Was There a Blue Wave?

In the 2018 midterm elections on two weeks ago on November 6, Democrats gained about 38 seats in the House of Representatives with results for a few seats still incomplete. Polls and special elections for vacancies in the House and Senate and state legislatures indicated that a swing toward the Democrats was likely, raising hopes among Democrats that a blue wave would sweep Democrats into control of the House of Representatives and possibly, despite an unfavorable election map with many more Democratic Senate seats at state than Republican seats, even the Senate.

On election night when results in the Florida Senate and Governor races suddenly swung toward the Democrats, the high hopes for a blue wave began to ebb, especially as results from Indiana, Misouri, and South Dakota showed that Democratic incumbent Senators trailing by substantial margins. Other results seemed like a mixed bag, with some Democratic gains, but hardly providing clear signs of a blue wave. The mood was not lifted when the incumbent Democratic Senator from Montana fell behind his Republican challenger and Ted Cruz seemed to be maintaining a slim lead over his charismatic opponent Beto O’Rourke and the Republican candidate for the open Senate seat held by the retiring Jeff Flake of Arizona was leading the Democratic candidate.

As the night wore on, although it seemed that the Democrats would gain a majority in the House of Representatives, estimates of the number of seats gained were only in the high twenties or low thirties, while it appeared that Republicans might gain as many as five Senate Seats. President Trump was able to claim, almost credibly, the next morning at his White House news conference that the election results had been an almost total victory for himself and his party.

It was not till later the next day that it became clear that the Democratic gains in the House would not be just barely enough (23) to gain a majority in the House but would likely be closer to 40 than to 30. The apparent losses of the Montana seat was reversed by late results, and the delayed results from Nevada showed that a Democrat had defeated the Republican incumbent while the Democratic candidate in Arizona had substantially cut into the lead built up by the Republican candidate with most of the of the uncounted votes in Democratic strongholds. Instead of winning 56 Senate seats a pickup of 5, as seemed likely on Tuesday night, the Republicans gains were cut to no more than 2, and the apparent defeat of an incumbent in the Florida election was thrown into doubt, as late returns showed a steadily shrinking Republican margin, sending Republicans into an almost hysterical panic at the prospect gaining no more than one seat rather than five they had been expecting on Tuesday night.

So, within a day or two after the election, the narrative of a Democratic wave began to reemerge. Many commentators accepted the narrative of a covert Democratic wave, but others disagreed. For example, Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics argues that there really wasn’t a Blue Wave, even though Democratic House gains of nearly 40 seats, taken in isolation, might qualify for that designation. Trende thinks the Democratic losses in the Senate, though not as large as they seemed originally, are inconsistent with a wave election as were Democratic gains in governorships and state legislatures.

However, a pickup of seven governorships, while not spectacular is hardly to be sneezed at, and Democratic gains in state legislative seats would have been substantially greater than they were had it not been for extremely effective gerrymandering that kept democratic gains well below their share of the vote in state legislatures even though their effect on races for the House were fairly minimal. So I think that the best measure of the wave-like character of the 2018 elections is provided by the results for the House of Representatives.

Now the problem with judging whether the House results were a wave or were not a wave is that midterm election results are sensitive to economic conditions, so before you can compare results you need to adjust for how well or poorly the economy was performing. You also need to adjust for how many seats the President’s party has going into the election. The more seats the President’s Party has to defend, the greater its potential loss in the election.

To test this idea, I estimated a simple regression model with the number of seats lost by the President’s party in the midterm elections as the dependent variable and the number of seats held by the President’s party as one independent variable and the ratio of real GDP in the year of the midterm election to real GDP in the year of the previous Presidential election as the other independent variable. One would expect the President’s party to perform better in the midterm elections the higher the ratio of real GDP in the midterm year to real GDP in the year of the previous Presidential election.

My regression equation is thus ΔSeats = C + aSeats + bRGDPratio + ε,

where ΔSeats is the change in the number of seats held by the President’s party after the midterm election, Seats is the number of seats held before the midterm, RGDPratio is the ratio of real GDP in the midterm election year to the real GDP in the previous Presidential election year, C is a constant reflecting the average change in the number of seats of the President’s party in the midterm elections, and a and b are the coefficients reflecting the marginal effect of a change in the corresponding independent variables on the dependent variable, with the other independent variable held constant.

I estimated this equation using data in the 18 midterm elections from 1946 through 2014. The estimated regression equation was the following:

ΔSeats = 24.63 – .26Seats + 184.48RGDPratio

The t values for Seats and RGDPratio are both slightly greater than 2 in absolute value, indicating that they are statistically significant at the 10% level and nearly significant at the 5% level. But given the small number of observations, I wouldn’t put much store on the significance levels except as an indication of plausibility. The assumption that Seats is linearly related to ΔSeats doesn’t seem right, but I haven’t tried alternative specifications. The R-squared and adjusted R-squared statistics are .31 and .22, which seem pretty high.

At any rate when I plotted the predicted changes in the number of seats against the actual number of seats changed in the elections from 1946 to 2018 I came up with the following chart:


The blue line in the chart represents the actual number of seats gained or lost in each midterm election since 1946 and the orange line represents the change in the number of seats predicted by the model. One can see that the President’s party did substantially better than expected in 1962, 1978, 1998, and 2002 elections, while the President’s party did substantially worse than expected in the 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018 elections.

In 2018, the Democrats gained approximately 38 seats compared to the 22 seats the model predicted, so the Democrats overperformed by about 16 seats. In 2010 the Republicans gained 63 seats compared to a predicted gain of 35. In 2006, the Democrats gained 32 seats compared to a predicted gain of 22. In 1994 Republicans gained 54 seats compared to a predicted gain of 26 seats. In 1974, Democrats gains 48 seats compared to a predicted gain of 20 seats. In 1966, Republicans gained 47 seats compared to a predicted gain of 26 seats. And in 1958, Democrats gained 48 seats compared to a predicted gain of 20 seats.

So the Democrats in 2018 did not over-perform as much as they did in 1958 and 1974, or as much as the Republicans did in 1966, 1994, and 2010. But the Democrats overperformed by more in 2018 than they did in 2006 when Mrs. Pelosi became Speaker of the House the first time, and actually came close to the Republicans’ overperformance of 1966. So, my tentative conclusion is yes, there was a blue wave in 2018, but it was a light blue wave.



More on Sticky Wages

It’s been over four and a half years since I wrote my second most popular post on this blog (“Why are Wages Sticky?”). Although the post was linked to and discussed by Paul Krugman (which is almost always a guarantee of getting a lot of traffic) and by other econoblogosphere standbys like Mark Thoma and Barry Ritholz, unlike most of my other popular posts, it has continued ever since to attract a steady stream of readers. It’s the posts that keep attracting readers long after their original expiration date that I am generally most proud of.

I made a few preliminary points about wage stickiness before getting to my point. First, although Keynes is often supposed to have used sticky wages as the basis for his claim that market forces, unaided by stimulus to aggregate demand, cannot automatically eliminate cyclical unemployment within the short or even medium term, he actually devoted a lot of effort and space in the General Theory to arguing that nominal wage reductions would not increase employment, and to criticizing economists who blamed unemployment on nominal wages fixed by collective bargaining at levels too high to allow all workers to be employed. So, the idea that wage stickiness is a Keynesian explanation for unemployment doesn’t seem to me to be historically accurate.

I also discussed the search theories of unemployment that in some ways have improved our understanding of why some level of unemployment is a normal phenomenon even when people are able to find jobs fairly easily and why search and unemployment can actually be productive, enabling workers and employers to improve the matches between the skills and aptitudes that workers have and the skills and aptitudes that employers are looking for. But search theories also have trouble accounting for some basic facts about unemployment.

First, a lot of job search takes place when workers have jobs while search theories assume that workers can’t or don’t search while they are employed. Second, when unemployment rises in recessions, it’s not because workers mistakenly expect more favorable wage offers than employers are offering and mistakenly turn down job offers that they later regret not having accepted, which is a very skewed way of interpreting what happens in recessions; it’s because workers are laid off by employers who are cutting back output and idling production lines.

I then suggested the following alternative explanation for wage stickiness:

Consider the incentive to cut price of a firm that can’t sell as much as it wants [to sell] at the current price. The firm is off its supply curve. The firm is a price taker in the sense that, if it charges a higher price than its competitors, it won’t sell anything, losing all its sales to competitors. Would the firm have any incentive to cut its price? Presumably, yes. But let’s think about that incentive. Suppose the firm has a maximum output capacity of one unit, and can produce either zero or one units in any time period. Suppose that demand has gone down, so that the firm is not sure if it will be able to sell the unit of output that it produces (assume also that the firm only produces if it has an order in hand). Would such a firm have an incentive to cut price? Only if it felt that, by doing so, it would increase the probability of getting an order sufficiently to compensate for the reduced profit margin at the lower price. Of course, the firm does not want to set a price higher than its competitors, so it will set a price no higher than the price that it expects its competitors to set.

Now consider a different sort of firm, a firm that can easily expand its output. Faced with the prospect of losing its current sales, this type of firm, unlike the first type, could offer to sell an increased amount at a reduced price. How could it sell an increased amount when demand is falling? By undercutting its competitors. A firm willing to cut its price could, by taking share away from its competitors, actually expand its output despite overall falling demand. That is the essence of competitive rivalry. Obviously, not every firm could succeed in such a strategy, but some firms, presumably those with a cost advantage, or a willingness to accept a reduced profit margin, could expand, thereby forcing marginal firms out of the market.

