Twenty years ago

10 Aug, 2022 at 09:09 | Posted in Varia | 1 Comment

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Twenty years ago today, a newly wedded couple celebrates in the garden of their summer residence.

As always, for you, Jeanette.

Though I speak with the tongues of angels,
If I have not love…
My words would resound with but a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy​…
And understand all mysteries…
and all knowledge…
And though I have all faith
So that I could remove mountains,
If I have not love…
I am nothing.

Dumb and Dumber — the Chicago economics version

8 Aug, 2022 at 12:24 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

dumb_aSome years ago, in a lecture on the US recession, Robert Lucas gave an outline of what the New Classical school of macroeconomics today thinks on the latest downturns in the US economy and its future prospects.

Lucas shows that real US GDP has grown at an average yearly rate of 3 per cent since 1870, with one big dip during the Depression of the 1930s and a big — but more minor — dip in the recent recession.

After stating his view that the US recession that started in 2008 was basically caused by a run for liquidity, Lucas then goes on to discuss the prospect of recovery from where the US economy is today, maintaining that past experience would suggest an “automatic” recovery if the free market system is left to repair itself to equilibrium unimpeded by social welfare activities of the government.

As could be expected there is no room for any Keynesian-type considerations on eventual shortages of aggregate demand discouraging the recovery of the economy. As usual in the New Classical macroeconomic school’s explanations and prescriptions, the blame game points to the government and its lack of supply-side policies.

Lucas is convinced that what might arrest the recovery are higher taxes on the rich, greater government involvement in the medical sector and tougher regulations of the financial sector. But — if left to run its course unimpeded by European-type welfare state activities — the free market will fix it all.

In a rather cavalier manner — without a hint of argument or presentation of empirical facts — Lucas dismisses even the possibility of a shortfall of demand. For someone who already 30 years ago proclaimed Keynesianism dead — “people don’t take Keynesian theorizing seriously anymore; the audience starts to whisper and giggle to one another” — this is of course only what could be expected. Demand considerations are simply ruled out on whimsical theoretical-ideological grounds, much like we have seen other neo-liberal economists do over and over again in their attempts to explain away the fact that the latest economic crises show how the markets have failed to deliver. If there is a problem with the economy, the true cause has to be government.

Chicago economics is a dangerous pseudo-scientific zombie ideology that ultimately relies on the poor having to pay for the mistakes of the rich. Trying to explain business cycles in terms of rational expectations has failed blatantly. Maybe it would be asking too much of freshwater economists like Lucas to concede that, but it’s still a fact that ought to be embarrassing.

shackleIf at some time my skeleton should come to be used by a teacher of osteology to illustrate his lectures, will his students seek to infer my capacities for thinking, feeling, and deciding from a study of my bones? If they do, and any report of their proceedings should reach the Elysian Fields, I shall be much distressed, for they will be using a model which entirely ignores the greater number of relevant variables, and all of the important ones. Yet this is what ‘rational expectations’ does to economics.

G. L. S. Shackle

One of my favorite books

7 Aug, 2022 at 20:14 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

brewers'sWell, sort of, at least.

For those of us who can’t get enough of English eccentrics, Brewer’s Rogues, Villains, Eccentrics by William Donaldson is probably the funniest book ever written. I mean, just to take one example, where else would you find an entry like this one?

Carlton, Sydney (1949- ), painter and decorator. Those who argue that bestiality should be treated with understanding had a setback in 1998 when Carlton, a married man from Bradford, was sentenced to a year in prison for having intercourse with a Staffordshire bull terrier, namned Badger. His defence was that Badger had made the first move. ‘I can’t help it if the dog took a liking to me,’ he told the court. This was not accepted.

Tuesday afternoon

7 Aug, 2022 at 20:06 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

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To Ukraine with love

5 Aug, 2022 at 16:51 | Posted in Politics & Society | Leave a comment

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Image result for whatever you do you do to me

To my brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

Frank Ramsey — a portrait and a critique

4 Aug, 2022 at 17:10 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

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Mainstream economics nowadays usually assumes that agents that have to make choices under conditions of uncertainty behave according to Bayesian rules, axiomatized by Ramsey (1931) and Savage (1954) — that is, they maximize expected utility with respect to some subjective probability measure that is continually updated according to Bayes theorem. If not, they are supposed to be irrational, and ultimately — via some “Dutch book” or “money pump” argument — susceptible to being ruined by some clever “bookie”.

