Bad ideas never die — Greg Mankiw’s Alesina fairy tale

25 June, 2016 at 09:19 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

So what’s wrong with the economy? …

austerity_world_tour_greeceA 2002 study of United States fiscal policy by the economists Olivier Blanchard and Roberto Perotti found that ‘both increases in taxes and increases in government spending have a strong negative effect on private investment spending.’ They noted that this finding is ‘difficult to reconcile with Keynesian theory.’

Consistent with this, a more recent study of international data by the economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna found that ‘fiscal stimuli based on tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than those based on spending increases.’

Greg Mankiw

From Mankiw’s perspective ‘the Alesina work suggests a still plausible hypothesis.’

Hmm …


Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand — and thus worsen employment and unemployment.The notion that fiscal consolidations can be expansionary (that is, raise output and employment), in part by raising private sector confidence and investment, has been championed by, among others, Harvard economist Alberto Alesina in the academic world and by former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet in the policy arena. austerity-meme-sequester-thisHowever, in practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point and raises by 1.5 percent within five years the Gini measure of income inequality.

Jonathan Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and David Furceri

Why Brexit won

24 June, 2016 at 10:42 | Posted in Economics, Politics & Society | 4 Comments


The EU establishment has been held to account for the euro mess, for austerity policies that turned recession into depression, for the galloping inequality, and for the millions and millions of unemployed.

The EU austerity policies breads understandable and righteous anger — but also ugly far right xenophobic political movements taking advantage of the frustration that austerity policies inevitably produce. Ultimately this underlines the threats to society that austerity policies and mass unemployment are.

The neoliberal austerity policies pursued in the UK and elsewhere is deeply disturbing. When an economy is already hanging on the ropes, you can’t just cut government spendings. Cutting government expenditures reduces the aggregate demand. Lower aggregate demand means lower tax revenues. Lower tax revenues means increased deficits — and calls for even more austerity. And so on, and so on.

Without a conscious effort to counteract the inevitable forces driving our societies towards an extreme income and wealth inequality, our societies crackle. It is crucial to have strong redistributive policies if we want to have stable economies and societies. Redistributive taxes and active fiscal policies are necessary ingredients for building a good society.

Societies where we allow the inequality of incomes and wealth to increase without bounds, sooner or later implode. The cement that keeps us together erodes and in the end we are only left with people dipped in the ice cold water of egoism and greed.

In a society with a huge shortage of homes, a precarious job market, and a marginalized and pressured working class, EU to a large extent becomes a question of class and inequality.

In a market economy it is money that counts.

In a democracy it is your vote that counts.

If you’ve got money, you vote in. If you haven’t got money, you vote out.

Modern economics — the victory of technique over substance

23 June, 2016 at 18:18 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

mblaugphotoModern economics is sick. Economics has increasingly become an intellectual game played for its own sake and not for its practical consequences for understanding the economic world. Economists have converted the subject into a sort of social mathematics in which analytical rigour is everything and practical relevance is nothing. To pick up a copy of The American Economic Review or The Economic Journal these days is to wonder whether one has landed on a strange planet in which tedium is the deliberate objective of professional publication. Economics was once condemned as “the dismal science” but the dismal science of yesterday was a lot less dismal than the soporific scholasticism of today …

If there is such a thing as “original sin” in economic methodology, it is the worship of the idol of the mathematical rigour invented by Arrow and Debreu in 1954 and then canonized by Debreu in his Theory of Value five years later, probably the most arid and pointless book in the entire literature of economics.

The result of all this is that we now understand almost less of how actual markets work than did Adam Smith or even Léon Walras. We have forgotten that markets require market-makers, that middlemen have to hold inventories to allow markets to function, that markets need to be organized and that property rights need to be defined and enforced if markets are to get started at all. We have even forgotten that markets adjust as often in terms of quantities rather than prices, as in labour markets and customer commodity markets, as Alfred Marshall knew very well but Walras overlooked; so well have we forgotten that fact that a whole branch of economics sprang up in the 1960s and 70s to provide “microfoundations” for Keynesian macroeco- nomics, that is, some ad hoc explanation for the fact that a decline in aggregate demand causes unemployment at the same real wage and not falling real wages at the same level of employment …

Indeed, much of modern microeconomics might be fairly described as a kind of geography that consists entirely of images of cities but providing no maps of how to reach a city either from any other city or from the countryside.

Mark Blaug

Mark Blaug (1927-2011) did more than any other single person to establish the philosophy and methodology of economics a respected subfield within economics. His path-breaking The methodology of economics (1980) is still a landmark — and the first textbook on economic methodology yours truly had to read as student.

Mainstream — neoclassical — economics has become increasingly irrelevant to the understanding of the real world. The main reason for this irrelevance is the failure of economists to match their deductive-axiomatic methods with their subject.

It is — sad to say — a fact that within mainstream economics internal validity is everything and external validity nothing. Why anyone should be interested in that kind of theories and models — as long as mainstream economists do not come up with any export licenses for their theories and models to the real world in which we live — is beyond comprehension. Stupid models are of no or little help in understanding the real world.

To my students

23 June, 2016 at 13:26 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment


Good Hayek vs. Bad Hayek

23 June, 2016 at 13:06 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

The source of confusion is that there was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge in the economy (and in the rest of society). Since knowledge—about technological possibilities, about citizens’ preferences, about the interconnections of these, about still more—is inevitably and thoroughly decentralized, the centralization of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. The consequences for society can be calamitous, as the history of central planning confirms. That is where markets come in. All economists know that a system of competitive markets is a remarkably efficient way to aggregate all that knowledge while preserving decentralization.

The Good Hayek also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable. It has serious defects: successful actors reach for monopoly power, and some of them succeed in grasping it; better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant, creating an inefficiency in the process; the resulting distribution of income may be grossly unequal and widely perceived as intolerably unfair; industrial market economies have been vulnerable to excessively long episodes of unemployment and underutilized capacity, not accidentally but intrinsically; environmental damage is encouraged as a way of reducing private costs—the list is long …

The Bad Hayek emerged when he aimed to convert a wider public. Then, as often happens, he tended to overreach, and to suggest more than he had legitimately argued. The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book. Leaving aside the irrelevant extremes, or even including them, it would be perverse to read the history, as of 1944 or as of now, as suggesting that the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” The correlations often run the other way.

Robert Solow

Rule of law

21 June, 2016 at 19:09 | Posted in Politics & Society | Leave a comment


Det är nu snart femton år sedan som Fadime Sahindal bestialiskt mördades av anhöriga för att hon själv ville välja hur hon skulle leva sitt liv.

Den typen av hedersrelaterat våld har ibland försvarats med — djupt förfelade — kulturrelativistiska resonemang där kulturella skillnader setts som en i något avseende förmildrande omständighet.

fadimeMen — i Sverige har kvinnor och män samma värde. Och alla som lever i Sverige måste respektera detta.

Sverige ska vara ett öppet land. En del av världssamfundet.

Men det ska också vara ett land som slår fast att de landvinningar i termer av jämlikhet, öppenhet och tolerans som vi tillkämpat oss under sekler inte är förhandlingsbara.

Människor som kommer till vårt land ska åtnjuta dessa rättigheter och friheter.

Men med dessa rättigheter och friheter kommer också en skyldighet. Alla — utan undantag — måste också acceptera att i vårt land gäller en lag — lika för alla.

Rule of law.

En långtgående kulturrelativism har medfört en sorts förvärvad stupiditet, som gör att man hellre söker förtiga kulturrelaterade problem och låtsas som om de inte finns än att åtgärda dem. Alternativt skuldbelägger man sig själv, för att slippa ta i den besvärliga konflikten med Den Andre.

Per Bauhn

Ayn Rand — a psychopath and perverter of American History

21 June, 2016 at 17:12 | Posted in Politics & Society | 2 Comments

Now, I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country …

Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights—they didn’t have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal “cultures”—they didn’t have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using …

What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched—to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did. The racist Indians today—those who condemn America—do not respect individual rights.

Ayn Rand, Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point, 1974

It’s sickening to read this gobsmacking trash. But it’s perhaps even more sickening that people like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan can consider Ayn Rand an intellectual hero

That Alan Greenspan is a bad economist we already knew. But he’s also a bad person. For what else can one think of a person that considers Ayn Rand — with the ugliest psychopathic philosophy the postwar world has produced — one of the great thinkers of the 20th century? A person that even co-edited a book with her — maintaining that unregulated capitalism is a ‘superlatively moral system.’ A person that in his memoirs tries to reduce his admiration for Rand to a youthful indiscretion — but who actually still today can’t be described as anything else than a loyal Randian disciple.

Ayn Rand and her objectivist philosophy has more disciples than Greenspan. But as Hilary Putnam rightfully noticed in The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (Harvard University Press, 2002), is it doubtful if it even qualifies as a real philosophy:

It cannot be the case that the only universally valid norm refers solely to discourse. It is, after all, possible for someone to recognize truth-telling as a binding norm while otherwise being guided solely by ‘enlightened egoism.’ (This is, indeed, the way of life that was recommended by the influential if amateurish philosophizer – I cannot call her a philosopher – Ayn Rand.) But such a person can violate the spirit if not the letter of the principle of communicative action at every turn. After all, communicative action is contrasted with manipulation, and as such a person can manipulate people without violating the maxims of ‘sincerity, truth-telling, and saying only what one believes to be rationally warranted.’

