Posts Tagged 'Armen Alchian'

Does Economic Theory Entail or Support Free-Market Ideology?

A few weeks ago, via Twitter, Beatrice Cherrier solicited responses to this query from Dina Pomeranz

It is a serious — and a disturbing – question, because it suggests that the free-market ideology which is a powerful – though not necessarily the most powerful — force in American right-wing politics, and probably more powerful in American politics than in the politics of any other country, is the result of how economics was taught in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1960s at UCLA, where I was an undergrad (AB 1970) and a graduate student (PhD 1977), and at Chicago.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, free-market economics had been largely marginalized; Keynes and his successors were ascendant. But thanks to Milton Friedman and his compatriots at a few other institutions of higher learning, especially UCLA, the power of microeconomics (aka price theory) to explain a very broad range of economic and even non-economic phenomena was becoming increasingly appreciated by economists. A very broad range of advances in economic theory on a number of fronts — economics of information, industrial organization and antitrust, law and economics, public choice, monetary economics and economic history — supported by the award of the Nobel Prize to Hayek in 1974 and Friedman in 1976, greatly elevated the status of free-market economics just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were coming into office in 1979 and 1981.

The growing prestige of free-market economics was used by Thatcher and Reagan to bolster the credibility of their policies, especially when the recessions caused by their determination to bring double-digit inflation down to about 4% annually – a reduction below 4% a year then being considered too extreme even for Thatcher and Reagan – were causing both Thatcher and Reagan to lose popular support. But the growing prestige of free-market economics and economists provided some degree of intellectual credibility and weight to counter the barrage of criticism from their opponents, enabling both Thatcher and Reagan to use Friedman and Hayek, Nobel Prize winners with a popular fan base, as props and ornamentation under whose reflected intellectual glory they could take cover.

And so after George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in 1982, he was invited to the White House in hopes that, just in time, he would provide some additional intellectual star power for a beleaguered administration about to face the 1982 midterm elections with an unemployment rate over 10%. Famously sharp-tongued, and far less a team player than his colleague and friend Milton Friedman, Stigler refused to play his role as a prop and a spokesman for the administration when asked to meet reporters following his celebratory visit with the President, calling the 1981-82 downturn a “depression,” not a mere “recession,” and dismissing supply-side economics as “a slogan for packaging certain economic ideas rather than an orthodox economic category.” That Stiglerian outburst of candor brought the press conference to an unexpectedly rapid close as the Nobel Prize winner was quickly ushered out of the shouting range of White House reporters. On the whole, however, Republican politicians have not been lacking of economists willing to lend authority and intellectual credibility to Republican policies and to proclaim allegiance to the proposition that the market is endowed with magical properties for creating wealth for the masses.

Free-market economics in the 1960s and 1970s made a difference by bringing to light the many ways in which letting markets operate freely, allowing output and consumption decisions to be guided by market prices, could improve outcomes for all people. A notable success of Reagan’s free-market agenda was lifting, within days of his inauguration, all controls on the prices of domestically produced crude oil and refined products, carryovers of the disastrous wage-and-price controls imposed by Nixon in 1971, but which, following OPEC’s quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, neither Nixon, Ford, nor Carter had dared to scrap. Despite a political consensus against lifting controls, a consensus endorsed, or at least not strongly opposed, by a surprisingly large number of economists, Reagan, following the advice of Friedman and other hard-core free-market advisers, lifted the controls anyway. The Iran-Iraq war having started just a few months earlier, the Saudi oil minister was predicting that the price of oil would soon rise from $40 to at least $50 a barrel, and there were few who questioned his prediction. One opponent of decontrol described decontrol as writing a blank check to the oil companies and asking OPEC to fill in the amount. So the decision to decontrol oil prices was truly an act of some political courage, though it was then characterized as an act of blind ideological faith, or a craven sellout to Big Oil. But predictions of another round of skyrocketing oil prices, similar to the 1973-74 and 1978-79 episodes, were refuted almost immediately, international crude-oil prices falling steadily from $40/barrel in January to about $33/barrel in June.

Having only a marginal effect on domestic gasoline prices, via an implicit subsidy to imported crude oil, controls on domestic crude-oil prices were primarily a mechanism by which domestic refiners could extract a share of the rents that otherwise would have accrued to domestic crude-oil producers. Because additional crude-oil imports increased a domestic refiner’s allocation of “entitlements” to cheap domestic crude oil, thereby reducing the net cost of foreign crude oil below the price paid by the refiner, one overall effect of the controls was to subsidize the importation of crude oil, notwithstanding the goal loudly proclaimed by all the Presidents overseeing the controls: to achieve US “energy independence.” In addition to increasing the demand for imported crude oil, the controls reduced the elasticity of refiners’ demand for imported crude, controls and “entitlements” transforming a given change in the international price of crude into a reduced change in the net cost to domestic refiners of imported crude, thereby raising OPEC’s profit-maximizing price for crude oil. Once domestic crude oil prices were decontrolled, market forces led almost immediately to reductions in the international price of crude oil, so the coincidence of a fall in oil prices with Reagan’s decision to lift all price controls on crude oil was hardly accidental.

The decontrol of domestic petroleum prices was surely as pure a victory for, and vindication of, free-market economics as one could have ever hoped for [personal disclosure: I wrote a book for The Independent Institute, a free-market think tank, Politics, Prices and Petroleum, explaining in rather tedious detail many of the harmful effects of price controls on crude oil and refined products]. Unfortunately, the coincidence of free-market ideology with good policy is not necessarily as comprehensive as Friedman and his many acolytes, myself included, had assumed.

To be sure, price-fixing is almost always a bad idea, and attempts at price-fixing almost always turn out badly, providing lots of ammunition for critics of government intervention of all kinds. But the implicit assumption underlying the idea that freely determined market prices optimally guide the decentralized decisions of economic agents is that the private costs and benefits taken into account by economic agents in making and executing their plans about how much to buy and sell and produce closely correspond to the social costs and benefits that an omniscient central planner — if such a being actually did exist — would take into account in making his plans. But in the real world, the private costs and benefits considered by individual agents when making their plans and decisions often don’t reflect all relevant costs and benefits, so the presumption that market prices determined by the elemental forces of supply and demand always lead to the best possible outcomes is hardly ironclad, as we – i.e., those of us who are not philosophical anarchists – all acknowledge in practice, and in theory, when we affirm that competing private armies and competing private police forces and competing judicial systems would not provide for common defense and for domestic tranquility more effectively than our national, state, and local governments, however imperfectly, provide those essential services. The only question is where and how to draw the ever-shifting lines between those decisions that are left mostly or entirely to the voluntary decisions and plans of private economic agents and those decisions that are subject to, and heavily — even mainly — influenced by, government rule-making, oversight, or intervention.

I didn’t fully appreciate how widespread and substantial these deviations of private costs and benefits from social costs and benefits can be even in well-ordered economies until early in my blogging career, when it occurred to me that the presumption underlying that central pillar of modern right-wing, free-market ideology – that reducing marginal income tax rates increases economic efficiency and promotes economic growth with little or no loss in tax revenue — implicitly assumes that all taxable private income corresponds to the output of goods and services whose private values and costs equal their social values and costs.

But one of my eminent UCLA professors, Jack Hirshleifer, showed that this presumption is subject to a huge caveat, because insofar as some people can earn income by exploiting their knowledge advantages over the counterparties with whom they trade, incentives are created to seek the kinds of knowledge that can be exploited in trades with less-well informed counterparties. The incentive to search for, and exploit, knowledge advantages implies excessive investment in the acquisition of exploitable knowledge, the private gain from acquiring such knowledge greatly exceeding the net gain to society from the acquisition of such knowledge, inasmuch as gains accruing to the exploiter are largely achieved at the expense of the knowledge-disadvantaged counterparties with whom they trade.

For example, substantial resources are now almost certainly wasted by various forms of financial research aiming to gain information that would have been revealed in due course anyway slightly sooner than the knowledge is gained by others, so that the better-informed traders can profit by trading with less knowledgeable counterparties. Similarly, the incentive to exploit knowledge advantages encourages the creation of financial products and structuring other kinds of transactions designed mainly to capitalize on and exploit individual weaknesses in underestimating the probability of adverse events (e.g., late repayment penalties, gambling losses when the house knows the odds better than most gamblers do). Even technical and inventive research encouraged by the potential to patent those discoveries may induce too much research activity by enabling patent-protected monopolies to exploit discoveries that would have been made eventually even without the monopoly rents accruing to the patent holders.

The list of examples of transactions that are profitable for one side only because the other side is less well-informed than, or even misled by, his counterparty could be easily multiplied. Because much, if not most, of the highest incomes earned, are associated with activities whose private benefits are at least partially derived from losses to less well-informed counterparties, it is not a stretch to suspect that reducing marginal income tax rates may have led resources to be shifted from activities in which private benefits and costs approximately equal social benefits and costs to more lucrative activities in which the private benefits and costs are very different from social benefits and costs, the benefits being derived largely at the expense of losses to others.

