Aristotle contra the math stick: Magic numbers redux

In the last post I explored how magic numbers, such as a 90% debt-to-GDP ratio or a 2% inflation target, at once over-simplify and stifle economic policy debate. The role of magic numbers raises more general questions about “the rule of number” in economics. The math stick used to browbeat those who enter economic policy debates can be so effective in part because quantity has primacy over quality and means have primacy over ends in economic debate. Bear with me here, but to see this more clearly we should go all the way back to Aristotle. Things might get a bit abstract, but I’ll try my best to reign them in.

Aristotle asked what seem to be fairly naïve questions. For example, he ruminated on why it is that a particular number X pairs of shoes trades for one house. How is that two very different things – one for walking in and one for living in – are brought into a very specific quantitative relationship through human trade? Sometime towards the end of the 19th century, economics stopped asking such questions, precisely deeming them naïve and nonsensical in the process. A house “costs” five pairs of shoes because someone is willing to offer five pairs of shoes for another’s house. The first will get as much out of the house as the second from the shoes and exchange, usually via money, in a particular ratio allows them to come to this conclusion – simple and pat. End of story.

Not quite, says Scott Meikle, author of Aristotle’s Economic Thought. Ending the story here actually leaves ends completely out of the picture:

The consequence [of this commensurability is] that the question of ends cannot be formulated within economics. It is perhaps the most important question that can be asked in respect of economic matters, and whatever answer may be favoured, it does not reflect well on a theory if that theory is incapable of even formulating the question. (more…)

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Magic numbers and the math stick

Economics is often associated with numbers. We are bombarded with economic data: GDP, unemployment, inflation, debt, exchange rates, market indices…the list is seemingly endless. While many of these numbers change – we are encouraged to cheer when they rise, jeer when they fall – there are others that are presented as fixed, immutable boundaries between good policy and bad. These are magic numbers that aspire to reduce economic policy decisions simple rule-following. Upon closer inspection, the magic of these numbers may turn out to be nothing but pixie dust. Breaking the illusion, however, risks a real mathematical headache.

Last week, another nail was applied to the already tightly-shut coffin of what had until recently been considered a magic number in economics. In a series of influential papers, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff purported to show that a country’s public debt becomes a sizeable burden on economic growth once it exceeds 90% of GDP. This 90% threshold was used by governments, international institutions, lobby groups and others to create and influence public policy across the globe. Many countries either willingly undertook or were – more or less gently – nudged into undertaking destructive austerity programs to lower debt levels below this magic threshold.

An IMF study published last week indicates that the RR studies, as they’ve come to be called, use a much too short, one-year time-frame to measure the effects of public debt on GDP growth. Taking a longer view is not only much more appropriate, it shows there to be no discernible negative effect of higher public debt on GDP growth – and certainly no clear threshold like that posited by Reinhart and Rogoff. This latest study comes on top of another published last year by graduate students from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which uncovered  not only serious methodological flaws in the RR studies, but also simple errors in how data was entered into Excel spreadsheets. Together, these errors were responsible for the emergence of such a clear threshold. In short, the accumulated weight of critiques of the RR studies has largely shown these studies to be…to put it bluntly, wrong. The magic 90% number turns out to truly be a conjurer’s trick. (more…)

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The facts are capitalist

There has been a curious debate in the past week within the world of economics blogging. It started with a post by Chris House on the contrast between a “well-known liberal bias” within the academy generally and the decidedly more conservative bent of most members of economics departments. House attributes this contrast to a conservative bias in economic facts – by this he means that much of mainstream economic theory agrees with a more right-wing view of the world. Take, for example, the view that minimum wages lower employment or that government regulation has negative effects on business efficiency. Noah Smith answered this  provocation by arguing that the positions taken by most economists are actually closer to the beliefs of the American centre-left, by which he means that much attention is focused on the trade-offs between efficiency and equity. And the debate has moved on from there.

Smith concludes his post by making explicit the key assumption behind both pieces: that there are facts and then there is the ideological perception of those facts – that the facts are in some way neutral, but can conform to one point of view better than another. There is a long line of social theory and philosophy that challenges this assumption of independence. Here, it is tempting to quote Gramsci on ideology, or Foucault on power, or a host of other authors. That would, however, take the conversation into a space completely alien to House and Smith. So nevermind Gramsci, here is mainstream Anglo-American philosopher of science Hilary Putnam on the relation between facts and values:

I argued that the picture of our language in which nothing can be both a fact and value-laden is wholly inadequate and that an enormous amount of our descriptive vocabulary is and has to be ‘entangled’… for example, to draw the distinction between courageous behaviour and behaviour that is merely rash or fool-hardy…depends precisely on being able to acquire a particular evaluative point of view. ‘Valuation’ and ‘description’ are interdependent.