Workers seem to me to have the characteristics of type-one firms, while most actual businesses seem to resemble type-two firms. So what I am suggesting is that the inability of workers to take over the jobs of co-workers (the analog of output expansion by a firm) when faced with the prospect of a layoff means that a powerful incentive operating in non-labor markets for price cutting in response to reduced demand is not present in labor markets. A firm faced with the prospect of being terminated by a customer whose demand for the firm’s product has fallen may offer significant concessions to retain the customer’s business, especially if it can, in the process, gain an increased share of the customer’s business. A worker facing the prospect of a layoff cannot offer his employer a similar deal. And requiring a workforce of many workers, the employer cannot generally avoid the morale-damaging effects of a wage cut on his workforce by replacing current workers with another set of workers at a lower wage than the old workers were getting.

I think that what I wrote four years ago is clearly right, identifying an important reason for wage stickiness. But there’s also another reason that I didn’t mention then, but whose importance has since come to appear increasingly significant to me, especially as a result of writing and rewriting my paper “Hayek, Hicks, Radner and three concepts of intertemporal equilibrium.”

If you are unemployed because the demand for your employer’s product has gone down, and your employer, planning to reduce output, is laying off workers no longer needed, how could you, as an individual worker, unconstrained by a union collective-bargaining agreement or by a minimum-wage law, persuade your employer not to lay you off? Could you really keep your job by offering to accept a wage cut — no matter how big? If you are being laid off because your employer is reducing output, would your offer to work at a lower wage cause your employer to keep output unchanged, despite a reduction in demand? If not, how would your offer to take a pay cut help you keep your job? Unless enough workers are willing to accept a big enough wage cut for your employer to find it profitable to maintain current output instead of cutting output, how would your own willingness to accept a wage cut enable you to keep your job?

Now, if all workers were to accept a sufficiently large wage cut, it might make sense for an employer not to carry out a planned reduction in output, but the offer by any single worker to accept a wage cut certainly would not cause the employer to change its output plans. So, if you are making an independent decision whether to offer to accept a wage cut, and other workers are making their own independent decisions about whether to accept a wage cut, would it be rational for you or any of them to accept a wage cut? Whether it would or wouldn’t might depend on what each worker was expecting other workers to do. But certainly given the expectation that other workers are not offering to accept a wage cut, why would it make any sense for any worker to be the one to offer to accept a wage cut? Would offering to accept a wage cut, increase the likelihood that a worker would be one of the lucky ones chosen not to be laid off? Why would offering to accept a wage cut that no one else was offering to accept, make the worker willing to work for less appear more desirable to the employer than the others that wouldn’t accept a wage cut? One reaction by the employer might be: what’s this guy’s problem?

Combining this way of looking at the incentives workers have to offer to accept wage reductions to keep their jobs with my argument in my post of four years ago, I now am inclined to suggest that unemployment as such provides very little incentive for workers and employers to cut wages. Price cutting in periods of excess supply is often driven by aggressive price cutting by suppliers with large unsold inventories. There may be lots of unemployment, but no one is holding a large stock of unemployed workers, and no is in a position to offer low wages to undercut the position of those currently employed at  nominal wages that, arguably, are too high.

That’s not how labor markets operate. Labor markets involve matching individual workers and individual employers more or less one at a time. If nominal wages fall, it’s not because of an overhang of unsold labor flooding the market; it’s because something is changing the expectations of workers and employers about what wage will be offered by employers, and accepted by workers, for a particular kind of work. If the expected wage is too high, not all workers willing to work at that wage will find employment; if it’s too low, employers will not be able to find as many workers as they would like to hire, but the situation will not change until wage expectations change. And the reason that wage expectations change is not because the excess demand for workers causes any immediate pressure for nominal wages to rise.

The further point I would make is that the optimal responses of workers and the optimal responses of their employers to a recessionary reduction in demand, in which the employers, given current input and output prices, are planning to cut output and lay off workers, are mutually interdependent. While it is, I suppose, theoretically possible that if enough workers decided to immediately offer to accept sufficiently large wage cuts, some employers might forego plans to lay off their workers, there are no obvious market signals that would lead to such a response, because such a response would be contingent on a level of coordination between workers and employers and a convergence of expectations about future outcomes that is almost unimaginable.

One can’t simply assume that it is in the independent self-interest of every worker to accept a wage cut as soon as an employer perceives a reduced demand for its product, making the current level of output unprofitable. But unless all, or enough, workers decide to accept a wage cut, the optimal response of the employer is still likely to be to cut output and lay off workers. There is no automatic mechanism by which the market adjusts to demand shocks to achieve the set of mutually consistent optimal decisions that characterizes a full-employment market-clearing equilibrium. Market-clearing equilibrium requires not merely isolated price and wage cuts by individual suppliers of inputs and final outputs, but a convergence of expectations about the prices of inputs and outputs that will be consistent with market clearing. And there is no market mechanism that achieves that convergence of expectations.

So, this brings me back to Keynes and the idea of sticky wages as the key to explaining cyclical fluctuations in output and employment. Keynes writes at the beginning of chapter 19 of the General Theory.

For the classical theory has been accustomed to rest the supposedly self-adjusting character of the economic system on an assumed fluidity of money-wages; and, when there is rigidity, to lay on this rigidity the blame of maladjustment.

A reduction in money-wages is quite capable in certain circumstances of affording a stimulus to output, as the classical theory supposes. My difference from this theory is primarily a difference of analysis. . . .

The generally accept explanation is . . . quite a simple one. It does not depend on roundabout repercussions, such as we shall discuss below. The argument simply is that a reduction in money wages will, cet. par. Stimulate demand by diminishing the price of the finished product, and will therefore increase output, and will therefore increase output and employment up to the point where  the reduction which labour has agreed to accept in its money wages is just offset by the diminishing marginal efficiency of labour as output . . . is increased. . . .

It is from this type of analysis that I fundamentally differ.

[T]his way of thinking is probably reached as follows. In any given industry we have a demand schedule for the product relating the quantities which can be sold to the prices asked; we have a series of supply schedules relating the prices which will be asked for the sale of different quantities. .  . and these schedules between them lead up to a further schedule which, on the assumption that other costs are unchanged . . . gives us the demand schedule for labour in the industry relating the quantity of employment to different levels of wages . . . This conception is then transferred . . . to industry as a whole; and it is supposed, by a parity of reasoning, that we have a demand schedule for labour in industry as a whole relating the quantity of employment to different levels of wages. It is held that it makes no material difference to this argument whether it is in terms of money-wages or of real wages. If we are thinking of real wages, we must, of course, correct for changes in the value of money; but this leaves the general tendency of the argument unchanged, since prices certainly do not change in exact proportion to changes in money wages.

If this is the groundwork of the argument . . ., surely it is fallacious. For the demand schedules for particular industries can only be constructed on some fixed assumption as to the nature of the demand and supply schedules of other industries and as to the amount of aggregate effective demand. It is invalid, therefore, to transfer the argument to industry as a whole unless we also transfer our assumption that the aggregate effective demand is fixed. Yet this assumption amount to an ignoratio elenchi. For whilst no one would wish to deny the proposition that a reduction in money-wages accompanied by the same aggregate demand as before will be associated with an increase in employment, the precise question at issue is whether the reduction in money wages will or will not be accompanied by the same aggregate effective demand as before measured in money, or, at any rate, measured by an aggregate effective demand which is not reduced in full proportion to the reduction in money-wages. . . But if the classical theory is not allowed to extend by analogy its conclusions in respect of a particular industry to industry as a whole, it is wholly unable to answer the question what effect on employment a reduction in money-wages will have. For it has no method of analysis wherewith to tackle the problem. (General Theory, pp. 257-60)

Keynes’s criticism here is entirely correct. But I would restate slightly differently. Standard microeconomic reasoning about preferences, demand, cost and supply is partial-equilbriium analysis. The focus is on how equilibrium in a single market is achieved by the adjustment of the price in a single market to equate the amount demanded in that market with amount supplied in that market.

Supply and demand is a wonderful analytical tool that can illuminate and clarify many economic problems, providing the key to important empirical insights and knowledge. But supply-demand analysis explicitly – but too often without realizing its limiting implications – assumes that other prices and incomes in other markets are held constant. That assumption essentially means that the market – i.e., the demand, cost and supply curves used to represent the behavioral characteristics of the market being analyzed – is small relative to the rest of the economy, so that changes in that single market can be assumed to have a de minimus effect on the equilibrium of all other markets. (The conditions under which such an assumption could be justified are themselves not unproblematic, but I am now assuming that those problems can in fact be assumed away at least in many applications. And a good empirical economist will have a good instinctual sense for when it’s OK to make the assumption and when it’s not OK to make the assumption.)

So, the underlying assumption of microeconomics is that the individual markets under analysis are very small relative to the whole economy. Why? Because if those markets are not small, we can’t assume that the demand curves, cost curves, and supply curves end up where they started. Because a high price in one market may have effects on other markets and those effects will have further repercussions that move the very demand, cost and supply curves that were drawn to represent the market of interest. If the curves themselves are unstable, the ability to predict the final outcome is greatly impaired if not completely compromised.

The working assumption of the bread and butter partial-equilibrium analysis that constitutes econ 101 is that markets have closed borders. And that assumption is not always valid. If markets have open borders so that there is a lot of spillover between and across markets, the markets can only be analyzed in terms of broader systems of simultaneous equations, not the simplified solutions that we like to draw in two-dimensional space corresponding to intersections of stable supply curves with stable supply curves.

What Keynes was saying is that it makes no sense to draw a curve representing the demand of an entire economy for labor or a curve representing the supply of labor of an entire economy, because the underlying assumption of such curves that all other prices are constant cannot possibly be satisfied when you are drawing a demand curve and a supply curve for an input that generates more than half the income earned in an economy.

But the problem is even deeper than just the inability to draw a curve that meaningfully represents the demand of an entire economy for labor. The assumption that you can model a transition from one point on the curve to another point on the curve is simply untenable, because not only is the assumption that other variables are being held constant untenable and self-contradictory, the underlying assumption that you are starting from an equilibrium state is never satisfied when you are trying to analyze a situation of unemployment – at least if you have enough sense not to assume that economy is starting from, and is not always in, a state of general equilibrium.