Reducing marginal tax rates may therefore have simultaneously reduced economic efficiency, slowed economic growth and increased the inequality of income. I don’t deny that this hypothesis is largely speculative, but the speculative part is strictly about the magnitude, not the existence, of the effect. The underlying theory is completely straightforward.

So there is no logical necessity requiring that right-wing free-market ideological policy implications be inferred from orthodox economic theory. Economic theory is a flexible set of conceptual tools and models, and the policy implications following from those models are sensitive to the basic assumptions and initial conditions specified in those models, as well as the value judgments informing an evaluation of policy alternatives. Free-market policy implications require factual assumptions about low transactions costs and about the existence of a low-cost process of creating and assigning property rights — including what we now call intellectual property rights — that imply that private agents perceive costs and benefits that closely correspond to social costs and benefits. Altering those assumptions can radically change the policy implications of the theory.

The best example I can find to illustrate that point is another one of my UCLA professors, the late Earl Thompson, who was certainly the most relentless economic reductionist whom I ever met, perhaps the most relentless whom I can even think of. Despite having a Harvard Ph.D. when he arrived back at UCLA as an assistant professor in the early 1960s, where he had been an undergraduate student of Armen Alchian, he too started out as a pro-free-market Friedman acolyte. But gradually adopting the Buchanan public-choice paradigm – Nancy Maclean, please take note — of viewing democratic politics as a vehicle for advancing the self-interest of agents participating in the political process (marketplace), he arrived at increasingly unorthodox policy conclusions to the consternation and dismay of many of his free-market friends and colleagues. Unlike most public-choice theorists, Earl viewed the political marketplace as a largely efficient mechanism for achieving collective policy goals. The main force tending to make the political process inefficient, Earl believed, was ideologically driven politicians pursuing ideological aims rather than the interests of their constituents, a view that seems increasingly on target as our political process becomes simultaneously increasingly ideological and increasingly dysfunctional.

Until Earl’s untimely passing in 2010, I regarded his support of a slew of interventions in the free-market economy – mostly based on national-defense grounds — as curiously eccentric, and I am still inclined to disagree with many of them. But my point here is not to argue whether Earl was right or wrong on specific policies. What matters in the context of the question posed by Dina Pomeranz is the economic logic that gets you from a set of facts and a set of behavioral and causality assumptions to a set of policy conclusion. What is important to us as economists has to be the process not the conclusion. There is simply no presumption that the economic logic that takes you from a set of reasonably accurate factual assumptions and a set of plausible behavioral and causality assumptions has to take you to the policy conclusions advocated by right-wing, free-market ideologues, or, need I add, to the policy conclusions advocated by anti-free-market ideologues of either left or right.

Certainly we are all within our rights to advocate for policy conclusions that are congenial to our own political preferences, but our obligation as economists is to acknowledge the extent to which a policy conclusion follows from a policy preference rather than from strict economic logic.

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Why Are Wages Sticky?

The stickiness of wages seems to be one of the key stylized facts of economics. For some reason, the idea that sticky wages may be the key to explaining business-cycle downturns in which output and employment– not just prices and nominal incomes — fall is now widely supposed to have been a, if not the, major theoretical contribution of Keynes in the General Theory. The association between sticky wages and Keynes is a rather startling, and altogether unfounded, inversion of what Keynes actually wrote in the General Theory, heaping scorn on what he called the “classical” doctrine that cyclical (or in Keynesian terminology “involuntary”) unemployment could be attributed to the failure of nominal wages to fall in response to a reduction in aggregate demand. Keynes never stopped insisting that the key defining characteristic of “involuntary” unemployment is that a nominal-wage reduction would not reduce “involuntary” unemployment. The very definition of involuntary unemployment is that it can only be eliminated by an increase in the price level, but not by a reduction in nominal wages.

Keynes devoted three entire chapters (19-21) in the General Theory to making, and mathematically proving, that argument. Insofar as I understand it, his argument doesn’t seem to me to be entirely convincing, because, among other reasons, his reasoning seems to involve implicit comparative-statics exercises that start from a disequlibrium situation, but that is definitely a topic for another post. My point is simply that the sticky-wages explanation for unemployment was exactly the “classical” explanation that Keynes was railing against in the General Theory.