Bayesian Stats Joke | Data science, Mathematik meme, Mathe witzeBayesianism reduces questions of rationality to questions of internal consistency (coherence) of beliefs, but – even granted this questionable reductionism – do rational agents really have to be Bayesian? As I have been arguing elsewhere (e. g. here, here and here) there is no strong warrant for believing so.

In many of the situations that are relevant to economics, one could argue that there is simply not enough adequate and relevant information to ground beliefs of a probabilistic kind and that in those situations it is not really possible, in any relevant way, to represent an individual’s beliefs in a single probability measure.

Say you have come to learn (based on your own experience and tons of data) that the probability of you becoming unemployed in Sweden is 10 %. Having moved to another country (where you have no own experience and no data) you have no information on unemployment and a fortiori nothing to help you construct any probability estimate. A Bayesian would, however, argue that you would have to assign probabilities to the mutually exclusive alternative outcomes and that these have to add up to 1 if you are rational. That is, in this case – and based on symmetry – a rational individual would have to assign a probability of 10% of becoming unemployed and 90% of becoming employed.

That feels intuitively wrong though, and I guess most people would agree. Bayesianism cannot distinguish between symmetry-based probabilities from information and symmetry-based probabilities from an absence of information. In these kinds of situations, most of us would rather say that it is simply irrational to be a Bayesian and better instead to admit that we “simply do not know” or that we feel ambiguous and undecided. Arbitrary and ungrounded probability claims are more irrational than being undecided in face of genuine uncertainty, so if there is not sufficient information to ground a probability distribution it is better to acknowledge that simpliciter, rather than pretending to possess a certitude that we simply do not possess.

I think this critique of Bayesianism is in accordance with the views of John Maynard Keynes’ A Treatise on Probability (1921) and General Theory (1937). According to Keynes we live in a world permeated by unmeasurable uncertainty – not quantifiable stochastic risk – which often forces us to make decisions based on anything but rational expectations. Sometimes we “simply do not know.” Keynes would not have accepted the view of Bayesian economists, according to whom expectations “tend to be distributed, for the same information set, about the prediction of the theory.” Keynes, rather, thinks that we base our expectations on the confidence or “weight” we put on different events and alternatives. To Keynes, expectations are a question of weighing probabilities by “degrees of belief”, beliefs that have preciously little to do with the kind of stochastic probabilistic calculations made by the rational agents modelled by Bayesian economists.

In economics, it’s an indubitable fact that few mainstream neoclassical economists work within the Keynesian paradigm. All more or less subscribe to some variant of Bayesianism. And some even say that Keynes acknowledged he was wrong when presented with Ramsey’s theory. This is a view that has unfortunately also been promulgated by Robert Skidelsky in his otherwise masterly biography of Keynes. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong. Let me elaborate on this point (the argumentation is more fully presented in my book John Maynard Keynes (SNS, 2007)).

It’s a debated issue in newer research on Keynes if he, as some researchers maintain, fundamentally changed his view on probability after the critique levelled against his A Treatise on Probability by Frank Ramsey. It has been exceedingly difficult to present evidence for this being the case.

Ramsey’s critique was mainly that the kind of probability relations that Keynes was speaking of in Treatise actually didn’t exist and that Ramsey’s own procedure  (betting) made it much easier to find out the “degrees of belief” people were having. I question this both from a descriptive and a normative point of view.

What Keynes is saying in his response to Ramsey is only that Ramsey “is right” in that people’s “degrees of belief” basically emanate from human nature rather than in formal logic.

Patrick Maher, former professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, even suggests that Ramsey’s critique of Keynes’s probability theory in some regards is invalid:

Keynes’s book was sharply criticized by Ramsey. In a passage that continues to be quoted approvingly, Ramsey wrote:

“But let us now return to a more fundamental criticism of Mr. Keynes’ views, which is the obvious one that there really do not seem to be any such things as the probability relations he describes. He supposes that, at any rate in certain cases, they can be perceived; but speaking for myself I feel confident that this is not true. I do not perceive them, and if I am to be persuaded that they exist it must be by argument; moreover, I shrewdly suspect that others do not perceive them either, because they are able to come to so very little agreement as to which of them relates any two given propositions.” (Ramsey 1926, 161)

I agree with Keynes that inductive probabilities exist and we sometimes know their values. The passage I have just quoted from Ramsey suggests the following argument against the existence of inductive probabilities. (Here P is a premise and C is the conclusion.)

P: People are able to come to very little agreement about inductive proba- bilities.
C: Inductive probabilities do not exist.