So, Keynes was certainly correct to reject the naïve transfer of partial equilibrium theorizing from its legitimate field of applicability in analyzing the effects of small parameter changes on outcomes in individual markets – what later came to be known as comparative statics – to macroeconomic theorizing about economy-wide disturbances in which the assumptions underlying the comparative-statics analysis used in microeconomics are clearly not satisfied. That illegitimate transfer of one kind of theorizing to another has come to be known as the demand for microfoundations in macroeconomic models that is the foundational methodological principle of modern macroeconomics.

The principle, as I have been arguing for some time, is illegitimate for a variety of reasons. And one of those reasons is that microeconomics itself is based on the macroeconomic foundational assumption of a pre-existing general equilibrium, in which all plans in the entire economy are, and will remain, perfectly coordinated throughout the analysis of a particular parameter change in a single market. Once you relax the assumption that all, but one, markets are in equilibrium, the discipline imposed by the assumption of the rationality of general equilibrium and comparative statics is shattered, and a different kind of theorizing must be adopted to replace it.

The search for that different kind of theorizing is the challenge that has always faced macroeconomics. Despite heroic attempts to avoid facing that challenge and pretend that macroeconomics can be built as if it were microeconomics, the search for a different kind of theorizing will continue; it must continue. But it would certainly help if more smart and creative people would join in that search.

Only Idiots Think that Judges Are Umpires and Only Cads Say that They Think So

It now seems besides the point, but I want to go back and consider something Judge Kavanaugh said in his initial testimony three weeks ago before the Senate Judiciary Committee, now largely, and deservedly, forgotten.

In his earlier testimony, Judge Kavanaugh made the following ludicrous statement, echoing a similar statement by (God help us) Chief Justice Roberts at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

A good judge must be an umpire, a neutral and impartial arbiter who favors no litigant or policy. As Justice Kennedy explained in Texas versus Johnson, one of his greatest opinions, judges do not make decisions to reach a preferred result. Judges make decisions because “the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result.”

I don’t decide cases based on personal or policy preferences.

Kavanaugh’s former law professor Akhil Amar offered an embarrassingly feeble defense of Kavanaugh’s laughable comparison, in a touching gesture of loyalty to a former student, to put the most generous possible gloss on his deeply inappropriate defense of an indefensible trivialization of what judging is all about.

According to the Chief Justice and to Judge Kavanaugh, judges, like umpires, are there to call balls and strikes. An umpire calls balls and strikes with no concern for the consequences of calling a ball or a strike on the outcome of the game. Think about it: do judges reach decisions about cases, make their rulings, write their opinions, with no concern for the consequences of their decisions?

Umpires make their calls based on split-second responses to their visual perceptions of what happens in front of their eyes, with no reflection on what implications their decisions have for anyone else, or the expectations held by the players whom they are watching. Think about it: would you want a judge to decide a case without considering the effects of his decision on the litigants and on the society at large?

Umpires make their decisions without hearing arguments from the players before rendering their decisions. Players, coaches, managers, or their spokesmen do not submit written briefs, or make oral arguments, to umpires in an effort to explain to umpires why justice requires that a decision be rendered in their favor. Umpires don’t study briefs or do research on decisions rendered by earlier umpires in previous contests. Think about it: would you want a judge to decide a case within the time that an umpire takes to call balls and strikes and do so with no input from the litigants?

Umpires never write opinions in which they explain (or at least try to explain) why their decisions are right and just after having taken into account on all the arguments advanced by the opposing sides and any other relevant considerations that might properly be taken into account in reaching a decision. Think about it: would you want a judge to decide a case without having to write an opinion explaining why his or her decision is the right and just one?

Umpires call balls on strikes instinctively, unreflectively, and without hesitation. But to judge means to think, to reflect, to consider both (or all) sides, to consider the consequences of the decision for the litigants and for society, and for future judges in future cases who will be guided by the decision being rendered in the case at hand. Judging — especially appellate judging — is a deeply intellectual and reflective vocation requiring knowledge, erudition, insight, wisdom, temperament, and, quite often, empathy and creativity.

To reduce this venerable vocation to the mere calling of balls and strikes is deeply dishonorable, and, coming from a judge who presumes to be worthy of sitting on the highest court in the land, supremely offensive.

What could possibly possess a judge — and a judge, presumably neither an idiot nor insufficiently self-aware to understand what he is actually doing — to engage in such obvious sophistry? The answer, I think, is that it has come to be in the obvious political and ideological self-interest of many lawyers and judges, to deliberately adopt a pretense that judging is — or should be — a mechanical activity that can be reduced to simply looking up and following already existing rules that have already been written down somewhere, and that to apply those rules requires nothing more than knowing how to read them properly. That idea can be summed up in two eight-letter words, one of which is nonsense, and those who knowingly propagate it are just, well, dare I say it, deplorable.

My Paper “The Fisher Effect and the Financial Crisis of 2008” Is Now Available

Back in 2009 or 2010, I became intrigued by what seemed to me to be a consistent correlation between the tendency of the stock market to rise on news of monetary easing and potentially inflationary news. I suspected that there might be such a correlation because of my work on the Great Depression inspired by Earl Thompson, from whom I first learned about a monetary theory of the Great Depression very different from Friedman’s monetary theory expounded in his Monetary History of the United States. Thompson’s theory focused on disturbances in the gold market associated with the demonetization of gold during World War I and the attempt to restore the gold standard in the 1920s, which, by increasing the world demand for gold, was the direct cause of the deflation that led to the Great Depression.

I later came to discover that Ralph Hawtrey had already propounded Thompson’s theory in the 1920s almost a decade before the Great Depression started, and my friend and fellow student of Thompson, Ron Batchelder made a similar discovery about Gustave Cassel. Our shared recognition that Thompson’s seemingly original theory of the Great Depression had been anticipated by Hawtrey and Cassel led us to collaborate on our paper about Hawtrey and Cassel. As I began to see parallels between the financial fragility of the 1920s and the financial fragility that followed the housing bubble, I began to suspect that deflationary tendencies were also critical to the financial crisis of 2008.

So I began following daily fluctuations in the principal market estimate of expected inflation: the breakeven TIPS spread. I pretty quickly became persuaded that the correlation was powerful and meaningful, and I then collected data about TIPS spreads from 2003, when the Treasury began offering TIPS securities, to see if the correlation between expected inflation and asset prices had been present 2003 or was a more recent phenomenon.

My hunch was that the correlation would not be observed under normal macroeconomic conditions, because it is only when the expected yield from holding money approaches or exceeds the yield from holding real assets that an increase in expected inflation, by reducing the expected yield from holding money, would induce people to switch from holding money to holding assets, thereby driving up the value of assets.

And that’s what the data showed; the correlation between expected inflation and asset prices only emerged after in 2008 in the period after a recession started at the end of 2007, even before the start of the financial crisis exactly 10 years in September 2008. When I wrote up the paper and posted it (“The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations“), Scott Sumner, who had encouraged me to write up the results after I told him about my results, wrote a blogpost about the paper. Paul Krugman picked up on Scott’s post and wrote about it on his blog, generating a lot of interest in the paper.

Although I was confident that the data showed a strong correlation between inflation and stock prices after 2008, I was less confident that I had done the econometrics right, so I didn’t try to publish the original 2011 version of the paper. With Scott’s encouragement, I have continued to collected more data as time passed, confirming that the correlation remained even after the start of a recovery while short-term interest rates remained at or near the zero lower bound. The Mercatus Center whose Program on Monetary Policy is directed by Scott has just released the new version of the paper as a Working Paper. The paper can also be downloaded from SSRN.

Aside from longer time span covered, the new version of the paper has refined and extended the theoretical account for when and why a correlation between expected inflation and asset prices is likely be observed and when and why it is unlikely to be observed. I have also done some additional econometric testing beyond the basic ordinary least square (OLS) regression estimates originally presented, and explained why I think it is unlikely that more sophisticated econometric techniques such as an error-correction model would generate more reliable results than those generated by simple OLS regrissions. Perhaps in further work, I will attempt to actually construct an explicit error-correction model and compare the results using OLS and an error-correction model.

Here is the abstract of the new version of the paper.

This paper uses the Fisher equation relating the nominal interest rate to the real interest rate and
expected inflation to provide a deeper explanation of the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recovery than attributing it to the bursting of the housing-price bubble. The paper interprets the Fisher equation as an equilibrium condition in which expected returns from holding real assets and cash are equalized. When inflation expectations decline, the return to holding cash rises relative to holding real assets. If nominal interest rates are above the zero lower bound, equilibrium is easily restored by adjustments in nominal interest rates and asset prices. But at the zero lower bound, nominal interest rates cannot fall, forcing the entire adjustment onto falling asset prices, thereby raising the expected real return from holding assets. Such an adjustment seems to have triggered the financial crisis of 2008, when the Federal Reserve delayed reducing nominal interest rates out of a misplaced fear of inflation in the summer of 2008 when the economy was already contracting rapidly. Using stock market price data and inflation-adjusted US Treasury securities data, the paper finds that, unlike the 2003–2007 period, when stock prices were uncorrelated with expected inflation, from 2008 through at least 2016, stock prices have been consistently and positively correlated with expected inflation.

Why Judge Kavanaugh Shamefully Refused to Reject Chae Chan Ping v. United States (AKA Chinese Exclusion Case) as Precedent

Senator Kamala Harris asked Judge Kavanaugh if he considered the infamous Supreme Court decision in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (AKA Chinese Exclusion Case) as a valid precedent. Judge Kavanaugh disgraced himself by refusing to say that the case was in error from the moment it was rendered, no less, if not even more so, than was Plessy v. Ferguson overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

The question is why would he not want to distance himself from a racist abomination of a decision that remains a stain on the Supreme Court to this day? After all, Judge Kavanaugh, in his fastidiousness, kept explaining to Senators that he wouldn’t want to get within three zipcodes of a political controversy. But, although obviously uncomfortable in his refusal to do so, he could not bring himself to say that Chae Chan Ping belongs in the garbage can along with Dred Scott and Plessy.

Here’s the reason. Chae Chan Ping is still an important precedent that has been and continues to be relied on by the government and the Supreme Court to uphold the power of President to keep out foreigners whenever he wants to.

In a post in March 2017, I quoted from Justice Marshall’s magnificent dissent in Kleindienst v. Mandel, a horrible decision in which the Court upheld the exclusion of a Marxist scholar from the United States based on, among other precedents, the execrable Chae Chan Ping decision. Here is a brief excerpt from Justice Marshall’s opinion, which I discuss at greater length in my 2017 post.

The heart of appellants’ position in this case . . . is that the Government’s power is distinctively broad and unreviewable because “the regulation in question is directed at the admission of aliens.” Brief for Appellants 33. Thus, in the appellants’ view, this case is no different from a long line of cases holding that the power to exclude aliens is left exclusively to the “political” branches of Government, Congress, and the Executive.

These cases are not the strongest precedents in the United States Reports, and the majority’s baroque approach reveals its reluctance to rely on them completely. They include such milestones as The Chinese Exclusion Case, 130 U.S. 581 (1889), and Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893), in which this Court upheld the Government’s power to exclude and expel Chinese aliens from our midst.

Kleindienst has become the main modern precedent affirming the nearly unchecked power of the government to arbitrarily exclude foreigners from entering the United States on whatever whim the government chooses to act upon, so long as it can come up with an excuse, however pretextual, that the exclusion has a national security rationale.

And because Judge Kavanaugh will be a solid vote in favor of affirming the kind of monumentally dishonest decision made by Justice Roberts in the Muslim Travel Ban case, he can’t disavow Chae Chan Ping without undermining Kleindienst which, in turn, would undermine the Muslim Travel Ban. 

Aside from being a great coach of his daughter’s basketball team, and superb carpool driver, I’m sure Judge Kavanaugh appreciates and understands how I feel.

Whatta guy.

Hu McCulloch Figures out (More or Less) the Great Depression

Last week Houston McCulloch, one of the leading monetary economists of my generation, posted an  insightful and thoughtful discussion of the causes of the Great Depression with which I largely, though not entirely, agree. Although Scott Sumner has already commented on Hu’s discussion, I also wanted to weigh in with some of my comments. Here is how McCulloch sets up his discussion.

Understanding what caused the Great Depression of 1929-39 and why it persisted so long has been fairly characterized by Ben Bernanke as the “Holy Grail of Macroeconomics.” The fear that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to a similar Depression induced the Fed to use its emergency powers to bail out failing firms and to more than quadruple the monetary base, while Congress authorized additional bailouts and doubled the national debt. Could the Great Recession have taken a similar turn had these extreme measures not been taken?

Economists have often blamed the Depression on U.S. monetary policy or financial institutions.  Friedman and Schwartz (1963) famously argued that a spontaneous wave of runs against fragile fractional reserve banks led to a rise in the currency/deposit ratio. The Fed failed to offset the resulting fall in the money multiplier with base expansion, leading to a disastrous 24% deflation from 1929 to 1933. Through the short-run Phillips curve effect (Friedman 1968), this in turn led to a surge in unemployment to 22.5% by 1932.

The Debt-Deflation theory of Irving Fisher, and later Ben Bernanke (1995), takes the deflation as given, and blames the severity of the disruption on the massive bankruptcies that were caused by the increased burden of nominal indebtedness.  Murray Rothbard (1963) uses the “Austrian” business cycle theory of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek to blame the downturn on excessive domestic credit expansion by the Fed during the 1920s that disturbed the intertemporal structure of production (cf. McCulloch 2014).

My own view, after pondering the problem for many decades, is that indeed the Depression was monetary in origin, but that the ultimate blame lies not with U.S. domestic monetary and financial policy during the 1920s and 30s. Rather, the massive deflation was an inevitable consequence of Europe’s departure from the gold standard during World War I —  and its bungled and abrupt attempt to return to gold in the late 1920s.

I agree with every word of this introductory passage, so let’s continue.

In brief, the departure of the European belligerents from gold in 1914 massively reduced the global demand for gold, leading to the inflation of prices in terms of gold — and, therefore, in terms of currencies like the U.S. dollar which were convertible to gold at a fixed parity. After the war, Europe initially postponed its return to gold, leading to a plateau of high prices during the 1920s that came to be perceived as the new normal. In the late 1920s, there was a scramble to return to the pre-war gold standard, with the inevitable consequence that commodity prices — in terms of gold, and therefore in terms of the dollar — had to return to something approaching their 1914 level.

The deflation was thus inevitable, but was made much more harmful by its postponement and then abruptness. In retrospect, the UK could have returned to its pre-war parity with far less pain by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base until the price level gradually fell to its pre-war level. France should not have over-devalued the franc, and then should have monetized its gold influx rather than acting as a global gold sink. Gold reserve ratios were unnecessarily high, especially in France.

Here is where I start to quibble a bit with Hu, mainly about the importance of Britain’s 1925 resumption of convertibility at the prewar parity with the dollar. Largely owing to Keynes’s essay “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill,” in which Keynes berated Churchill for agreeing to the demands of the City and to the advice of the British Treasury advisers (including Ralph Hawtrey), on whom he relied despite Keynes’s attempt to convince him otherwise, to quickly resume gold convertibility at the prewar dollar parity, warning of the devastating effects of the subsequent deflation on British industry and employment, much greater significance has been attributed to the resumption of convertibility than it actually had on the subsequent course of events. Keynes’s analysis of the deflationary effect of the resumption was largely correct, but the effect turned out to be milder than he anticipated. Britain had already undergone a severe deflation in the early 1920s largely as a result of the American deflation. Thus by 1925, Britain had already undergone nearly 5 years of continuous deflation that brought the foreign exchange value of sterling to within 10 percent of the prewar dollar parity. The remaining deflation required to enable sterling to appreciate another 10 percent was not trivial, but by 1925 most of the deflationary pain had already been absorbed. Britain was able to sustain further mild deflation for the next four years till mid-1929 even as the British economy grew and unemployment declined gradually. The myth that Britain was mired in a continuous depression after the resumption of convertibility in 1925 has no basis in the evidence. Certainly, a faster recovery would have been desirable, and Hawtrey consistently criticized the Bank of England for keeping Bank Rate at 5% even with deflation in the 1-2% range.

The US Federal Reserve was somewhat accommodative in the 1925-28 period, but could have easily been even more accommodative. As McCulloch correctly notes it was really France, which undervalued the franc when it restored convertibility in 1928, and began accumulating gold in record quantities that became the primary destabilizing force in the world economy. Britain was largely an innocent bystander.

However, given that the U.S. had a fixed exchange rate relative to gold and no control over Europe’s misguided policies, it was stuck with importing the global gold deflation — regardless of its own domestic monetary policies. The debt/deflation problem undoubtedly aggravated the Depression and led to bank failures, which in turn increased the currency/deposit ratio and compounded the situation. However, a substantial portion of the fall in the U.S. nominal money stock was to be expected as a result of the inevitable deflation — and therefore was the product, rather than the primary cause, of the deflation. The anti-competitive policies of the Hoover years and FDR’s New Deal (Rothbard 1963, Ohanian 2009) surely aggravated and prolonged the Depression, but were not the ultimate cause.

Actually, the Fed, holding 40% of the world’s gold reserves in 1929, could have eased pressure on the world gold market by allowing an efflux of gold to accommodate the French demand for gold. However, instead of taking an accommodative stance, the Fed, seized by dread of stock-market speculation, kept increasing short-term interest rates, thereby attracting gold into the United States instead of allowing gold to flow out, increasing pressure on the world gold market and triggering the latent deflationary forces that until mid-1929 had been kept at bay. Anti-competitive policies under Hoover and under FDR were certainly not helpful, but those policies, as McCulloch recognizes, did not cause the collapse of output between 1929 and 1933.

Contemporary economists Ralph Hawtrey, Charles Rist, and Gustav Cassel warned throughout the 1920s that substantial deflation, in terms of gold and therefore the dollar, would be required to sustain a return to anything like the 1914 gold standard.[1]  In 1928, Cassel actually predicted that a global depression was imminent:

The post-War superfluity of gold is, however, of an entirely temporary character, and the great problem is how to meet the growing scarcity of gold which threatens the world both from increased demand and from diminished supply. We must solve this problem by a systematic restriction of the monetary demand for gold. Only if we succeed in doing this can we hope to prevent a permanent fall in the general price level and a prolonged and world-wide depression which would inevitably be connected with such a fall in prices [as quoted by Johnson (1997, p. 55)].

As early as 1919 both Hawtrey and Cassel had warned that a global depression would follow an attempt to restore the gold standard as it existed before World War I. To avoid such a deflation it was necessary to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. Hawtrey and Cassel therefore proposed shifting to a gold exchange standard in which gold coinage would not be restored and central banks would hold non-gold foreign exchange reserves rather than gold bullion. The 1922 Genoa Resolutions were largely inspired by the analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel, and those resolutions were largely complied with until France began its insane gold accumulation policy in 1928 just as the Fed began tightening monetary policy to suppress stock-market speculation, thereby triggering, more or less inadvertently, an almost equally massive inflow of gold into the US. (On Hawtrey and Cassel, see my paper with Ron Batchelder.)

McCulloch has a very interesting discussion of the role of the gold standard as a tool of war finance, which reminds me of Earl Thompson’s take on the gold standard, (“Gold Standard: Causes and Consequences”) that Earl contributed to a volume I edited, Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia. To keep this post from growing inordinately long, and because it’s somewhat tangential to McCulloch’s larger theme, I won’t comment on that part of McCulloch’s discussion.

