Monthly Archives: November 2013

Economics – orthodox and heterodox

Any old iron

In 2008 as The Great Moderation came to an end, Queen Elizabeth II asked Mervyn King “Why did no-one see this coming?” Her Majesty had clearly not read either Irrational Exuberance by recent Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, or Crash Proof by Peter Schiff (probably not a Nobel candidate). If she had she would have realised that, in fact, at least two economists, albeit with very different approaches, did see this coming. There were warnings, but many chose to ignore them. But Her Majesty was on to something, the belief that the crash had caught economists napping became quite widespread.

This dissatisfaction with the orthodox macroeconomics practiced by policymakers and taught in universities on both sides of the Atlantic has sparked an increased interest in heterodox economics, such as inspired Manchester University’s Post-Crash Economics Society which declares “The world has changed, the syllabus hasn’t”. There is much to commend this trend – much orthodox macroeconomics is mathematically overelaborate bunk. But what exactly is the orthodox we should be shunning and the heterodox we should be embracing?

According to the Guardian, one of the economists backing the efforts of students like those in Manchester is Cambridge University’s Ha-Joon Chang who says “Students are not even prepared for the commercial world. Few [students] know what is going on in China and how it influences the global economic situation. Even worse, I’ve met American students who have never heard of Keynes.”

Really? I did my economics degree at Birkbeck College between 2007-2011. One of my modules was Macroeconomic Theory and Policy and the course text was 2007’s Macroeconomics by N. Gregory Mankiw and Mark P. Taylor. It contains eleven index entries under ‘Keynes, John Maynard’  (‘consumption function’, ‘economic theory’, ‘gold standard’, ‘inflation’, ‘inflation as taxation’, ‘interest rate determination’, ‘investments’, ‘IS curve’, ‘IS-LM model’, ‘real wages, cyclical behaviour of’, and ‘stock market speculation’) and a further nine under ‘Keynesian Cross’ (‘adjustments’, ‘decrease in taxes’, ‘dwindling in popularity of’, ‘economy in equilibrium’, ‘government purchases’, ‘planned expenditure’, ‘policy shifts and’, and ‘taxes’). In another module, Intermediate Macroeconomics, the course text was 2007’s Macroeconomics by Stephen Williamson. Solidly in the Real Business Cycle tradition even this book contains index references to ‘Keynesian business cycle theory’ (‘labor market in a sticky wage model’), eleven references under ‘Keynesian coordination failure model’,  and one each for ‘Keynesian transmission mechanism for monetary policy’, and ‘Keynesian unemployment’.

Besides, the point of university is that you do much of the study off your own bat. At the end of my first year I had got so fed up reading textbooks telling you what was in The General Theory that I went and read it myself. Quite honestly, it is difficult to believe that Chang actually has met “American students who have never heard of Keynes” and if he did they would seem to be uninquisitive, unrepresentative idiots who a change of syllabus is unlikely to help.

In another Guardian article Mahim Husnain and Rikin Parekh of the Manchester society write that “in the education we receive as economics students, there is little stress on how a market could fail”. If this is true then the curriculum at Manchester University is very different to mine. In a module on Intermediate Microeconomics  one of the textbooks we used was 2003’s Microeconomics by Robert S. Pindyck and Daniel L. Rubinfeld, the fourth and final part of which was called ‘Information, Market Failure, and the role of the Government’. We also used Hal R. Varian’s 2006 text Intermediate Microeconomics which included entire chapters on supposed sources of market failure such as ‘Monopoly’ and ‘Oligopoly’, ‘Public Goods’, ‘Externalities’, and ‘Asymmetric Information’.

Much of the microeconomics taught at universities is, in fact, based on notions of market failure and what the government can apparently do to remedy them, so much so in fact, that Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, and Michael Spence won the Nobel prize in 2001 for their work on the subject. If you haven’t come across it either your university is letting you down or you’re not paying attention in class.

Michael Joffe, professor of economics at Imperial College, London, says “many reformers (have) called for economics courses to embrace the teachings of Marx and Keynes”. But heterodox economics should not simply mean any old rubbish. Some of it, like Marx with the ludicrous Labour Theory of Value as the keystone of his system, is heterodox for a very good reason.  And the idea that Keynes is or was particularly neglected and that universities are teaching that markets can never fail is simply untrue; he is an integral part of the orthodox mainstream.

