Government by agreement is only possible provided that we do not require the government to act in fields other than those in which we can obtain true agreement.
If, in the international sphere, democratic government should only prove to be possible if the tasks of the international government are limited to an essentially liberal program, it would no more than confirm the experience in the national sphere, in which it is daily becoming more obvious that democracy will work only if we do not overload it and if the majorities do not abuse their power of interfering with individual freedom. Yet, if the price we have to pay for an international democratic government is the restriction of the power and scope of government, it is surely not too high a price, and all those who genuinely believe in democracy ought to be prepared to pay it.
As yours truly has written on several occasions here on the blog, there are many good reasons to be critical of Austrian economics. And although we have to be careful — following the apt counsel of Robert Solow — so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, this is sure an example of the really Bad Hayek.
Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all. But … people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality. This sounds serious and thoughtful. But it’s actually a view very much at odds with the evidence, not to mention a way to hide from the real, unavoidably partisan debate.
The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills… So what we need is more and better education … It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t … there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment.
Although Krugman doesn’t name him explicitly, Harvard economist and George Bush advisor Greg Mankiw is one of those mainstream economists who has been appealing to the education variable to explain the rising inequality we have seen for the last 30 years in both the US and elsewhere in Western societies. Mankiw writes:
Even if the income gains are in the top 1 percent, why does that imply that the right story is not about education?
If indeed a year of schooling guaranteed you precisely a 10 percent increase in earnings, then there is no way increasing education by a few years could move you from the middle class to the top 1 percent.
But it may be better to think of the return to education as stochastic. Education not only increases the average income a person will earn, but it also changes the entire distribution of possible life outcomes. It does not guarantee that a person will end up in the top 1 percent, but it increases the likelihood. I have not seen any data on this, but I am willing to bet that the top 1 percent are more educated than the average American; while their education did not ensure their economic success, it played a role.
To me this is nothing but really one big evasive attempt at trying to explain away a very disturbing structural shift that has taken place in our societies. And change that has very little to do with stochastic returns to education. Those were in place also 30 or 40 years ago. At that time they meant that perhaps a CEO earned 10-12 times what “ordinary” people earns. Today it means that they perhaps earn 100-200 times what “ordinary” people earns.
A question of education? No way! It is a question of income and wealth increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a very small and privileged elite, greed and a lost sense of a common project of building a sustainable society.
Lynn Parramore: Do you think there are lessons in what has happened in the Eurozone for students of economics and the way the subject is taught?
Mario Seccareccia: Yes, indeed. Ever since the establishment of the modern nation-state in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the creation of the euro was perhaps the first significant experiment in modern times in which there was an attempt to separate money from the state, that is, to denationalize currency, as some right-wing ideologues and founders of modern neoliberalism, such as Friedrich von Hayek, had defended. What the Eurozone crisis teaches is that this perception of how the monetary system works is quite wrong, because, in times of crisis, the democratic state must be able to spend money in order to meet its obligations to its citizens. The denationalization or “supra-nationalization” of money with the establishment that happened in the Eurozone took away from elected national governments the capacity to meaningfully manage their economies. Unless governments in the Eurozone are able to renegotiate a significant control and access money from their own central banks, the system will be continually plagued with crisis and will probably collapse in the longer term.
If a government stops having its own currency, it doesn’t just give up “control over monetary policy” as normally understood; its spending powers also become constrained in an entirely new way. If a government does not have its own central bank on which it can draw cheques freely, its expenditures can be financed only by borrowing in the open market in competition with businesses, and this may prove excessively expensive or even impossible, particularly under “conditions of extreme emergency.”
If Europe is not to have a full-scale budget of its own under the new arrangements it will still have, by default, a fiscal stance of its own made up of the individual budgets of component states. The danger, then, is that the budgetary restraint to which governments are individually committed will impart a disinflationary bias that locks Europe as a whole into a depression it is powerless to lift.