So it’s really quite astonishing — and amusing — to observe that, in the current upside-down world of modern macroeconomics, what differentiates New Classical from New Keynesian macroeconomists is that macroecoomists of the New Classical variety, dismissing wage stickiness as non-existent or empirically unimportant, assume that cyclical fluctuations in employment result from high rates of intertemporal substitution by labor in response to fluctuations in labor productivity, while macroeconomists of the New Keynesian variety argue that it is nominal-wage stickiness that prevents the steep cuts in nominal wages required to maintain employment in the face of exogenous shocks in aggregate demand or supply. New Classical and New Keynesian indeed! David Laidler and Axel Leijonhufvud have both remarked on this role reversal.

Many possible causes of nominal-wage stickiness (especially in the downward direction) have been advanced. For most of the twentieth century, wage stickiness was blamed on various forms of government intervention, e.g., pro-union legislation conferring monopoly privileges on unions, as well as other forms of wage-fixing like minimum-wage laws and even unemployment insurance. Whatever the merits of these criticisms, it is hard to credit claims that wage stickiness is mainly attributable to labor-market intervention on the side of labor unions. First, the phenomenon of wage stickiness was noted and remarked upon by economists as long ago as the early nineteenth century (e.g., Henry Thornton in his classic The Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain) long before the enactment of pro-union legislation. Second, the repeal or weakening of pro-union legislation since the 1980s does not seem to have been associated with any significant reduction in nominal-wage stickiness.

Since the 1970s, a number of more sophisticated explanations of wage stickiness have been advanced, for example search theories coupled with incorrect price-level expectations, long-term labor contracts, implicit contracts, and efficiency wages. Search theories locate the cause of wage nominal stickiness in workers’ decisions about what wage offers to accept. Thus, the apparent downward stickiness of wages in a recession seems to imply that workers are turning down offers of employment or quitting their jobs in the mistaken expectation that search will uncover better offers, but that doesn’t seem to be what happens in recessions, when quits decline and layoffs increase. Long-term contracts can and frequently are renegotiated when conditions change. Implicit contracts also can be adjusted when conditions change. So insofar as these theories posit that workers are somehow making decisions that lead to their unemployment, the story seems to be incomplete. If workers could be made better off by accepting reduced wages instead of being unemployed, why isn’t it happening?

Efficiency wages posit a different cause for wage stickiness: that employers have cleverly discovered that by overpaying workers, workers will work their backsides off to continue to be considered worthy of receiving the rents that their employers are conferring upon them. Thus, when a recession hits, employers use the opportunity to weed out their least deserving employees. This theory at least has the virtue of not assigning responsibility for sub-optimal decisions to the workers.

All of these theories were powerfully challenged about eleven or twelve years ago by Truman Bewley in a book Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession. (See also Peter Howitt’s excellent review of Bewely’s book in the Journal of Economic Literature.) Bewley, though an accomplished theorist, simply went out and interviewed lots of business people, asking them to explain why they didn’t cut wages to their employees in recessions rather than lay off workers. Overwhelmingly, the responses Bewley received did not correspond to any of the standard theories of wage-stickiness. Instead, business people explained wage stickiness as necessary to avoid a collapse of morale among their employees. Layoffs also hurt morale, but the workers that are retained get over it, and those let go are no longer around to hurt the morale of those that stay.

While I have always preferred the search explanation for apparent wage stickiness, which was largely developed at UCLA in the 1960s (see Armen Alchian’s classic “Information costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment”), I recognize that it doesn’t seem to account for the basic facts of the cyclical pattern of layoffs and quits. So I think that it is clear that wage stickiness remains a problematic phenomenon. I don’t claim to have a good explanation to offer, but it does seem to me that an important element of an explanation may have been left out so far — at least I can’t recall having seen it mentioned.

Let’s think about it in the following way. Consider the incentive to cut price of a firm that can’t sell as much as it wants 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. So the point that I am suggesting seems to dovetail with morale-preserving explanation for wage-stickiness offered by Bewley.

If I am correct, then the incentive for price cutting is greater in markets for most goods and services than in markets for labor employment. This was Henry Thornton’s observation over two centuries ago when he wrote that it was a well-known fact that wages are more resistant than other prices to downward pressure in periods of weak demand. And if that is true, then it suggests that real wages tend to fluctuate countercyclically, which seems to be a stylized fact of business cycles, though whether that is indeed a fact remains controversial.


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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