The Gold Exchange Standard

After the war, in order to stay on gold at $20.67 an ounce, with Europe off gold, the U.S. had to undo its post-1917 inflation. The Fed achieved this by raising the discount rate on War Bonds, beginning in late 1919, inducing banks to repay their corresponding loans. The result was a sharp 16% fall in the price level from 1920 to 1922. Unemployment rose from 3.0% in 1919 to 8.7% in 1921. However, nominal wages fell quickly, and unemployment was back to 4.8% by 1923, where it remained until 1929.[3]

The 1920-22 deflation thus brought the U.S. price level into equilibrium, but only in a world with Europe still off gold. Restoring the full 1914 gold standard would have required going back to approximately the 1914 value of gold in terms of commodities, and therefore the 1914 U.S. price level, after perhaps extrapolating for a continuation of the 1900-1914 “gold inflation.”

This is basically right except that I don’t think it makes sense to refer to the US price level as being in equilibrium in 1922. Holding 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves, the US was in a position to determine the value of gold at whatever level it wanted. To call the particular level at which the US decided to stabilize the value of gold in 1922 an equilibrium is not based on any clear definition of equilibrium that I can identify.

However, the European countries did not seriously try to get back on gold until the second half of the 1920s. The Genoa Conference of 1922 recognized that prices were too high for a full gold standard, but instead tried to put off the necessary deflation with an unrealistic “Gold Exchange Standard.” Under that system, only the “gold center” countries, the U.S. and UK, would hold actual gold reserves, while other central banks would be encouraged to hold dollar or sterling reserves, which in turn would only be fractionally backed by gold. The Gold Exchange Standard sounded good on paper, but unrealistically assumed that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London.

There is an argument to be made that the Genoa Resolutions were unrealistic in the sense that they assumed that countries going back on the gold standard would be willing to forego the holding of gold reserves to a greater extent than they were willing to. But to a large extent, this was the result of systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked before World War I and how the system could work after World War I, not of any inherent or necessary properties of the gold standard itself. Nor was the assumption that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London all that unrealistic when considered in the light of how readily, before World War I, the rest of the world kowtowed to the financial supremacy of London.

In 1926, under Raymond Poincaré, France stabilized the franc after a 5:1 devaluation. However, it overdid the devaluation, leaving the franc undervalued by about 25%, according to The Economist (Johnson 1997, p. 131). Normally, under the specie flow mechanism, this would have led to a rapid accumulation of international reserves accompanied by monetary expansion and inflation, until the price level caught up with purchasing power parity. But instead, the Banque de France sterilized the reserve influx by reducing its holdings of government and commercial credit, so that inflation did not automatically stop the reserve inflow. Furthermore, it often cashed dollar and sterling reserves for gold, again contrary to the Gold Exchange Standard.  The Banking Law of 1928 made the new exchange rate, as well as the gold-only policy, official. By 1932, French gold reserves were 80% of currency and sight deposits (Irwin 2012), and France had acquired 28.4% of world gold reserves — even though it accounted for only 6.6% of world manufacturing output (Johnson 1997, p. 194). This “French Gold Sink” created even more deflationary pressure on gold, and therefore dollar prices, than would otherwise have been expected.

Here McCulloch is unintentionally displaying some of the systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked that I referred to above. McCulloch is correct that the franc was substantially undervalued when France restored convertibility in 1928. But under the gold standard, the French price level would automatically adjust to the world price level regardless of what happened to the French money supply. However, the Bank of France, partly because it was cashing in the rapidly accumulating foreign exchange reserves for gold as French exports were rising and its imports falling given the low internal French price level, and partly because it was legally barred from increasing the supply of banknotes by open-market operations, was accumulating gold both actively and passively. With no mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes in France, a balance of payment of surplus was the only mechanism by which an excess demand for money could be accommodated. It was not an inflow of gold that was being sterilized (sterilization being a misnomer reflecting a confusion about the direction of causality) it was the lack of any domestic mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes that caused an inflow of gold. Importing gold was the only means by which an excess domestic demand for banknotes could be satisfied.

The Second Post-War Deflation

By 1931, French gold withdrawals forced Germany to adopt exchange controls, and Britain to give up convertibility altogether. However, these countries did not then disgorge their remaining gold, but held onto it in the hopes of one day restoring free convertibility. Meanwhile, after having been burned by the Bank of England’s suspension, the “Gold Bloc” countries — Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland — also began amassing gold reserves in earnest, raising their share of world gold reserves from 4.2% in June 1930 to 11.1% two years later (Johnson 1997, p. 194). Despite the dollar’s relatively strong position, the Fed also contributed to the problem by raising its gold coverage ratio to over 75% by 1930, well in excess of the 40% required by law (Irwin 2012, Fig. 5).

The result was a second post-war deflation as the value of gold, and therefore of the dollar, in terms of commodities, abruptly caught up with the greatly increased global demand for gold. The U.S. price level fell 24.0% between 1929 and 1933, with deflation averaging 6.6% per year for 4 years in a row. Unemployment shot up to 22.5% by 1932.

By 1933, the U.S. price level was still well above its 1914 level. However, if the “gold inflation” of 1900-1914 is extrapolated to 1933, as in Figure 3, the trend comes out to almost the 1933 price level. It therefore appears that the U.S. price level, if not its unemployment rate, was finally near its equilibrium under a global gold standard with the dollar at $20.67 per ounce, and that further deflation was probably unnecessary.[4]

Once again McCulloch posits an equilibrium price level under a global gold standard. The mistake is in assuming that there is a fixed monetary demand for gold, which is an assumption completely without foundation. The monetary demand for gold is not fixed. The greater the monetary demand for gold the higher the equilibrium real value of gold and the lower the price level in terms of gold. The equilibrium price level is a function of the monetary demand for gold.

The 1929-33 deflation was much more destructive than the 1920-22 deflation, in large part because it followed a 7-year “plateau” of relatively stable prices that lulled the credit and labor markets into thinking that the higher price level was the new norm — and that gave borrowers time to accumulate substantial nominal debt. In 1919-1920, on the other hand, the newly elevated price level seemed abnormally high and likely to come back down in the near future, as it had after 1812 and 1865.

This is correct, and I fully agree.

How It Could Have been Different

In retrospect, the UK could have successfully gotten itself back on gold with far less disruption simply by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base at its war-end level, and then letting the economy grow into the money supply with a gradual deflation. This might have taken 14 years, as in the U.S. between 1865-79, or even longer, but it would have been superior to the economic, social, and political turmoil that the UK experienced. After the pound rose to its pre-war parity of $4.86, the BOE could have begun gradually buying gold reserves with new liabilities and even redeeming those liabilities on demand for gold, subject to reserve availability. Once reserves reached say 20% of its liabilities, it could have started to extend domestic credit to the government and the private sector through the banks, while still maintaining convertibility. Gold coins could even have been circulated, as demanded.

Again, I reiterate that, although the UK resumption was more painful for Britain than it need have been, the resumption had little destabilizing effect on the international economy. The UK did not have a destabilizing effect on the world economy until the September 1931 crisis that caused Britain to leave the gold standard.

If the UK and other countries had all simply devalued in proportion to their domestic price levels at the end of the war, they could have returned to gold quicker, and with less deflation. However, given that a country’s real demand for money — and therefore its demand for real gold reserves — depends only on the real size of the economy and its net gold reserve ratio, such policies would not have reduced the ultimate global demand for gold or lessened the postwar deflation in countries that remained on gold at a fixed parity.

This is an important point. Devaluation was a way of avoiding an overvalued currency and the relative deflation that a single country needed to undergo. But the main problem facing the world in restoring the gold standard was not the relative deflation of countries with overvalued currencies but the absolute deflation associated with an increased world demand for gold across all countries. Indeed, it was France, the country that did devalue that was the greatest source of increased demand for gold owing to its internal monetary policies based on a perverse gold standard ideology.

In fact, the problem was not that gold was “undervalued” (as Johnson puts it) or that there was a “shortage” of gold (as per Cassel and others), but that the price level in terms of gold, and therefore dollars, was simply unsustainably high given Europe’s determination to return to gold. In any event, it was inconceivable that the U.S. would have devalued in 1922, since it had plenty of gold, had already corrected its price level to the world situation with the 1920-22 deflation, and did not have the excuse of a banking crisis as in 1933.

I think that this is totally right. It was not the undervaluation of individual currencies that was the problem, it was the increase in the demand for gold associated with the simultaneous return of many countries to the gold standard. It is also a mistake to confuse Cassel’s discussion of gold shortage, which he viewed as a long-term problem, with the increase in gold demand associated with returning to the gold standard which was the cause of sudden deflation starting in 1929 as a result of the huge increase in gold demand by the Bank of France, a phenomenon that McCulloch mentions early on in his discussion but does not refer to again.

Hayek v. Rawls on Social Justice: Correcting the False Narrative

Matt Yglesias, citing an article (“John Rawls, Socialist?“) by Ed Quish in the Jacobin arguing that Rawls, in his later years, drifted from his welfare-state liberalism to democratic socialism, tweeted a little while ago

I’m an admirer of, but no expert on, Rawls, so I won’t weigh in on where to pigeon-hole Rawls on the ideological spectrum. In general, I think such pigeon-holing is as likely to mislead as to clarify because it tends to obscure the individuality of the individual or thinker being pigeon-hold. Rawls was above all a Rawlsian and to reduce his complex and nuanced philosophy to simple catch-phrase like “socialism” or even “welfare-state liberalism” cannot possibly do his rich philosophical contributions justice (no pun intended).