(h/t Edward Fullbrook & Stephanie Kelton)
Deflationary policies are deflationary. To a large extent the deflation is caused by tight monetary and fiscal policies pursued by ECB. With a very defensive fiscal policy and a targeted inflation rate set at a very low level, real inflation has during the last couple of years been negative. Another consequence of the austere fiscal and monetary policies is that overall unemployment is stuck at an enormously high level.
This is deeply worrying.
So here’s a suggestion for reading …
Zoltan Pozsnar and Paul McCulley have written an absolutely splendid essay on what a liquidity trap means and why mainstream neoclassical economics has nothing to offer in way of solving the problems that it brings along – and why it is so important to get hold of the insights that Fisher, Keynes, and Minsky have given us on debt-deflation processes and liquidity traps:
A liquidity trap is a circumstance in which the private sector is deleveraging in the wake of enduring negative animal spirits caused by the bursting of joint asset price and credit bubbles that leave privatesector balance sheets severely damaged. In a liquidity trap the animal spirits of the private sector cannot be revived by a reduction in short-term interest rates because there is no demand for credit. This effectively means that conventional monetary policy does not work in a liquidity trap …
Deleveraging can be rational for an individual household. It can be rational for an individual corporation. It can be rational for an individual country. However, in the aggregate it begets the paradox of thrift1: what is rational at the microeconomic level is irrational at the community, or macroeconomic, level.
This is not to say that the private sector should not deleverage. It has to. It is a part of the economy’s healing process and a necessary first step toward a self-sustaining economic recovery.
However, deleveraging is a beast of a burden that capitalism cannot bear alone. At the macro level, deleveraging must be a managed process: for the private sector to deleverage without causing a depression, the public sector has to move in the opposite direction and re-lever by effectively viewing the balance sheets of the monetary and fiscal authorities as a consolidated whole.
Fiscal austerity does not work in a liquidity trap and makes as much sense as putting an anorexic on a diet. Yet, “diets” are the very prescriptions that fiscal austerians have imposed (or plan to impose) in the U.S., U.K. and Eurozone. Austerians fail to realize, however, that everyone cannot save at the same time and that in liquidity traps, the paradox of thrift and depression are fellow travelers that are functionally intertwined.
Historically, austerity has only worked when accompanied by monetary easing – where wealth effects and stronger private demand for credit helped offset the effects of fiscal austerity – and/or a weaker currency – which helped steal others’ demand.
In a liquidity trap, however, austerity cannot work because monetary policy is neither functioning correctly nor able offset lost demand, and weak currencies work only at a time of strong global demand and only for individual countries, not for several major countries at one time. Imposing austerity without potential offsets and at a time of weak global aggregate demand is deflationary, which makes deleveraging much harder, balance sheet repair much slower and recovery much less likely to achieve. In a liquidity trap, governments have no logical option but to borrow and to invest.
How could governments borrow more if government debt is also a problem everywhere? Would it not be irresponsible to increase borrowing at a time of record government debt levels? Fiscal austerians are quick to invoke age-old textbook orthodoxies: (1) that additional borrowing will be too much for future generations to handle, citing the law of Ricardian equivalence; (2) that increased borrowing will crowd out private sector borrowing and will most likely delay the economic recovery; and (3) that bond investors will stop buying and send yields higher.
However, in the topsy-turvy world of liquidity traps, these textbook orthodoxies do not apply, and acting irresponsibly relative to orthodoxy by increasing borrowing will do more good than harm. Austerians argue that reducing deficits and putting nations’ fiscal houses in order will help growth through confidence. However, Ricardian equivalence does not work in reverse! It is not confidence, but Godley’s tyranny of arithmetic that matters: someone simply has to borrow and invest to fill missing demand.
Crowding out, overheating and rising interest rates are also not likely to be a problem as there is no competition for funds from the private sector. For evidence, look no further than the impact of government borrowing on long-term interest rates in the U.S. during the Great Depression, or more recently, Japan …
Held back by concerns borne of these orthodoxies, however, governments are not spending with passionate purpose. They are victims of intellectual paralysis borne of inertia of dogma that, in the present circumstances, do not apply. As a result, their acting responsibly relative to orthodoxy and going forth with austerity may drag economies down the vortex of deflation and depression.