Economists should always be testing their theories against new ideas and to that extent the recent interest in different approaches is to be welcomed. But we should be wary of people trying to pass off the useless (Marx) or the thoroughly familiar (Keynes) as something fresh and challenging.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

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Output gaps and heterogeneity

What shape is the Short Run Aggregate Supply (SRAS) curve? The question might sound tediously esoteric but it is, in fact, central to current economic policy debate.

In the long run almost all economists agree that the supply curve is vertical. The quantities of factors of production (land, labour, capital) available at a given time are fixed and even combined in the most efficient way can yield only a given amount of output. In this long run analysis the only way to increase the supply of goods and services available, the essence of economic growth, is to shift the vertical supply curve to the right by either increasing the amount of productive factors, or increasing the efficiency of their combination (their Total Factor Productivity).

Some economists think this also applies in the short run. As a result they argue that any attempted expansion of demand via monetary or fiscal policy, shifting the demand curve to the right, will simply result in rising prices. Output and employment will be unaffected.

But does it actually apply in the short run? After all, we see many factors of production lying idle. Unemployment, at 7.7%, is higher than at any time between January 1997 and May 2009. 14.1% of shops were empty in September according to the Local Data Company, barely down from 14.2% in February. Here we are in the ‘output gap’, the difference between current output and what output would be if all those unemployed workers were put to work in all those empty shops.

Couldn’t monetary stimulus bring these unemployed workers and empty shops together to increase employment and output without causing inflation? Monetary expansion will not cause higher prices, on this thinking, because rather than bidding up the wages of workers already employed or rents of commercial premises already occupied, the idle ones will be employed instead. That is what Bank of England governor Mark Carney sees when saying that monetary stimulus will continue at least until unemployment falls to 7%. Isn’t this the economist’s hitherto mythical ‘free lunch’?

A problem with this approach is that it views the factors of production as largely homogenous. Every square foot of empty commercial property, whether boarded up corner shop or out-of-town retail unit, is lumped in with every JCB as ‘capital’. All unemployed workers, whether builders or estate agents, are aggregated as undifferentiated slack in the labour market. What this approach misses, as does much clumsy, aggregative, ‘modern’ macroeconomics, is heterogeneity.

As economist Benjamin Powell points out, “A tractor is not a hammer”. An economy experiencing a tractor boom may find itself with a glut of unemployed tractors when that boom busts. Hammers, on the other hand, would be relatively scarce. As a result the returns on employing each capital good, tractors or hammers, will differ.

Any monetary stimulus attempting to bring these tractors back into employment will not be confined to spending on tractors. Some, probably most, will be spent on hammers which are not currently idle and whose supply will not expand to accommodate this new ‘demand’ immediately. It will simply bid up hammer prices. And if hammer supply does expand, that expansion will be revealed as an unsustainable malinvestment when the monetary stimulus is withdrawn.

And, a tractor not being a hammer (capital goods being heterogeneous in other words), they are not substitutes. An increased demand for one from monetary stimulus need not result in a proportionate increase in demand for the other. Those idle tractors will remain idle as the hammer boom takes off.

Just as a tractor is not a hammer, Mesut Özil is not Miley Cyrus; labour is also heterogeneous. If the economy had overinvested in midfielders during a singing bubble and there were now too many to gain employment as such in a sustainable pattern of demand, any monetary stimulus designed to get these guys back to work would begin driving up the wages of relatively scarce twerking pop stars before a substantial number of those midfielders had found employment.

Those footballers, like the tractors, do not represent ‘slack’ waiting to be picked up by a few more dollars. They are just dead capital and unsuitable labour, the product of malinvestments.

The lesson is that there is no single Short Run Aggregate Supply curve for the ‘the economy’. In each example above, at a given point the SRAS curve for tractors and running backs was horizontal while those for hammers and pop stars were vertical. Attempts to drive the economy along one aggregated economy-wide curve towards full employment will hit choppy waters sooner than monetary policy makers, with their crude view of a few macro variables, think. They might find they have less room for manoeuvre than their models tell them.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre