The eminently quotable Robert Solow — as always — says it all:
To get right down to it, I suspect that the attempt to construct economics as an axiom-atically based hard science is doomed to fail. There are many partially overlapping reasons for believing this …
A modern economy is a very complicated system. Since we cannot conduct controlled on its smaller parts, or even observe them in isolation, the classical hard- science devices for discriminating between competing hypotheses are closed to us. The main alternative device is the statistical analysis of historical time-series. But then another difficulty arises. The competing hypotheses are themselves complex and subtle. We know before we start that all of them, or at least many of them, are capable of fitting the data in a gross sort of way. Then, in order to make more refined distinctions, we need long time-series observed under stationary conditions.
Unfortunately, however, economics is a social science. It is subject to Damon Runyon’s Law that nothing between human beings is more than three to one. To express the point more formally, much of what we observe cannot be treated as the realization of a stationary stochastic process without straining credulity. Moreover, all narrowly economic activity is embedded in a web of social institutions, customs, beliefs, and attitudes. Concrete outcomes are indubitably affected by these background factors, some of which change slowly and gradually, others erratically. As soon as time-series get long enough to offer hope of discriminating among complex hypotheses, the likelihood that they remain stationary dwindles away, and the noise level gets correspondingly high. Under these circumstances, a little cleverness and persistence can get you almost any result you want. I think that is why so few econometricians have ever been forced by the facts to abandon a firmly held belief …
The NAIRU story has always had a very clear policy implication — attempts to promote full employment is doomed to fail, since governments and central banks can’t push unemployment below the critical NAIRU threshold without causing harmful runaway inflation.
One of the main problems with NAIRU is that it is essentially a timeless long-run equilibrium attractor to which actual unemployment (allegedly) has to adjust. If that equilibrium is itself changing — and in ways that depend on the process of getting to the equilibrium — well, then we can’t really be sure what that equlibrium will be without contextualizing unemployment in real historical time. And when we do, we will see how seriously wrong we go if we omit demand from the analysis. Demand policy has long-run effects and matters also for structural unemployment — and governments and central banks can’t just look the other way and legitimize their passivity re unemployment by refering to NAIRU.
NAIRU does not hold water simply because it does not exist — and to base economic policy on such a weak theoretical and empirical construct is nothing short of writing out a prescription for self-inflicted economic havoc.
The conventional wisdom, codified in the theory of the non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) … holds that in the longer run, an economy’s potential growth depends on – what Milton Friedman called – the “natural rate of unemployment”: the structural unemployment rate at which inflation is constant …
We argue in our book Macroeconomics Beyond the NAIRU that the NAIRU doctrine is wrong because it is a partial, not a general, theory. Specifically, wages are treated as mere costs to producers. In NAIRU, higher real-wage claims necessarily reduce firms’ profitability and hence, if firms want to protect profits (needed for investment and growth), higher wages must lead to higher prices and ultimately run-away inflation. The only way to stop this process is to have an increase in “natural unemployment”, which curbs workers’ wage claims.
What is missing from this NAIRU thinking is that wages provide macroeconomic benefits in terms of higher labor productivity growth and more rapid technological progress …
NAIRU wisdom holds that a rise in the (real) interest rate will only affect inflation, not structural unemployment. We argue instead that higher interest rates slow down technological progress – directly by depressing demand growth and indirectly by creating additional unemployment and depressing wage growth.
As a result, productivity growth will fall, and the NAIRU must increase. In other words, macroeconomic policy has permanent effects on structural unemployment and growth – the NAIRU as a constant “natural” rate of unemployment does not exist.
This means we cannot absolve central bankers from charges that their anti-inflation policies contribute to higher unemployment. They have already done so. Our estimates suggest that overly restrictive macro policies in the OECD countries have actually and unnecessarily thrown millions of workers into unemployment by a policy-induced decline in productivity and output growth. This self-inflicted damage must rest on the conscience of the economics profession.
I feel a little like Rip Van-Winkle. The consensus amongst economists in the 1980s was that trade is always and everywhere good for everyone. After attending a UCLA workshop on trade a couple of weeks ago, I learned that all that has changed. There is a new consensus, summarized in two papers, “The China Syndrome”, published in the American Economic Review, and “the China Shock”, a new working paper, by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson (ADH). According to their research, the effects of trade with China have been truly catastrophic for the average American worker. Over to ADH —
“Our analysis finds that exposure to Chinese import competition affects local labor markets not just through manufacturing employment, which unsurprisingly is adversely affected, but also along numerous other margins. Import shocks trigger a decline in wages that is primarily observed outside of the manufacturing sector.”
Sound familiar? This is a case of academic economists catching up with what the median blue-collar worker has known for a long time. The U.S. lost jobs to China and the average American worker was not compensated by the winners. And there were winners.
“China’s economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of individuals out of poverty. The resulting positive impacts on the material well-being of Chinese citizens are abundantly evident. Beijing’s seven ring roads, Shanghai’s sparkling skyline, and Guangzhou’s multitude of export factories none of which existed in 1980 are testimony to China’s success.”