The importance of fiscal expansion and the impotence of conventional monetary policy measures in a liquidity trap have profound implications for the conduct of central banks. This is because in a liquidity trap, the fat tail risk of inflation is replaced by the fat tail risk of deflation. In turn, the fatness of the deflation tail is a function of the government’s willingness and ability to pump-prime, i.e. to borrow and spend.
Commenting on an earlier post of yours truly on Abba Lerner’s Functional Finance view of public debt, Cambridge macroeconomist Pontus Rendahl maintained that “Abba Lerner IS evoking Ricardian equivalence in his argument” and that I didn’t understand “it.”
According to Lerner, the purpose of public debt is “to achieve a rate of interest which results in the most desirable level of investment.” He also maintained that an application of Functional Finance will have a tendency to balance the budget in the long run:
Finally, there is no reason for assuming that, as a result of the continued application of Functional Finance to maintain full employment, the government must always be borrowing more money and increasing the national debt. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, full employment can be maintained by printing the money needed for it, and this does not increase the debt at all. It is probably advisable, however, to allow debt and money to increase together in a certain balance, as long as one or the other has to increase.
Second, since one of the greatest deterrents to private investment is the fear that the depression will come before the investment has paid for itself, the guarantee of permanent full employment will make private investment much more attractive, once investors have gotten over their suspicion of the new procedure. The greater private investment will diminish the need for deficit spending.
Third, as the national debt increases, and with it the sum of private wealth, there will be an increasingly yield from taxes on higher incomes and inheritances, even if the tax rates are unchanged. These higher tax payments do not represent reductions of spending by the taxpayers. Therefore the government does not have to use these proceeds to maintain the requisite rate of spending, and can devote them to paying the interest on the national debt.
Fourth, as the national debt increases it acts as a self-equilibrating force, gradually diminishing the further need for its growth and finally reaching an equilibrium level where its tendency to grow comes completely to an end. The greater the national debt the greater is the quantity of private wealth. The reason for this is simply that for every dollar of debt owed by the government there is a private creditor who owns the government obligations (possibly through a corporation in which he has shares), and who regards these obligations as part of his private fortune. The greater the private fortunes the less is the incentive to add to them by saving out of current income …
Fifth, if for any reason the government does not wish to see private property grow too much … it can check this by taxing the rich instead of borrowing from them, in its program of financing government spending to maintain full employment. The rich will not reduce their spending significantly, and thus the effects on the economy, apart from the smaller debt, will be the same as if Money had been borrowed from them.
Much positive wealth effects here — and no Ricardian equivalence …
So — one may wonder who is not understanding what about Lerner and the Functional Finance view of public debt …
But even if today’s mainstream Cambridge economists do not understand Lerner, there once was one who certainly did:
I recently read an interesting article on deficit budgeting … His argument is impeccable.
John Maynard Keynes CW XXVII:320
Added GMT 1400: In a new comment Rendahl now maintains that “the core argument here is that the timing of taxes is irrelevant for servicing domestic debt, which is exactly what Ricardian equivalence says.”
Although the issue of timing is one well-known part of Ricardian equivalence, I still beg to differ on it being “exactly what Ricardian equivalence says.” Let me elaborate on why.
According to the Ricardian equivalence hypothesis the public sector basically finances its expenditures through taxes or by issuing bonds, and bonds must sooner or later be repaid by raising taxes in the future.
If the public sector runs extra spending through deficits, taxpayers will according to the hypothesis anticipate that they will have pay higher taxes in future — and therefore increase their savings and reduce their current consumption to be able to do so, the consequence being that aggregate demand would not be different to what would happen if taxes were rised today.
Robert Barro attempted to give the proposition a firm theoretical foundation in the 1970s.
So let us get the facts straight from the horse’s mouth.