A good way to illustrate both the complexity of Rawls’s philosophy and that of someone like F. A. Hayek, often regarded as standing on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from Rawls, is to quote from two passages of volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty. Hayek entitled this volume The Mirage of Social Justice, and the main thesis of that volume is that the term “justice” is meaningful only in the context of the foreseen or foreseable consequences of deliberate decisions taken by responsible individual agents. Social justice, because it refers to the outcomes of complex social processes that no one is deliberately aiming at, is not a meaningful concept.

Because Rawls argued in favor of the difference principle, which says that unequal outcomes are only justifiable insofar as they promote the absolute (though not the relative) well-being of the least well-off individuals in society, most libertarians, including famously Robert Nozick whose book Anarchy, State and Utopia was a kind of rejoinder to Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, viewed Rawls as an ideological opponent.

Hayek, however, had a very different take on Rawls. At the end of his preface to volume 2, explaining why he had not discussed various recent philosophical contributions on the subject of social justice, Hayek wrote:

[A]fter careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that what I might have to say about John Rawls’ A theory of Justice would not assist in the pursuit of my immediate object because the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial. Though the first impression of readers may be different, Rawls’ statement which I quote later in this volume (p. 100) seems to me to show that we agree on what is to me the essential point. Indeed, as I indicate in a note to that passage, it appears to me that Rawls has been widely misunderstood on this central issue. (pp. xii-xiii)

Here is what Hayek says about Rawls in the cited passage.

Before leaving this subject I want to point out once more that the recognition that in such combinations as “social”, “economic”, “distributive”, or “retributive” justice the term “justice” is wholly empty should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Not only as the basis of the legal rules of just conduct is the justice which the courts of justice administer exceedingly important; there unquestionably also exists a genuine problem of justice in connection with the deliberate design of political institutions the problem to which Professor John Rawls has recently devoted an important book. The fact which I regret and regard as confusing is merely that in this connection he employs the term “social justice”. But I have no basic quarrel with an author who, before he proceeds to that problem, acknowledges that the task of selecting specific systems or distributions of desired things as just must be abandoned as mistaken in principle and it is, in any case, not capable of a definite answer. Rather, the principles of justice define the crucial constraints which institutions and joint activities must satisfy if persons engaging in them are to have no complaints against them. If these constraints are satisfied, the resulting distribution, whatever it is, may be accepted as just (or at least not unjust).” This is more or less what I have been trying to argue in this chapter.

In the footnote at the end of the quotation, Hayek cites the source from which he takes the quotation and then continues:

John Rawls, “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice,” Nomos IV, Justice (New York, 1963), p. 102. where the passage quoted is preceded by the statement that “It is the system of institutions which has to be judged and judged from a general point of view.” I am not aware that Professor Rawls’ later more widely read work A Theory of Justice contains a comparatively clear statement of the main point, which may explain why this work seems often, but as it  appears to me wrongly, to have been interpreted as lending support to socialist demands, e.g., by Daniel Bell, “On Meritocracy and Equality”, Public Interest, Autumn 1972, p. 72, who describes Rawls’ theory as “the most comprehensive effort in modern philosophy to justify a socialist ethic.”

Henry Manne and the Dubious Case for Insider Trading

In a recent tweet, my old friend Alan Reynolds plugged a 2003 op-ed article (“The Case for Insider Training”) by Henry Manne railing against legal prohibitions against insider trading. Reynolds’s tweet followed his earlier tweet railing against the indictment of Rep. Chris Collins for engaging in insider trading after learning that the small pharmaceutical company (Innate Pharmaceuticals) of which he was the largest shareholder transmitted news that a key clinical trial of a drug the company was developing had failed, making a substantial decline in the value of the company’s stock inevitable once news of the failed trial became public. Collins informed his own son of the results of the trial, and his son then shared that information with the son’s father-in-law and other friends and acquaintances, who all sold their stock in the firm, causing the company’s stock price to fall by 92%.

Reynolds thinks that what Collins did was just fine, and invokes Manne as an authority to support his position. Here is how Manne articulated the case against insider trading in his op-ed piece, which summarizes a longer 2005 article (“Insider Trading: Hayek, Virtual Markets and the Dog that Did not Bark”) published in The Journal of Corporate Law.

Prior to 1968, insider trading was very common, well-known, and generally accepted when it was thought about at all.

A similar observation – albeit somewhat backdated — might be made about slavery and polygamy.

When the time came, the corporate world was neither able nor inclined to mount a defense of the practice, while those who demanded its regulation were strident and successful in its demonization. The business community was as hoodwinked by these frightening arguments as was the public generally.

Note the impressive philosophical detachment with which Manne recounts the historical background.

Since then, however, insider trading has been strongly, if by no means universally, defended in scholarly journals. There have been three primary economic arguments (not counting the show-stopper that the present law simply cannot be effectively enforced.) The first and generally undisputed argument is that insider trading does little or no direct harm to any individual trading in the market, even when an insider is on the other side of the trades.

The assertion that insider trading does “little or no direct harm” is patently ridiculous inasmuch as it is based on the weasel word “direct” so that the wealth transferred from less informed to better informed traders cannot result in “direct” harm to the less-informed traders, “direct harm” being understood to occur only when theft or fraud is used to effect a wealth transfer. Question-begging at its best.

The second argument in favor of allowing insider trading is that it always (fraud aside) helps move the price of a corporation’s shares to its “correct” level. Thus insider trading is one of the most important reasons why we have an “efficient” stock market. While there have been arguments about the relative weight to be attributed to insider trading and to other devices also performing this function, the basic idea that insider pushes stock prices in the right direction is largely unquestioned today.

“Efficient” (scare quotes are Manne’s) pricing of stocks and other assets certainly sounds good, but defining “efficient” pricing is not so easy. And even if one were to grant that there is a well-defined efficient price at a moment in time, it is not at all clear how to measure the social gain from an efficient price relative to an inefficient price, or, even more problematically, how to measure the social benefit from arriving at the efficient price sooner rather than later.

The third economic defense has been that it is an efficient and highly desirable form of incentive compensation, especially for corporation dependent on innovation and new developments. This argument has come to the fore recently with the spate of scandals involving stock options. These are the closes substitutes for insider trading in managerial compensation, but they suffer many disadvantages not found with insider trading. The strongest argument against insider trading as compensation is the difficulty of calibrating entitlements and rewards.

“The difficulty of calibrating entitlements and rewards” is simply a euphemism for the incentive of insiders privy to adverse information to trade on that information rather than attempt to counteract an expected decline in the value of the firm.

Critics of insider trading have responded to these arguments principally with two aggregate-harm theories, one psychological and the other economic. The first, the faraway favorite of the SEC, is the “market confidence” argument: If investors in the stock market know that insider trading is common, they will refuse to invest in such an “unfair” market.

Using scare quotes around “unfair” as if the idea that trading with asymmetric information might be unfair were illogical or preposterous, Manne stumbles into an inconsistency of his own by abandoning the very efficient market hypothesis that he otherwise steadfastly upholds. According to the efficient market hypothesis that market prices reflects all publicly available information, movements in stock prices are unpredictable on the basis of publicly available information. Thus, investors who select stocks randomly should, in the aggregate, and over time, just break even. However, traders with inside information make profits. But if it is possible to break even by picking stocks randomly, who are the insiders making their profits from? The renowned physicist Niels Bohr, who was fascinated by stock markets and anticipated the efficient market hypothesis, argued that it must be the stock market analysts from whom the profits of insiders are extracted. Whether Bohr was right that insiders extract their profits only from market analysts and not at all from traders with randomized strategies, I am not sure, but clearly Bohr’s basic intuition that profits earned by insiders are necessarily at the expense of other traders is logically unassailable.

Thus investment and liquidity will be seriously diminished. But there is no evidence that publicity about insider trading ever caused a significant reduction in aggregate stock market activity. It is merely one of many scare arguments that the SEC and others have used over the years as a substitute for sound economics.

Manne’s qualifying adjective “significant” is clearly functioning as a weasel world in this context, because the theoretical argument that an understanding that insiders may freely trade on their inside information would, on Manne’s own EMH premises, clearly imply that stock trading by non-insiders would in the aggregate, and over time, be unprofitable. So Manne resorts to a hand-waving argument about the size of the effect. The size of the effect depends on how widespread insider trading and how-well informed the public is about the extent of such trading, so he is in no position to judge its significance.

The more responsible aggregate-harm argument is the “adverse selection” theory. This argument is that specialists and other market makers, when faced with insider trading, will broaden their bid-ask spreads to cover the losses implicit in dealing with insiders. The larger spread in effect becomes a “tax” on all traders, thus impacting investment and liquidity. This is a plausible scenario, but it is of very questionable applicability and significance. Such an effect, while there is some confirming data, is certainly not large enough in aggregate to justify outlawing insider trading.

But the adverse-selection theory credited by Manne is no different in principle from the “market confidence” theory that he dismisses; they are two sides of the same coin, and are equally derived from the same premise: that the profits of insider traders must come from the pockets of non-insiders. So he has no basis in theory to dismiss either effect, and his evidence that insider trading provides any efficiency benefit is certainly no stronger than the evidence he dismisses so blithely that insider trading harms non-insiders.

In fact the relevant theoretical point was made very clearly by Jack Hirshleifer in the important article (“The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity”) about which I wrote last week on this blog. Information has social value when it leads to a reconfiguration of resources that increases the total output of society. However, the private value of information may far exceed whatever social value the information has, because privately held information that allows the better-informed to trade with the less-well informed enables the better-informed to profit at the expense of the less-well informed. Prohibiting insider trading prevents such wealth transfers, and insofar as these wealth transfers are not associated with any social benefit from improved resource allocation, an argument that such trading reduces welfare follows as night does day. Insofar as such trading does generate some social benefit, there are also the losses associated with adverse selection and reduced market confidence, so the efficiency effects, though theoretically ambiguous, are still very likely negative.

