Market economy and private capitalism – two pairs of shoes!

Critics of our social and economic system often lack in accuracy when it comes to argumentation. At the same time defenders of the status quo sweepingly prejudge those critics and ignore the details of their argumentation in the first place. In order to advance the discussion it may be helpful or even necessary to capture and explain the most important institutions defining market economies and private capitalism in a metaphor of their evolving:

There was a tribe. Every year the eldest of the tribe decided about the roles of the individual members. In principal they spilt up the tribe into hunters and farmers. All food produced was collected by the eldest and then distributed equally among all members of the tribe.

Some members of the tribe were not quite satisfied with the mixture of meat and vegetables. Some of them preferred meat, others preferred vegetables. So they had the idea to exchange their goods in order to increase satisfaction. The institution called market was born and provided the possibility to bilaterally increase individual as well as total welfare. Every sensible economist has to acknowledge the basic potential trade in principal offers to a society which is institutionalized by the markets thereby created.

The members of the tribe also acknowledged the improvement, but at the same time recognized that even after the goods were exchanged some still were not perfectly satisfied with their mixture of goods but perceived a shortage in meat. So these members asked the eldest, whether he may adapt the allocation of productive efforts in order to produce more meat. The eldest considered the request and reallocated some members from farmers to the hunters. However, he overestimated the demand for meat and soon they observed a shortage in vegetables. Members preferring vegetables now asked the eldest to reallocate some hunters in order to increase the production of vegetables again. Members preferring meat, though, feared that the eldest once again fails to estimate correctly. So they proposed that the tribe votes about the aspired mixture of meat and vegetables. The eldest agreed and to some extent direct democracy was implemented in terms of indirect consumer sovereignty.

After having achieved two big reforms some of the members considered to go further. They proposed to also vote about the type of meat and vegetables. The eldest, though, declined and argued that the allocation would become far too complex considering an increased variety of goods. He neither had the capacities nor the information to centrally plan their production in such a detailed way.

The members however did not give up. Instead they proposed to delegate the allocation of effort to the individual members. They should know best about their preferences and skills. So why should they not decide individually whether and how they want to react when facing a shortage. Finally, the eldest agreed. He provided a sufficient amount of tools and then let the members of the tribe coordinate themselves. Following the argument of efficiency, from now on both consumption and production were decided decentrally.

The improvements in total as well as in individual welfare made the idea of self-organization well-accepted. At the same time the idea also sensitized the tribe with regard to productivity. Soon, some members started to complain about those that, in their opinion, contributed less to the output collectivized so far. So they proposed that it should not be equally distributed anymore. Instead, members should have the right to directly trade based on the output individually produced. The eldest was skeptical about such a big change but feared the dissatisfaction of the most productive and influential members. So he agreed again and the tribe finally headed towards a meritocratic market economy.

As their ambition increased further discussions evolved. All wanted to be the first when tools were allocated. Hunters argued about who has seen or shot an animal first. Farmers could not agree about who has sowed and groomed which acre of land. The fight about rights and resources had begun. Again some members came to the eldest for the sake of a proposal. They suggested to allocate the available resources to the members once for all. From then on, every member should have the property rights with regard to these resources as well as to all that is produced with, by or on them. Then the welfare of any member of the tribe should finally lie entirely in its individual hands. Everyone would have the incentive to make the best out of its own resources and thereby also the tribe in total benefits. The eldest had to admit the logic consistent to the previous reform and agreed. This is the point where private capitalism came on the board.

The eldest did not consider that the consistency with previous reforms depends on the assumption of a stationary state. Once the resources are fixed on the individual level, the praised flexibility of members is at least partly lost. Threats and potentials implied by changes in preferences, changes in the variety of goods or changes in the set of available technologies are not shared equally any more. Instead, members are affected differently depending on the resources originally allocated to them. Some may benefit from changes which may imply losses for others. In contrast to the previous argumentation, the welfare of individual members does not entirely lie in their own hands but strongly depend on developments determined by all the others. In addition, this lack of self-determination is inherited to future generations. When born they face an allocation of resources as well as a distribution of output they so far could not determine at all. They may have the incentive to make the best of what they possess, but this may be not much or even nothing.