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There is no good value

A piece in the Financial Times from several days ago has finally pushed me to scribble down a few initial thoughts on value – a topic I been thinking about more and more. Titled “The attack of the rentier killers”, the article argues that the wealthy who hold and receive income from assets will fight low interest rates and rising inflation tooth and nail because it lowers the value of their assets. Paul Krugman has recently picked up on this topic as well, while the notion that only sustained low interest rates can “euthanize” a dangerous, politically-motivated rentier class originally comes from Keynes.

There is much to be said about this claim. One question is whether there currently exists a well-defined rentier class whose interests are opposed those of a class of capitalist producers. The growth of finance and its increasing integration into all other aspects of the economy challenge this idea. Furthermore, the current application of extraordinary monetary policy has produced a combination of low interest rates and low inflation. The former decreases the flow of gains from interest-bearing assets; at the same time, the latter means that all assets better maintain their value. Finally, current policy has led to a greater concentration of assets (I posted some thoughts on this here), which has disproportionately benefited the wealthy.

In writing this, however, I was motivated by a smaller point that comes right at the end of the Financial Times article:

Based on [the previous] analysis, the surest sign that our society is on the verge of […] a secular stagnation story is the increasing frequency and severity of bubbles today. But if they’re really symptomatic of the death throes of the rentier class, then perhaps they shouldn’t be feared by central bankers at all?

Instead, central bankers should start thinking about ways to create entirely new forms of positive value in society based on social, educational, sustainable or even humorous activity? Carbon credits, RINs, energy rationing units, brownie points and Dogecoins, and so forth.

I want to focus on the phrase “positive value.” I take this to be opposed to “negative value.” A likely example of the latter would be the financial returns that accrue to rentiers while asset price bubbles are being inflated; with the problem being that these same bubbles also end up harming others when they burst. The argument is that rather than continue to allow for the creation of financial bubbles that have negative economic impacts, we should instead create sinks into which rentiers can pile their money looking for higher returns, but which will also be socially-useful. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, the author even suggests feel-good brownie points as a worthwhile “positive value”-generating asset bubble vehicle. (more…)

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Notes on pensions and risk

Canada’s finance ministers are meeting this weekend and a proposal to expand the CPP is at the top of the agenda. If implemented, this proposal would bolster an important public program at a time when public programs are under attack and the public sector as whole is shrinking. There are many good arguments in favour of strong public pensions, but I want to focus on one not often discussed: revitalized public programs are a counter to forces that aim to make us accustomed to taking on more and more (potentially disastrous) financial risk.

In yesterday’s post, I noted that austerity is not only a strategy to maintain business profitability, but also part of a broader agenda that can be neatly summed up by the phrase, “privatize gains, socialize losses”. From bailouts to public-private partnerships to the outright privatization of public services, the aim of much right-wing economic policy is to allow the private sector to capture economic gains, at the same time ensuring that society absorbs the costs of something going wrong. This removes financial risks from the private sector and distributes them throughout society.

Effecting such an agenda, however, requires more than just the appropriate policies – it also requires a fundamental change in attitudes towards risk. People have to become habituated to taking on ever-greater individual risks, especially in areas where risks were previously low. Pensions are a prime example of a policy area that can impact on attitudes toward risk.


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Demand or destruction: Two ways out of the profitability puzzle

In my previous post, I outlined the disconnect between profitability and investment in Canada’s private sector.  While businesses are doing well and profits have rebounded quickly after the global financial crisis of 2007, investment has continued its slow and steady 20-year decline.  This decline is especially visible when investment is related directly to profits. Slightly more than 60% of gross profits are currently being re-invested, down by a third relative to just two decades ago.  Such a gap between strong profitability and dismal investment does not correspond with standard accounts of how the economy functions.  According to standard accounts, strong profitability should encourage investment, not depress it further.  This theoretical relationship is not borne out in recent Canadian experience.

While the last post also examined a few factors that could have been at play in creating this odd state of affairs, here I want to move in the opposite direction and look at two competing pictures of how to revive low private-sector investment.  The first picture comes from Keynes, the second from Marx.  I am particularly indebted to Michael Roberts, who has written extensively on the crisis from a UK perspective and who used a similar framework in a recent article (on the adoption of the idea of a permanent slump by mainstream Keynesians).

The two pictures agree on a diagnosis of on-going stagnation – with low investment being just one feature.  Indeed, the lack of sustained recovery across much of the developed world has led increasing numbers of mainstream economists to declare that the current slowdown is permanent.  Paul Krugman, likely the most prominent Keynesian economist, recently wrote that we may have entered a “permanent slump.”  Even the more hawkish Larry Summers has added his voice to the chorus, referring in a recent speech at the IMF to a period of “secular stagnation”.  Many Marxist and other radical economists have, of course, been making the same point for years, citing a variety of structural changes and imbalances in the economy, particularly those that characterize the neoliberal period that began in the 1970s when the great post-war boom lost steam.

While their diagnosis may be similar, Keynesian and Marxian economists see the way out of the current long-term slump rather differently. (more…)

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