But Manne posits a different kind of efficiency effect.

No other device can approach knowledgeable trading by insiders for efficiently and accurately pricing endogenous developments in a company. Insiders, driven by self-interest and competition among themselves will trade until the correct price is reached. This will be true even when the new information involves trading on bad news. You do not need whistleblowers if you have insider trading.

Here again, Manne is assuming that efficient pricing has large social benefits, but that premise depends on the how rapidly resource allocation responds to price changes, especially changes in asset prices. The question is how long does it take for insider information to become public information? If insider information quickly becomes public, so that insiders can profit from their inside information only by trading on it before the information becomes public, the social value of speeding up the rate at which inside information is reflected in asset pricing is almost nil. But Manne implicitly assumes that the social value of the information is very high, and it is precisely that implicit assumption that would have to be demonstrated before the efficiency argument for insider trading would come close to being persuasive.

Moreover, allowing insiders to trade on bad news creates precisely the wrong incentive, effectively giving insiders the opportunity to loot a company before it goes belly up, rather than take any steps to mitigate the damage.

While I acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about whether laws against insider trading can be enforced without excessive arbitrariness, those concerns are entirely distinct from arguments that insider trading actually promotes economic efficiency.

My Paper (with Sean Sullivan) on Defining Relevant Antitrust Markets Now Available on SSRN

Antitrust aficionados may want to have a look at this new paper (“The Logic of Market Definition”) that I have co-authored with Sean Sullivan of the University of Iowa School of Law about defining relevant antitrust markets. The paper is now posted on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

Despite the voluminous commentary that the topic has attracted in recent years, much confusion still surrounds the proper definition of antitrust markets. This paper seeks to clarify market definition, partly by explaining what should not factor into the exercise. Specifically, we identify and describe three common errors in how courts and advocates approach market definition. The first error is what we call the natural market fallacy: the mistake of treating market boundaries as preexisting features of competition, rather than the purely conceptual abstractions of a particular analytical process. The second is the independent market fallacy: the failure to recognize that antitrust markets must always be defined to reflect a theory of harm, and do not exist independent of a theory of harm. The third is the single market fallacy: the tendency of courts and advocates to seek some single, best relevant market, when in reality there will typically be many relevant markets, all of which could be appropriately drawn to aid in competitive effects analysis. In the process of dispelling these common fallacies, this paper offers a clarifying framework for understanding the fundamental logic of market definition.

Hirshleifer on the Private and Social Value of Information

I have written a number posts (here here here, and here) over the past few years citing an article by one of my favorite UCLA luminaries, Jack Hirshleifer, of the fabled UCLA economics department of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Like everything Hirshleifer wrote, the article, “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity,” published in 1971 in the American Economic Review, is deeply insightful, carefully reasoned, and lucidly explained, reflecting the author’s comprehensive mastery of the whole body of neoclassical microeconomic theory.

Hirshleifer’s article grew out of a whole literature inspired by two of Hayek’s most important articles “Economics and Knowledge” in 1937 and “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in 1945. Both articles were concerned with the fact that, contrary to the assumptions in textbook treatments, economic agents don’t have complete information about all the characteristics of the goods being traded and about the prices at which those goods are available. Hayek was aiming to show that markets are characteristically capable of transmitting information held by some agents in a condensed form to make it usable by other agents. That role is performed by prices. It is prices that provide both information and incentives to economic agents to formulate and tailor their plans, and if necessary, to readjust those plans in response to changed conditions. Agents need not know what those underlying changes are; they need only observe, and act on, the price changes that result from those changes.

Hayek’s argument, though profoundly insightful, was not totally convincing in demonstrating the superiority of the pure “free market,” for three reasons.

First, economic agents base decisions, as Hayek himself was among the first to understand, not just on actual current prices, but also on expected future prices. Although traders sometimes – but usually don’t — know what the current price of something is, one can only guess – not know — what the price of that thing will be in the future. So, the work of providing the information individuals need to make good economic decisions cannot be accomplished – even in principle – just by the adjustment of prices in current markets. People also need enough information to make good guesses – form correct expectations — about future prices.

Second, economic agents don’t automatically know all prices. The assumption that every trader knows exactly what prices are before executing plans to buy and sell is true, if at all, only in highly organized markets where prices are publicly posted and traders can always buy and sell at the posted price. In most other markets, transactors must devote time and effort to find out what prices are and to find out the characteristics of the goods that they are interested in buying. It takes effort or search or advertising or some other, more or less costly, discovery method for economic agents to find out what current prices are and what characteristics those goods have. If agents aren’t fully informed even about current prices, they don’t necessarily make good decisions.

Libertarians, free marketeers, and other Hayek acolytes often like to credit Hayek with having solved or having shown how “the market” solves “the knowledge problem,” a problem that Hayek definitively showed a central-planning regime to be incapable of solving. But the solution at best is only partial, and certainly not robust, because markets never transmit all available relevant information. That’s because markets transmit only information about costs and valuations known to private individuals, but there is a lot of information about public or social valuations and costs that is not known to private individuals and rarely if ever gets fed into, or is transmitted by, the price system — valuations of public goods and the social costs of pollution for example.

Third, a lot of information is not obtained or transmitted unless it is acquired, and acquiring information is costly. Economic agents must search for relevant information about the goods and services that they are interested in obtaining and about the prices at which those goods and services are available. Moreover, agents often engage in transactions with counterparties in which one side has an information advantage over the other. When traders have an information advantage over their counterparties, the opportunity for one party to take advantage of the inferior information of the counterparty may make it impossible for the two parties to reach mutually acceptable terms, because a party who realizes that the counterparty has an information advantage may be unwilling to risk being taken advantage of. Sometimes these problems can be surmounted by creative contractual arrangements or legal interventions, but often they can’t.

To recognize the limitations of Hayek’s insight is not to minimize its importance, either in its own right or as a stimulus to further research. Important early contributions (all published between 1961 and 1970) by Stigler (“The Economics of Information”) Ozga (“Imperfect Markets through Lack of Knowledge”), Arrow (“Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention”), Demsetz (“Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint”) and Alchian (“Information Costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment”) all analyzed the problem of incomplete and limited information and the incentives for acquiring information, the institutions and market arrangements that arise to cope with limited information and the implications for economic efficiency of these limitations and incentives. They can all be traced directly or indirectly to Hayek’s early contributions. Among the important results that seem to follow from these early papers was that the inability of those discovering or creating new knowledge to appropriate the net benefits accruing from the knowledge implied that the incentive to create new knowledge is less than optimal owing to their inability to claim full property rights over new knowledge through patents or other forms of intellectual property.

Here is where Hirshleifer’s paper enters the picture. Is more information always better? It would certainly seem that more of any good is better than less. But how valuable is new information? And are the incentives to create or discover new information aligned with the value of that information? Hayek’s discussion implicitly assumed that the amount of information in existence is a given stock, at least in the aggregate. How can the information that already exists be optimally used? Markets help us make use of the information that already exists. But the problem addressed by Hirshleifer was whether the incentives to discover and create new information call forth the optimal investment of time, effort and resources to make new discoveries and create new knowledge.

Instead of focusing on the incentives to search for information about existing opportunities, Hirshleifer analyzed the incentives to learn about uncertain resource endowments and about the productivity of those resources.

This paper deals with an entirely different aspect of the economics of information. We here revert to the textbook assumption that markets are perfect and costless. The individual is always fully acquainted with the supply-demand offers of all potential traders, and an equilibrium integrating all individuals’ supply-demand offers is attained instantaneously. Individuals are unsure only about the size of their own commodity endowments and/or about the returns attainable from their own productive investments. They are subject to technological uncertainty rather than market uncertainty.

Technological uncertainty brings immediately to mind the economics of research and invention. The traditional position been that the excess of the social over the private value of new technological knowledge leads to underinvestment in inventive activity. The main reason is that information, viewed as a product, is only imperfectly appropriable by its discoverer. But this paper will show that there is a hitherto unrecognized force operating in opposite direction. What has been scarcely appreciated in the literature, if recognized at all, is the distributive aspect of access to superior information. It will be seen below how this advantage provides a motivation for the private acquisition and dissemination of technological information that is quite apart from – and may even exist in the absence – of any social usefulness of that information. (p. 561)

The key insight motivating Hirshleifer was that privately held knowledge enables someone possessing that knowledge to anticipate future price movements once the privately held information becomes public. If you can anticipate a future price movement that no one else can, you can confidently trade with others who don’t know what you know, and then wait for the profit to roll in when the less well-informed acquire the knowledge that you have. By assumption the newly obtained knowledge doesn’t affect the quantity of goods available to be traded, so acquiring new knowledge or information provides no social benefit. In a pure-exchange model, newly discovered knowledge provides no net social benefit; it only enables better-informed traders to anticipate price movements that less well-informed traders don’t see coming. Any gains from new knowledge are exactly matched by the losses suffered by those without that knowledge. Hirshleifer called the kind of knowledge that enables one to anticipate future price movements “foreknowledge,” which he distinguished from actual discovery .

The type of information represented by foreknowledge is exemplified by ability to successfully predict tomorrow’s (or next year’s) weather. Here we have a stochastic situation: with particular probabilities the future weather might be hot or cold, rainy or dry, etc. But whatever does actually occur will, in due time, be evident to all: the only aspect of information that may be of advantage is prior knowledge as to what will happen. Discovery, in contrast, is correct recognition of something that is hidden from view. Examples include the determination of the properties of materials, of physical laws, even of mathematical attributes (e.g., the millionth digit in the decimal expansion of “π”). The essential point is that in such cases nature will not automatically reveal the information; only human action can extract it. (562)

Hirshleifer’s result, though derived in the context of a pure-exchange economy, is very powerful, implying that any expenditure of resources devoted to finding out new information that enables the first possessor of the information to predict price changes and reap profits from trading is unambiguously wasteful by reducing total consumption of the community.