What this metaphor finally shows is that decentralized democracy, efficiency and meritocracy are not the result of the institution of private capitalism but may even be threatened by it. Therefore, critics of private capitalism are not necessarily critics of market economies, neither do they necessarily argue in favour of an equal distribution. They rather just address the lack of self-determination implied by the once and for all privatization of productive resources. Who dares to fundamentally contest this very liberal perspective?

Why I like DSGE models

Christoph has recently vented his frustration about “DSGE bashing” now popular in the econ blogosphere. I feel this frustration, too, not because I believe DSGEs are perfect, but because I think that much of the popular criticism is ill-informed. Since I have worked with DSGE models recently in my research, I can call myself a card-carrying member of the club of DSGE aficionados. So I thought I briefly explain why I like DSGEs and what I think they are good for.

I think of DSGE models as applying ordinary principles of economics – optimizing behavior and market equilibrium (GE for general equilibrium) – to a world that evolves over time (D for dynamic) and is subject to chance (S for stochastic). When I say optimizing behavior I don’t necessarily mean rational expectations and when I say equilibrium I don’t necessarily mean market clearing. There are DSGEs without rational expectations and with non-clearing markets out there, although admittedly they are not the most widely used ones. I find this general approach attractive, because it brings us closer to a Unified Economic Science that uses a single set of principles to explain phenomena at the micro level and at the macro level.

But that’s not the most important reason I like DSGEs, which is that it makes precise and thus helps clarify commonly held notions about business cycles, economic crises and economic. Take, for instance, the notion of “recession”. In popular discussion a “recession” is when GDP growth is negative or at least below what is conceived a normal or desirable rate. In DSGE models, a recession is a negative output gap: the difference between the actual level of output and that level which would occur if prices were fully flexible (the “natural rate of output”). DSGEs make it clear that a negative growth rate is not necessarily bad (if the weather is bad in April and better in May, you want production to go down in April and up in May) and a positive growth rate not necessarily good (two percent real growth can sometimes mean an overheating economy and sometimes be a sluggish one). You have to look at more than one variable (at least two, output growth and inflation) to decide whether the economy is in good or bad shape.

Another reason I like DSGEs is that they discuss economic policy in a much more coherent and sensible manner than most of the earlier literature – and much more so than the financial press. The important question about any policy X is not “Does X increase GDP or reduce unemployment or increase asset prices?”, but “Does X increase the utility of households?”. Also, because DSGEs are dynamic models, they put the focus on policy rules, i.e. how policymakers behave across time and in different situations, instead of looking only what policymakers do right now and in this particular situation.

There is a lot of valid criticism against DSGEs: they often are too simplistic and sweep important but hard-to-model aspects under the rug and they, as a result of that, have lots of empirical issues. But these things should encourage us to make DSGEs better, not return to the even more simplistic approaches that previously dominated macroeconomics.

How privatization saved the Pilgrim Fathers

This summer I visited the historic site of Plymouth Plantation, the famous first settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts. I was interested to see how the early settlers lived, what their houses looked like, what clothes they wore, what food they ate, what their relationships with the Native Americans were and how they managed to survive the first years in the wilderness. Luckily one of the colonists, William Bradford, wrote a book about all this which I am now reading. Among the many fascinating details of Bradford’s account, I found this passage describing how the colonists managed to overcome the insufficient output of corn which had caused a dangerous shortage of food during the first year and left many of them in danger of starvation.

So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. At length after much debate, the Governor with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view,—for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance,—all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times,—that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class. If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another plan of life was fitter for them.

How to judge (macro)economic models or Why Paul Krugman gets it wrong

Paul Krugman recently participated in a discussion about the current state of macroeconomics, particularly about the “dominant” paradigm of DSGE models and their predecessor, the IS-LM model. Using DSGE models by myself and disagreeing with basically all of what he said, let me comment on an especially unconvincing piece of reasoning:

“[…] how [do] we know that a modeling approach is truly useful. The answer, I’d suggest, is that we look for surprising successful predictions. So has there been anything like that in recent years? Yes: economists who knew and still took seriously good old-fashioned Hicksian IS-LM type analysis made some strong predictions after the financial crisis”.