P is vague (what counts as “very little agreement”?) but its truth is still questionable. Ramsey himself acknowledged that “about some particular cases there is agreement” (28) … In any case, whether complicated or not, there is more agreement about inductive probabilities than P suggests …

I have been evaluating Ramsey’s apparent argument from P to C. So far I have been arguing that P is false and responding to Ramsey’s objections to unmeasurable probabilities. Now I want to note that the argument is also invalid. Even if P were true, it could be that inductive probabilities exist in the (few) cases that people generally agree about. It could also be that the disagreement is due to some people misapplying the concept of inductive probability in cases where inductive probabilities do exist. Hence it is possible for P to be true and C false …

I conclude that Ramsey gave no good reason to doubt that inductive probabilities exist.

Ramsey’s critique made Keynes more strongly emphasize the individuals’ own views as the basis for probability calculations, and less stress that their beliefs were rational. But Keynes’s theory doesn’t stand or fall with his view on the basis of our “degrees of belief” as logical. The core of his theory — when and how we are able to measure and compare different probabilities —he doesn’t change. Unlike Ramsey, he wasn’t at all sure that probabilities always were one-dimensional, measurable, quantifiable or even comparable entities.

De Finetti on the dangers of mathematization

3 Aug, 2022 at 14:41 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | 2 Comments

Theory of Probability eBook by Bruno de Finetti - 9781119286295 | Rakuten  Kobo GreeceLet us bear in mind … that everything is based on distinctions which are themselves uncertain and vague, and which we conventionally translate into terms of certainty only because of the logical formulation … In the mathematical formulation of any problem it is necessary to base oneself on some appropriate idealizations and simplification. This is, however, a disadvantage; it is a distorting factor which one should always try to keep in check, and to approach circumspectly. It is unfortunate that the reverse often happens. One loses sight of the original nature of the problem, falls in love with the idealization, and then blames reality for not conforming to it.

Yanis Varoufakis on the irrelevance of mainstream economics

3 Aug, 2022 at 09:39 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment

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Varoufakis is undoubtedly right — there is indeed something about the way mainstream economists construct their models that obviously doesn’t sit right.

One might have hoped that humbled by the manifest failure of its theoretical pretences during the latest economic-financial crises, the one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modelling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics would give way to methodological pluralism based on ontological considerations rather than formalistic tractability. But — empirical evidence still only plays a minor role in mainstream economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence.

If macroeconomic models — no matter of what ilk — build on microfoundational assumptions of representative actors, rational expectations, market clearing, and equilibrium, and we know that real people and markets cannot be expected to obey these assumptions, the warrants for supposing that conclusions or hypotheses of causally relevant mechanisms or regularities can be bridged, are obviously non-justifiable. Incompatibility between actual behaviour and the behaviour in macroeconomic models building on representative actors and rational expectations microfoundations is not a symptom of ‘irrationality.’ It rather shows the futility of trying to represent real-world target systems with models flagrantly at odds with reality.

A gadget is just a gadget — no matter how many brilliantly silly mathematical models you come up with, they do not help us work with the fundamental issues of modern economies. The mainstream economics project is — mostly because of its irrelevance — seriously harmful to most people, but also seriously harmless for those who benefit from the present status quo of our societies.

Windfall tax on oil companies

3 Aug, 2022 at 09:33 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

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How to battle inflation

2 Aug, 2022 at 08:57 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

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Summer in the city

1 Aug, 2022 at 10:06 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

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One of my favorite songs of the ’60s. It still makes me happy when I hear it.

‘Overcontrolling’ in statistical studies

31 Jul, 2022 at 13:27 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | Leave a comment

You see it all the time in studies. “We controlled for…” And then the list starts … The more things you can control for, the stronger your study is — or, at least, the stronger your study seems. Controls give the feeling of specificity, of precision. But sometimes, you can control for too much. Sometimes you end up controlling for the thing you’re trying to measure …

paperAn example is research around the gender wage gap, which tries to control for so many things that it ends up controlling for the thing it’s trying to measure …

Take hours worked, which is a standard control in some of the more sophisticated wage gap studies. Women tend to work fewer hours than men. If you control for hours worked, then some of the gender wage gap vanishes. As Yglesias wrote, it’s “silly to act like this is just some crazy coincidence. Women work shorter hours because as a society we hold women to a higher standard of housekeeping, and because they tend to be assigned the bulk of childcare responsibilities.”

Controlling for hours worked, in other words, is at least partly controlling for how gender works in our society. It’s controlling for the thing that you’re trying to isolate.