[T]he community as a whole obtains no benefit, under pure exchange, from either the acquisition or the dissemination (by resale or otherwise) of private foreknowledge. . . .

[T]he expenditure of real resources for the production of technological information is socially wasteful in pure exchange, as the expenditure of resources for an increase in the quantity of money by mining gold is wasteful, and for essentially the same reason. Just as a smaller quantity of money serves monetary functions as well as a larger, the price level adjusting correspondingly, so a larger amount of foreknowledge serves no social purpose under pure exchange that the smaller amount did not. (pp. 565-66)

Relaxing the assumption that there is no production does not alter the conclusion, because the kind of information that is discovered, even if it did lead to efficient production decisions that increase the output of goods whose prices rise sooner as a result of the new information than they would have otherwise. But if the foreknowledge is privately obtained, the private incentive is to use that information by trading with another, less-well-informed, trader, at a price the other trader would not agree to if he weren’t at an information disadvantage. The private incentive to use foreknowledge that might cause a change in production decisions is not to use the information to alter production decisions but to use it to trade with, and profit from, those with inferior knowledge.

[A]s under the regime of pure exchange, private foreknowledge makes possible large private profit without leading to socially useful activity. The individual would have just as much incentive as under pure exchange (even more, in fact) to expend real resources in generating socially useless private information. (p. 567)

If the foreknowledge is publicly available, there would be a change in production incentives to shift production toward more valuable products. However, the private gain if the information is kept private greatly exceeds the private value of the information if the information is public. Under some circumstances, private individuals may have an incentive to publicize their private information to cause the price increases in expectation of which they have taken speculative positions. But it is primarily the gain from foreseen price changes, not the gain from more efficient production decisions, that creates the incentive to discover foreknowledge.

The key factor underlying [these] results . . . is the distributive significance of private foreknowledge. When private information fails to lead to improved productive alignments (as must necessarily be the case in a world of pure exchange, and also in a regime of production unless there is dissemination effected in the interest of speculation or resale), it is evident that the individual’s source of gain can only be at the expense of his fellows. But even where information is disseminated and does lead to improved productive commitments, the distributive transfer gain will surely be far greater than the relatively minor productive gain the individual might reap from the redirection of his own real investment commitments. (Id.)

Moreover, better-informed individuals – indeed individuals who wrongly believe themselves to be better informed — will perceive it to be in their self-interest to expend resources to disseminate the information in the expectation that the ensuing price changes would redound to their profit. The private gain expected from disseminating information far exceeds the social benefit from the prices changes once the new information is disseminated; the social benefit from the price changes resulting from the disseminated information corresponds to an improved allocation of resources, but that improvement will be very small compared to the expected private profit from anticipating the price change and trading with those that don’t anticipate it.

Hirshleifer then turns from the value of foreknowledge to the value of discovering new information about the world or about nature that makes a contribution to total social output by causing a shift of resources to more productive uses. Inasmuch as the discovery of new information about the world reveals previously unknown productive opportunities, it might be thought that the private incentive to devote resources to the discovery of technological information about productive opportunities generates substantial social benefits. But Hirshleifer shows that here, too, because the private discovery of information about the world creates private opportunities for gain by trading based on the consequent knowledge of future price changes, the private incentive to discover technological information always exceeds the social value of the discovery.

We need only consider the more general regime of production and exchange. Given private, prior, and sure information of event A [a state of the world in which a previously unknown natural relationship has been shown to exist] the individual in a world of perfect markets would not adapt his productive decisions if he were sure the information would remain private until after the close of trading. (p. 570)

Hirshleifer is saying that the discovery of a previously unknown property of the world can lead to an increase in total social output only by causing productive resources to be reallocated, but that reallocation can occur only if and when the new information is disclosed. So if someone discovers a previously unknown property of the world, the discoverer can profit from that information by anticipating the price effect likely to result once the information is disseminated and then making a speculative transaction based on the expectation of a price change. A corollary of this argument is that individuals who think that they are better informed about the world will take speculative positions based on their beliefs, but insofar as their investments in discovering properties of the world lead them to incorrect beliefs, their investments in information gathering and discovery will not be rewarded. The net social return to information gathering and discovery is thus almost certainly negative.

The obvious way of acquiring the private information in question is, of course, by performing technological research. By a now familiar argument we can show once again that the distributive advantage of private information provides an incentive for information-generating activity that may quite possibly be in excess of the social value of the information. (Id.)

Finally, Hirshliefer turns to the implications for patent policy of his analysis of the private and social value of information.

The issues involved may be clarified by distinguishing the “technological” and “pecuniary” effects of invention. The technological effects are the improvements in production functions . . . consequent upon the new idea. The pecuniary effects are the wealth shifts due to the price revaluations that take place upon release and/or utilization of the information. The pecuniary effects are purely redistributive.

For concreteness, we can think in terms of a simple cost-reducing innovation. The technological benefit to society is, roughly, the integrated area between the old and new marginal-cost curves for the preinvention level of output plus, for any additional output, and the area between the demand curve and the new marginal-cost curve. The holder of a (perpetual) patent could ideally extract, via a perfectly discriminatory fee policy, this entire technological benefit. Equivalence between the social and private benefits of innovation would thus induce the optimal amount of private inventive activity. Presumably it is reasoning of this sort that underlies the economic case for patent protection. (p. 571)

Here Hirshleifer is uncritically restating the traditional analysis for the social benefit from new technological knowledge. But the analysis overstates the benefit, by assuming incorrectly that, with no patent protection, the discovery would never be made. If the discovery would be made without patent protection, then obviously the technological benefit to society is only the area indicated over a limited time horizon, so a perpetual patent enabling the holder of the patent to extract all additional consumer and producer surplus flowing from invention in perpetuity would overcompensate the patent holder for the invention.

Nor does Hirshleifer mention the tendency of patents to increase the costs of invention, research and development owing to the royalties subsequent inventors would have to pay existing patent holders for infringing inventions even if those inventions were, or would have been, discovered with no knowledge of the patented invention. While rewarding some inventions and inventors, patent protection penalizes or blocks subsequent inventions and inventors. Inventions are outputs, but they are also inputs. If the use of past inventions is made more costly by new inventors, it is not clear that the net result will be an increase in the rate of invention.

Moreover, the knowledge that a patented invention may block or penalize a new invention that infringes on an existing patent or a patent that issues before a new invention is introduced, may in some cases cause an overinvestment in research as inventors race to gain the sole right to an invention, in order to avoid being excluded while gaining the right to exclude others.

Hirshleifer does mention some reasons why maximally rewarding patent holders for their inventions may lead to suboptimal results, but fails to acknowledge that the conventional assessment of the social gain from new invention is substantially overstated or patents may well have a negative effect on inventive activity in fields in which patent holders have gained the right to exclude potentially infringing inventions even if the infringing inventions would have been made without the knowledge publicly disclosed by the patent holders in their patent applications.

On the other side are the recognized disadvantages of patents: the social costs of the administrative-judicial process, the possible anti-competitve impact, and restriction of output due to the marginal burden of patent fees. As a second-best kind of judgment, some degree of patent protection has seemed a reasonable compromise among the objectives sought.

Of course, that judgment about the social utility of patents is not universally accepted, and authorities from Arnold Plant, to Fritz Machlup, and most recently Michele Boldrin and David Levine have been extremely skeptical of the arguments in favor of patent protection, copyright and other forms of intellectual property.

However, Hirshleifer advances a different counter-argument against patent protection based on his distinction between the private and social gains derived from information.

But recognition of the unique position of the innovator for forecasting and consequently capturing portions of the pecuniary effects – the wealth transfers due to price revaluation – may put matters in a different light. The “ideal” case of the perfectly discriminating patent holder earning the entire technological benefit is no longer so ideal. (pp. 571-72)

Of course, as I have pointed out, the ‘“ideal” case’ never was ideal.

For the same inventor is in a position to reap speculative profits, too; counting these as well, he would clearly be overcompensated. (p. 572)


Hirshleifer goes on to recognize that the capacity to profit from speculative activity may be beyond the capacity or the ken of many inventors.

Given the inconceivably vast number of potential contingencies and the costs of establishing markets, the prospective speculator will find it costly or even impossible ot purchase neutrality from “irrelevant” risks. Eli Whitney [inventor of the cotton gin who obtained one of the first US patents for his invention in 1794] could not be sure that his gin would make cotton prices fall: while a considerable force would clearly be acting in that direction, a multitude of other contingencies might also have possibly affected the price of cotton. Such “uninsurable” risks gravely limit the speculation feasible with any degree of prudence. (Id.)

HIrshleifer concludes that there is no compelling case either for or against patent protection, because the standard discussion of the case for patent protection has not taken into consideration the potential profit that inventors can gain by speculating on the anticipated price effects of their patents. Of course the argument that inventors are unlikely to be adept at making such speculative plays is a serious argument, we have also seen the rise of patent trolls that buy up patent rights from inventors and then file lawsuits against suspected infringers. In a world without patent protection, it is entirely possible that patent trolls would reinvent themselves as patent speculators, buying up information about new inventions from inventors and using that information to engage in speculative activity based on that information. By acquiring a portfolio of patents such invention speculators could pool the risks of speculation over their entire portfolio, enabling them to speculate more effectively than any single inventor could on his own invention. Hirshleifer concludes as follows:

Even though practical considerations limit the effective scale and consequent impact of speculation and/or resale [but perhaps not as much as Hirshleifer thought], the gains thus achievable eliminate any a priori anticipation of underinvestment in the generation of new technological knowledge. (p. 574)

And I reiterate one last time that Hirshleifer arrived at his non-endorsement of patent protection even while accepting the overstated estimate of the social value of inventions and neglecting the tendency of patents to increase the cost of inventive activity.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.


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