Nor were the winners only Chinese workers. If your income is primarily generated by ownership of human or physical capital; you have benefited enormously from the chance to combine your talents, in the case of human capital, and your wealth, in the case of physical capital, with a vast pool of unskilled labor. But those benefits were never passed on to American workers and American workers are now voicing their collective displeasure at the ballot box.
After a hectic week in Prague and Vienna, yours truly, of course, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a stopover in Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) for a couple of days. If you like to walk right into a novel by Jane Austen — and your wallet isn’t too thin — it’s a highly recommendable place …
“We encourage all countries to be absolutely determined to go back to a sustainable mode for their fiscal policies,” Trichet said, speaking after the ECB rate decision on Thursday. “Our message is the same for all, and we trust that it is absolutely decisive not only for each country individually, but for prosperity of all.”
“Not because it is an elementary recommendation to care for your sons and daughter and not overburden them, but because it is good for confidence, consumption and investment today”.
Well, think again. Here is the abstract of ECB Working Paper no 1770, March 2015:
“We explore how fiscal consolidations affect private sector confidence, a possible channel for the fiscal transmission that has received particular attention recently as a result of governments embarking on austerity trajectories in the aftermath of the crisis … The effects are stronger for revenue-based measures and when institutional arrangements, such as fiscal rules, are weak … Consumer confidence falls around announcements of consolidation measures, an effect driven by revenue-based measures. Moreover, the effects are most relevant for European countries with weak institutional arrangements, as measured by the tightness of fiscal rules or budgetary transparency.”
The confidence fairy seems to have turned into a confidence witch. One more victim of the crisis. But this one will not be missed.
Sad to say, Trichet isn’t the only one who has got things wrong. Leading mainstream economists in my own country — Sweden — have even made the same flimflamming confidence reasoning into some kind of national pride issue (emphasis added):
The current monetary policy framework in Sweden … was a response to an earlier malfunctioning system, which motivated a number of academic proposals on reforms, to a large extent inspired by international resarch developments in the monetary policy area … The final transition to the current regime was triggered by two developments: Swedish EU membership, which imposed requirements to do central bank reform, and the Swedish decision to stay outside the monetary union, which made it clear that credibility for low–inflation policy had to be built at home … The current monetary policy framework has been successful in achieving low inflation, in fact too successful as average CPI inflation 1997-2014 was 1 percentage point below the 2 per cent target … An issue raised by these experiences is … whether the objective of stabilising unemployment around its equilibrium level should be stated explicitly in the Riksbank Act. It has also been claimed that a somewhat higher inflation target might be desirable, as this would likely imply higher inflation, and hence a lower real interest rate that would stimulate the economy in a deep recession when the repo rate approaches zero. However, both the politicians and the Riksbank have been reluctant to contemplate such changes because of a worry that they could undermine the credibility of low-inflation policies.
Lars Calmfors (president of the Swedish Fiscal Policy Council)
How hard it seems to be for mainstream economists to grasp the simple fact that no matter how much confidence you have in the policies pursued by authorities nowadays, 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 not what it takes to get our limping economies out of their present day 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 Calmfors talks 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!
Spekulationsbubblor får konsekvenser för hela samhället. Men hur skapas de? Priserna på finansmarknaden sätts efter en annan logik än varor i vår vardag, säger professor Lars Pålsson Syll. Man köper tillgångar, inte för att använda dem, utan för att sälja dem vidare. Tulpanmanin i Holland på 1600-talet är den först kända spekulationsbubblan. Då drabbades bara de som handlade med lökar. Men i dagens globaliserade värld påverkas många fler när marknaden kraschar.
If your German isn’t to rusty, this lecture by Hagen Krämer might give you some interesting reflections on the rather sad state of ‘modern’ macroeconomics.
Tinbergen’s results cannot be judged by ordinary tests of statistical significance. The reason is that the variables with which he winds up, the particular series measuring these variables, the leads and lags, and various other aspects of the equations besides the particular values of the parameters (which alone can be tested by the usual statistical technique) have been selected after an extensive process of trial and error because they yield high coefficients of correlation. Tinbergen is seldom satisfied with a correlation coefficient less than 0.98. But these attractive correlation coefficients create no presumption that the relationships they describe will hold in the future. The multiple regression equations which yield them are simply tautological reformulations of selected economic data. Taken at face value, Tinbergen’s work “explains” the errors in his data no less than their real movements; for although many of the series employed in the study would be accorded, even by their compilers, a margin of error in excess of 5 per cent, Tinbergen’s equations “explain” well over 95 per cent of the observed variation.
As W. C. Mitchell put it some years ago, “a competent statistician, with sufficient clerical assistance and time at his command, can take almost any pair of time series for a given period and work them into forms which will yield coefficients of correlation exceeding ±.9 …. So work of [this] sort … must be judged, not by the coefficients of correlation obtained within the periods for which they have manipulated the data, but by the coefficients which they get in earlier or later periods to which their formulas may be applied.” But Tinbergen makes no attempt to determine whether his equations agree with data other than those which they translate …
The methods used by Tinbergen do not and cannot provide an empirically tested explanation of business cycle movements.