Describing the Ricardian Equivalence in 1989 Barro writes (emphasis added):
Suppose now that households’ demands for goods depend on the expected present value of taxes—that is, each household subtracts its share of this present value from the expected present value of income to determine a net wealth position. Then fiscal policy would affect aggregate consumer demand only if it altered the expected present value of taxes. But the preceding argument was that the present value of taxes would not change as long as the present value of spending did not change. Therefore, the substitution of a budget deficit for current taxes (or any other rearrangement of the timing of taxes) has no impact on the aggregate demand for goods. In this sense, budget deficits and taxation have equivalent effects on the economy — hence the term, “Ricardian equivalence theorem.” To put the equivalence result another way, a decrease in the government’s saving (that is, a current budget deficit) leads to an offsetting increase in desired private saving, and hence to no change in desired national saving.
Since desired national saving does not change, the real interest rate does not have to rise in a closed economy to maintain balance between desired national saving and investment demand. Hence, there is no effect on investment, and no burden of the public debt …
Compairing this crystal-clear statement of the Ricardian hypothesis with what Lerner wrote, it should be obvious to anyone how far-fetched it is to maintain that Lerner is evoking any Ricardian equivalence or that the irrelevance of the timing of taxes is “exactly” what Ricardian equivalence is all about.
Ricardian equivalence basically means that financing government expenditures through taxes or debts is equivalent, since debt financing must be repaid with interest, and agents — equipped with rational expectations — would only increase savings in order to be able to pay the higher taxes in the future, thus leaving total expenditures unchanged.
There is, of course, no reason for us to believe in that fairy-tale. Ricardo himself — mirabile dictu — didn’t believe in Ricardian equivalence. In “Essay on the Funding System” (1820) he wrote:
But the people who paid the taxes never so estimate them, and therefore do not manage their private affairs accordingly. We are too apt to think that the war is burdensome only in proportion to what we are at the moment called to pay for it in taxes, without reflecting on the probable duration of such taxes. It would be difficult to convince a man possessed of £20,000, or any other sum, that a perpetual payment of £50 per annum was equally burdensome with a single tax of £1000.
ATHENS — I am writing this piece on the margins of a crucial negotiation with my country’s creditors — a negotiation the result of which may mark a generation, and even prove a turning point for Europe’s unfolding experiment with monetary union.
Game theorists analyze negotiations as if they were split-a-pie games involving selfish players. Because I spent many years during my previous life as an academic researching game theory, some commentators rushed to presume that as Greece’s new finance minister I was busily devising bluffs, stratagems and outside options, struggling to improve upon a weak hand.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything, my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.
The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.
As finance minister of a small, fiscally stressed nation lacking its own central bank and seen by many of our partners as a problem debtor, I am convinced that we have one option only: to shun any temptation to treat this pivotal moment as an experiment in strategizing and, instead, to present honestly the facts concerning Greece’s social economy, table our proposals for regrowing Greece, explain why these are in Europe’s interest, and reveal the red lines beyond which logic and duty prevent us from going.
The great difference between this government and previous Greek governments is twofold: We are determined to clash with mighty vested interests in order to reboot Greece and gain our partners’ trust. We are also determined not to be treated as a debt colony that should suffer what it must. The principle of the greatest austerity for the most depressed economy would be quaint if it did not cause so much unnecessary suffering.
I am often asked: What if the only way you can secure funding is to cross your red lines and accept measures that you consider to be part of the problem, rather than of its solution? Faithful to the principle that I have no right to bluff, my answer is: The lines that we have presented as red will not be crossed. Otherwise, they would not be truly red, but merely a bluff.
But what if this brings your people much pain? I am asked. Surely you must be bluffing.
The problem with this line of argument is that it presumes, along with game theory, that we live in a tyranny of consequences. That there are no circumstances when we must do what is right not as a strategy but simply because it is … right.
