do about net imports, the trade imbalance. (Exports are determined largely by international demand, and we don’t want to use trade policy to deny our people the benefits of cheap imported goods.)

3. People should save more.

This is impossible, by accounting identity. The only way to increase private savings (the stock of net financial assets) without changing imports is to increase exports or run government deficits.

People, institutions, and policy makers could certainly try to achieve these mutually incompatible goals. They could even believe that it’s possible to achieve them all. But the arithmetic of stock-and-flow accounting tells us that they will fail — and that if they believe they will succeed, they’re wrong.

That’s all.

* Even though I have real qualms about the conceptual structure of the current system — I find it much easier to do good thinking using Wynne Godley’s modification of that system — the current system is coherent and accurately/usefully representative. It’s coherent in that all the stocks and flows balance out, and representative in that it covers most of the important stocks and flows. No system could be perfectly representative, of course; the map is not the territory. In both systems there’s a great deal that’s not considered — nonremunerated work, for instance. But that doesn’t discredit, is peripheral to, the logical thrust of this post.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.