Ezra Klein

Trying to reduce the risk of having established only ‘spurious relations’ when dealing with observational data, statisticians and econometricians standardly add control variables. The hope is that one thereby will be able to make more reliable causal inferences. But — as Keynes showed already back in the 1930s when criticizing statistical-econometric applications of regression analysis — if you do not manage to get hold of all potential confounding factors, the model risks producing estimates of the variable of interest that are even worse than models without any control variables at all. Conclusion: think twice before you simply include ‘control variables’ in your models!

piled-up-dishes-in-kitchen-sinkWhen I present this argument … one or more scholars say, “But shouldn’t I control for everything I can in my regressions? If not, aren’t my coefficients biased due to excluded variables?” … The excluded variable argument only works if you are sure your specification is precisely correct with all variables included. But no one can know that with more than a handful of explanatory variables …

A preferable approach is to separate the observations into meaningful subsets—internally compatible statistical regimes … If this can’t be done, then statistical analysis can’t be done. A researcher claiming that nothing else but the big, messy regression is possible because, after all, some results have to be produced, is like a jury that says, “Well, the evidence was weak, but somebody had to be convicted.”

Christopher H. Achen

Kitchen sink econometric models are often the result of researchers trying to control for confounding. But what they usually haven’t understood is that the confounder problem requires a causal solution and not statistical ‘control.’ Controlling for everything opens up the risk that we control for ‘collider’ variables and thereby create ‘back-door paths’ which gives us confounding that wasn’t there, to begin with.

Economics and the law of the hammer

30 Jul, 2022 at 21:04 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

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As yours truly has reported repeatedly during the last couple of years, university students all over the world are increasingly beginning to question if the kind of economics they are taught — mainstream economics — really is of any value. Some have even started to question if economics is a science.

My own take on the issue is that economics — and especially mainstream economics — has lost immensely in terms of status and prestige during the last years. Not the least because of its manifest inability to foresee the latest financial and economic crises —  and its lack of constructive and sustainable policies to take us out of the crises.

We all know that many activities, relations, processes, and events are uncertain and that the data do not unequivocally single out one decision as the only “rational” one. Neither the economist nor the deciding individual can fully pre-specify how people will decide when facing uncertainties and ambiguities that are ontological facts of the way the world works.

Mainstream economists, however, have wanted to use their hammer, and so decided to pretend that the world looks like a nail. Pretending that uncertainty can be reduced to risk and constructing models on that assumption have only contributed to financial crises and economic havoc.

How do we put an end to this intellectual cataclysm? How do we re-establish credence and trust in economics as a science? Five changes are absolutely decisive.

(1) Stop pretending that we have exact and rigorous answers on everything. Because we don’t. We build models and theories and tell people that we can calculate and foresee the future. But we do this based on mathematical and statistical assumptions that often have little or nothing to do with reality. By pretending that there is no really important difference between model and reality we lull people into thinking that we have things under control. We haven’t! This false feeling of security was one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

(2) Stop the childish and exaggerated belief in mathematics giving answers to important economic questions. Mathematics gives exact answers to exact questions. But the relevant and interesting questions we face in the economic realm are rarely of that kind. Questions like “Is 2 + 2 = 4?” are never posed in real economies. Instead of a fundamentally misplaced reliance on abstract mathematical-deductive-axiomatic models having anything of substance to contribute to our knowledge of real economies, it would be far better if we pursued “thicker” models and relevant empirical studies and observations. Mathematics cannot establish the truth value of a fact. Never has. Never will.

(3) Stop pretending that there are laws in economics. There are no universal laws in economics. Economies are not like planetary systems or physics labs. The most we can aspire to in real economies is establishing possible tendencies with varying degrees of generalizability.

(4) Stop treating other social sciences as poor relations. Economics has long suffered from hubris. A more broad-minded and multifarious science would enrich today’s economics and make it more relevant and realistic.

(5) Stop building models and making forecasts of the future based on totally unreal micro-founded macro models with intertemporally optimizing robot-like representative actors equipped with rational expectations. This is pure nonsense. We have to build our models on assumptions that are not so blatantly in contradiction to reality. Assuming that people are green and come from Mars is not a good — not even as a “successive approximation” — modeling strategy.

Nights in white satin

30 Jul, 2022 at 16:35 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

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On revient toujours à ses premières amours …

Perfect day (personal)

28 Jul, 2022 at 21:41 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

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Spending a beautiful summer afternoon with my lovely daughters, Linnea and Tora.

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