This blog post is in loving memory of my brother Peter ‘Uncas’ Pålsson — truly ‘a red man deep inside.’

The euro — gold cage of our time

19 June, 2016 at 09:17 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments


The euro has taken away the possibility for national governments to manage their economies in a meaningful way — and in Greece the people has had to pay the true costs of its concomitant misguided austerity policies.


The unfolding of the Greek tragedy during the last couple of years has shown beyond any doubts that the euro is not only an economic project, but just as much a political one. What the neoliberal revolution during the 1980s and 1990s didn’t manage to accomplish, the euro shall now force on us.

But do the peoples of Europe really want to deprive themselves of economic autonomy, enforce lower wages and slash social welfare at the slightest sign of economic distress? Is inreasing income inequality and a federal überstate really the stuff that our dreams are made of? I doubt it.

History ought to act as a deterrent. During the 1930s our economies didn’t come out of the depression until the folly of that time — the gold standard — was thrown on the dustbin of history. The euro will hopefully soon join it.

Mainstream economists have a tendency to get enthralled by their theories and models, and forget that behind the figures and abstractions there is a real world with real people. Real people that have to pay dearly for fundamentally flawed doctrines and recommendations.

Let’s make sure the consequences will rest on the conscience of those economists.


The confidence fairy history

18 June, 2016 at 17:01 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

confidence-next-exitBrad DeLong has an excellent presentation on the history of the confidence fairy up on his blog.

What I especially like with Brad’s history is that it makes it crystal clear how hard it has been for mainstream economists to grasp the simple fact that no matter how much confidence you have in the policies pursued by authorities, it cannot turn bad austerity policies into good job creating policies. Austerity measures and overzealous and simple-minded fixation on monetary measures and inflation, are — almost without exception — not what it takes to get limping economies out of their limbo. They simply do not get us out of the ‘magneto trouble’ — and neither does budget deficit discussions where economists and politicians seem to think that cutting government budgets would help us out of recessions and slumps. Although the ‘credibility’ that mainstream economists talk about arguably has some impact on the economy, the confidence fairy does not create recovery or offset the negative effects of Alessina-like ‘expansionary fiscal austerity.’ In a situation where monetary policies has become more and more decrepit, the solution is not fiscal austerity, but fiscal expansion!

The real limit of public debt

16 June, 2016 at 20:05 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Everything we know is not just wrong – it’s backwards. When banks make loans, they create money. This is because money is really just an IOU. The role of the central bank is to preside over a legal order that effectively grants banks the exclusive right to create IOUs of a certain kind, ones that the government will recognise as legal tender by its willingness to accept them in payment of taxes.


There’s really no limit on how much banks could create, provided they can find someone willing to borrow it. They will never get caught short, for the simple reason that borrowers do not, generally speaking, take the cash and put it under their mattresses; ultimately, any money a bank loans out will just end up back in some bank again. So for the banking system as a whole, every loan just becomes another deposit. What’s more, insofar as banks do need to acquire funds from the central bank, they can borrow as much as they like; all the latter really does is set the rate of interest, the cost of money, not its quantity. Since the beginning of the recession, the US and British central banks have reduced that cost to almost nothing. In fact, with “quantitative easing” they’ve been effectively pumping as much money as they can into the banks, without producing any inflationary effects.

What this means is that the real limit on the amount of money in circulation is not how much the central bank is willing to lend, but how much government, firms, and ordinary citizens, are willing to borrow. Government spending is the main driver in all this … So there’s no question of public spending “crowding out” private investment. It’s exactly the opposite.

David Graeber

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? This guy must sure be one of those strange and dangerous heterodox cranks? Well, maybe you should reconsider …

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:
• Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.
• In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits …
Most of the money in circulation is created, not by the printing presses of the Bank of England, but by the commercial banks themselves: banks create money whenever they lend to someone in the economy or buy an asset from consumers. And in contrast to descriptions found in some textbooks, the Bank of England does not directly control the quantity of either base or broad money. The Bank of England is nevertheless still able to influence the amount of money in the economy. It does so in normal times by setting monetary policy — through the interest rate that it pays on reserves held by commercial banks with the Bank of England. More recently, though, with Bank Rate constrained by the effective lower bound, the Bank of England’s asset purchase programme has sought to raise the quantity of broad money in circulation. This in turn affects the prices and quantities of a range of assets in the economy, including money.

Michael McLeay, Amar Radia and Ryland Thomas
Bank of England’s Monetary Analysis Directorate

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