In short: forget DSGE models and related stuff and go back to IS-LM because people using IS-LM recently made some “right” predictions. Is the exclusive focus on its “predictions”a reasonable criterion to judge (macro)economic models or how should they be judged else?

With respect to the former, let me give you an admittedly extreme example. Over the last few decades, we could have very well predicted the EU agricultural policy by assuming that the aim of policy makers was to reduce consumer welfare. Would you resort to this sort of model when discussing likely upcoming agricultural policies from an outsider perspective? I would not.

Can we take up another extreme and simply judge a model based on the realism of its assumptions? I suggest we can’t. “Let’s assume a representative agent who cares about consumption, leisure and wearing blue jeans” to take another extreme example. Would you reject a macroeconomic argument formulated with this agent based on the unrealism of the blue jean assumption (as long as the model is not intended to explain the jeans market). I would not because in this context, I regard this assumption to be irrelevant for the models conclusions/predictions. The difference with respect to the first example is then of course that in the former, I’m convinced that the assumption matters for the results, in the latter I´m convinced it does not.

So one cannot judge models solely by their predictions because the underlying assumptions in combination with the implied propagation mechanisms might be clearly implausible/unconvincing and important for the predictions. Assessing the latter in turn requires to dig into the model dynamics implying that one can also not base a judgement solely on the realism of the assumptions.

How can a reasonable criterion that takes the above findings under consideration then look like? As so beautifully described in McCloskey essay on the “Rhetoric of Economics”, (macro)economists are persuaders. What they do is “careful weighing of more or less good reasons to arrive at more or less probable or plausible conclusions – none too secure, but better than would be arrived by chance or unthinking impulse; it is the art of discovering warrantable beliefs and improving those beliefs in shared discourse […] (Booth 1961, see the above link p. 483 for the exact citation)”. The purpose of models, I’d argue is then to help organizing that discourse, help to structure your own thinking, clarify the debate and provide a framework to confront thought with data.  In order to be useful for that, they need to be “persuasive” in the context they are used. The realism of the assumptions and the implied propagation mechanisms, their respective importance for the results and the model´s fit to data are all part of the subjective assessment with respect to that criterion.

How then about DSGE vs. IS-LM in policy debate? IS-LM and related models were mainly discarded in policy analysis because they incorporate reduced form parameters on e.g. the interest rate responsiveness of investment or the marginal propensity to consume which most economists were not convinced to be sufficiently independent of economic policy. This criticism is today as valid as it was 30 or 40 years ago, none of that has changed. All that has changed is that IS-LM made some “correct” (one may very well discuss the use of this word here but that´s not the purpose of this blog entry) predictions. Shall we go back to a model that was labelled as an unpersuasive tool although the main point of criticism is still valid – NO. Shall we use it now lacking a better alternative? Properly specified state-of-the-art DSGE models are a tool that outclasses IS-LM on virtually every aspect (YES even when it comes to rational expectations). For sake of shortening the entry, I will yet argue my case for that in a follow-up post.

The 5p plastic bag charge in the UK: A microeconomic success story

Much of (micro)economic theory is based on the following ideas. People make conscious choices. These choices depend on what these people want. People typically want, keeping all else the same, more money. To quote (in a rough translation) a popular Austrian comedian, Alf Poier, on this matter:  “I quickly realized that money is quite valuable and doesn’t take up much room.” This also means that in order to get more money, people would be willing to give up other things that they want.

And we just saw an incredible demonstration of that with the UK-wide introduction of a 5p charge for every plastic bag in essentially all supermarkets from the beginning of 2016. The effects of this policy have started to become evident. It seems that the introduction of the 5p charge for every plastic bag has reduced plastic bag consumption in supermarkets by roughly 80%.

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A hypothesis test in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1934 “Right Ho, Jeeves”

Reading on (you may want to read my previous post before this one), I found another beautiful example of hypothesis testing in literature with a pretty clear p-value calculation. I am now reading P. G. Wodehouse’s “Right Ho, Jeeves”, first published in 1934 I believe.

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