Against such cynicism the new Greek government will innovate. We shall desist, whatever the consequences, from deals that are wrong for Greece and wrong for Europe. The “extend and pretend” game that began after Greece’s public debt became unserviceable in 2010 will end. No more loans — not until we have a credible plan for growing the economy in order to repay those loans, help the middle class get back on its feet and address the hideous humanitarian crisis. No more “reform” programs that target poor pensioners and family-owned pharmacies while leaving large-scale corruption untouched.
Our government is not asking our partners for a way out of repaying our debts. We are asking for a few months of financial stability that will allow us to embark upon the task of reforms that the broad Greek population can own and support, so we can bring back growth and end our inability to pay our dues.
One may think that this retreat from game theory is motivated by some radical-left agenda. Not so. The major influence here is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.
How do we know that our modest policy agenda, which constitutes our red line, is right in Kant’s terms? We know by looking into the eyes of the hungry in the streets of our cities or contemplating our stressed middle class, or considering the interests of hard-working people in every European village and city within our monetary union. After all, Europe will only regain its soul when it regains the people’s trust by putting their interests center-stage.
Varoufakis’ retreat from game theory is a perfect illustration of the limitations of überrationalistic modeling and what happens when confronting deductive-axiomatic economic models with reality.
Back in 1991, when yours truly earned his first Ph.D. with a dissertation on decision making and rationality in social choice theory and game theory, I concluded that “repeatedly it seems as though mathematical tractability and elegance — rather than realism and relevance — have been the most applied guidelines for the behavioural assumptions being made. On a political and social level it is doubtful if the methodological individualism, ahistoricity and formalism they are advocating are especially valid.”
This, of course, was like swearing in church. My mainstream neoclassical colleagues were — to say the least — not exactly überjoyed.
For those of you who are not familiar with game theory, but eager to learn something relevant about it, I have three suggestions:
Start with the best introduction there is
and then go on to read more on the objections that can be raised against game theory and its underlying assumptions on e.g. rationality, “backward induction” and “common knowledge” in
and then finish off with listening to what one of the world’s most renowned game theorists — Ariel Rubinstein — has to say on the — rather limited — applicability of game theory in this interview (emphasis added):
What are the applications of game theory for real life?
That’s a central question: Is game theory useful in a concrete sense or not? Game theory is an area of economics that has enjoyed fantastic public relations. [John] Von Neumann [one of the founders of game theory] was not only a genius in mathematics, he was also a genius in public relations. The choice of the name “theory of games” was brilliant as a marketing device.
The word “game” has friendly, enjoyable associations. It gives a good feeling to people. It reminds us of our childhood, of chess and checkers, of children’s games. The associations are very light, not heavy, even though you may be trying to deal with issues like nuclear deterrence. I think it’s a very tempting idea for people, that they can take something simple and apply it to situations that are very complicated, like the economic crisis or nuclear deterrence. But this is an illusion. Now my views, I have to say, are extreme compared to many of my colleagues. I believe that game theory is very interesting. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about it, but I don’t respect the claims that it has direct applications.
The analogy I sometimes give is from logic. Logic is a very interesting field in philosophy, or in mathematics. But I don’t think anybody has the illusion that logic helps people to be better performers in life. A good judge does not need to know logic. It may turn out to be useful – logic was useful in the development of the computer sciences, for example – but it’s not directly practical in the sense of helping you figure out how best to behave tomorrow, say in a debate with friends, or when analysing data that you get as a judge or a citizen or as a scientist.
In game theory, what we’re doing is saying, “Let’s try to abstract our thinking about strategic situations.” Game theorists are very good at abstracting some very complicated situations and putting some elements of the situations into a formal model. In general, my view about formal models is that a model is a fable. Game theory is about a collection of fables. Are fables useful or not? In some sense, you can say that they are useful, because good fables can give you some new insight into the world and allow you to think about a situation differently. But fables are not useful in the sense of giving you advice about what to do tomorrow, or how to reach an agreement between the West and Iran. The same is true about game theory.
In general, I would say there were too many claims made by game theoreticians about its relevance. Every book of game theory starts with “Game theory is very relevant to everything that you can imagine, and probably many things that you can’t imagine.” In my opinion that’s just a marketing device.
Why do it then?
… What I’m opposing is the approach that says, in a practical situation, “OK, there are some very clever game theoreticians in the world, let’s ask them what to do.” I have not seen, in all my life, a single example where a game theorist could give advice, based on the theory, which was more useful than that of the layman.
Looking at the flipside, was there ever a situation in which you were pleasantly surprised at what game theory was able to deliver?
None. Not only none, but my point would be that categorically game theory cannot do it.
One of the proof methods that I was especially critical of in my dissertation was the use of “backward induction.” I have to confess I haven’t given it much thought outside the class room since then, but after having spent yesterday afternoon reading Ken Binmore’s Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction, I have to confess I’m slightly surprised that it — obviously — still holds such a strong position among game theorists. For those of you not familiar with it I recommend looking at the video below and afterwards take a minute or two and try to figure out how convinced you are about backward induction really helping us to understand what is after all the very idea of game theory — to analyze, understand, and explain strategic thinking …
The Greeks tried to talk with the other finance ministers of EU. The negotiations broke down.
As soon as it was admitted that it was in fact impossible to make Germany pay the expenses of both sides, and that the unloading of their liabilities upon the enemy was not practicable, the position of the Ministers of Finance of France and Italy became untenable. Thus a scientific consideration of Germany’s capacity to pay was from the outset out of court. The expectations which the exigencies of politics had made it necessary to raise were so very remote from the truth that a slight distortion of figures was no use, and it was necessary to ignore the facts entirely. The resulting unveracity was fundamental. On a basis of so much falsehood it became impossible to erect any constructive financial policy which was workable. For this reason amongst others, a magnanimous financial policy was essential.
And in Greece the people still have to pay the true costs of misguided austerity policies.
We have come to a highly paradoxical situation. The position that many policymakers adopted in 2009 – that in a liquidity trap you need fiscal stimulus to help the recovery – seems to have been vindicated. QE hasn’t proved strong or reliable enough to negate the need for fiscal stimulus. In addition, the view, current in 2009, that we should not worry about increasing government debt in the short term, has also proved correct outside the Eurozone. The key point is that deficit reduction should be left until a time when interest rates are high, so that they can be reduced to counteract the negative impact of austerity on demand. When this view was abandoned in favour of austerity, the recovery in the UK and elsewhere was needlessly delayed or restrained. Yet this is not the media’s perception. Mediamacro still sees reducing debt as the number one priority …
It is as if Osborne’s real priority was and still is to cut all forms of government spending, and as if the deficit was, and he hopes will remain, a convenient pretext to achieve that goal. It will be some time before economists settle on a number for the total cost of the austerity mistake, but a conservative estimate would be that, in total, resources worth around 5 per cent of GDP will have been lost for ever by delaying the recovery. That’s about £100 billion, or £1500 for each adult and child in the country.
If any other government department had wasted that amount, there would be a huge outcry from the media. Yet when it comes to macroeconomics, the media seems to play by different rules. It continues to misrepresent economic ideas even though it has access to academic expertise. Why is this? … Part of the explanation, I think, is that we have a particular problem with macroeconomics, which is the influence of economists working in the City. There are some wise and experienced City economists, but there are also many with limited expertise and sometimes fanciful views. Their main job is to keep their firm’s clients happy, and perhaps to help traders improve their predictions of what might happen in the markets in the next few days. Their views tend to reflect the economic arguments of those on the right: regulation is bad, top rates of tax should be low, the state is too large, and budget deficits are a serious and immediate concern …
Of course it is also the case that large sections of the print media have a political agenda. Unfortunately the remaining part, too, often seeks expertise among City economists who have a set of views and interests that do not reflect the profession as a whole. This can lead to a disconnect between macroeconomics as portrayed in the media and the macroeconomics taught in universities. In the case of UK austerity, it has allowed the media to portray the reduction of the government’s budget deficit as the overriding macroeconomic priority, when in reality that policy has done and may continue to do considerable harm.