Posts Tagged 'F. A. Hayek'

Graeber Against Economics

David Graeber’s vitriolic essay “Against Economics” in the New York Review of Books has generated responses from Noah Smith and Scott Sumner among others. I don’t disagree with much that Noah or Scott have to say, but I want to dig a little deeper than they did into some of Graeber’s arguments, because even though I think he is badly misinformed on many if not most of the subjects he writes about, I actually have some sympathy for his dissatisfaction with the current state of economics. Graeber wastes no time on pleasantries.

There is a growing feeling, among those who have the responsibility of managing large economies, that the discipline of economics is no longer fit for purpose. It is beginning to look like a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist.

A serious polemicist should avoid blatant mischaracterizations, exaggerations and cheap shots, and should be well-grounded in the object of his critique, thereby avoiding criticisms that undermine his own claims to expertise. I grant that  Graeber has some valid criticisms to make, even agreeing with him, at least in part, on some of them. But his indiscriminate attacks on, and caricatures of, all neoclassical economics betrays a superficial understanding of that discipline.

Graeber begins by attacking what he considers the misguided and obsessive focus on inflation by economists.

A good example is the obsession with inflation. Economists still teach their students that the primary economic role of government—many would insist, its only really proper economic role—is to guarantee price stability. We must be constantly vigilant over the dangers of inflation. For governments to simply print money is therefore inherently sinful.

Every currency unit, or banknote issued by a central bank, now in circulation, as Graeber must know, has been “printed.” So to say that economists consider it sinful for governments to print money is either a deliberate falsehood, or an emotional rhetorical outburst, as Graeber immediately, and apparently unwittingly, acknowledges!

If, however, inflation is kept at bay through the coordinated action of government and central bankers, the market should find its “natural rate of unemployment,” and investors, taking advantage of clear price signals, should be able to ensure healthy growth. These assumptions came with the monetarism of the 1980s, the idea that government should restrict itself to managing the money supply, and by the 1990s had come to be accepted as such elementary common sense that pretty much all political debate had to set out from a ritual acknowledgment of the perils of government spending. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that, since the 2008 recession, central banks have been printing money frantically [my emphasis] in an attempt to create inflation and compel the rich to do something useful with their money, and have been largely unsuccessful in both endeavors.

Graeber’s use of the ambiguous pronoun “this” beginning the last sentence of the paragraph betrays his own confusion about what he is saying. Central banks are printing money and attempting to “create” inflation while supposedly still believing that inflation is a menace and printing money is a sin. Go figure.

We now live in a different economic universe than we did before the crash. Falling unemployment no longer drives up wages. Printing money does not cause inflation. Yet the language of public debate, and the wisdom conveyed in economic textbooks, remain almost entirely unchanged.

Again showing an inadequate understanding of basic economic theory, Graeber suggests that, in theory if not practice, falling unemployment should cause wages to rise. The Philips Curve, upon which Graeber’s suggestion relies, represents the empirically observed negative correlation between the rate of average wage increase and the rate of unemployment. But correlation does not imply causation, so there is no basis in economic theory to assert that falling unemployment causes the rate of increase in wages to accelerate. That the empirical correlation between unemployment and wage increases has not recently been in evidence provides no compelling reason for changing textbook theory.

From this largely unfounded and attack on economic theory – a theory which I myself consider, in many respects, inadequate and unreliable – Graeber launches a bitter diatribe against the supposed hegemony of economists over policy-making.

Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.

The ability to predict financial crises would be desirable, but that cannot be the sole criterion for whether economics has advanced our understanding of how economic activity is organized or what effects policy changes have. (I note parenthetically that many economists defensively reject the notion that economic crises are predictable on the grounds that if economists could predict a future economic crisis, those predictions would be immediately self-fulfilling. This response, of course, effectively disproves the idea that economists could predict that an economic crisis would occur in the way that astronomers predict solar eclipses. But this response slays a strawman. The issue is not whether economists can predict future crises, but whether they can identify conditions indicating an increased likelihood of a crisis and suggest precautionary measures to reduce the likelihood that a potential crisis will occur. But Graeber seems uninterested in or incapable of engaging the question at even this moderate level of subtlety.)

In general, I doubt that economists can make more than a modest contribution to improved policy-making, and the best that one can hope for is probably that they steer us away from the worst potential decisions rather than identifying the best ones. But no one, as far as I know, has yet been burned at the stake by a tribunal of economists.

To this day, economics continues to be taught not as a story of arguments—not, like any other social science, as a welter of often warring theoretical perspectives—but rather as something more like physics, the gradual realization of universal, unimpeachable mathematical truths. “Heterodox” theories of economics do, of course, exist (institutionalist, Marxist, feminist, “Austrian,” post-Keynesian…), but their exponents have been almost completely locked out of what are considered “serious” departments, and even outright rebellions by economics students (from the post-autistic economics movement in France to post-crash economics in Britain) have largely failed to force them into the core curriculum.

I am now happy to register agreement with something that Graeber says. Economists in general have become overly attached to axiomatic and formalistic mathematical models that create a false and misleading impression of rigor and mathematical certainty. In saying this, I don’t dispute that mathematical modeling is an important part of much economic theorizing, but it should not exclude other approaches to economic analysis and discourse.

As a result, heterodox economists continue to be treated as just a step or two away from crackpots, despite the fact that they often have a much better record of predicting real-world economic events. What’s more, the basic psychological assumptions on which mainstream (neoclassical) economics is based—though they have long since been disproved by actual psychologists—have colonized the rest of the academy, and have had a profound impact on popular understandings of the world.

That heterodox economists have a better record of predicting economic events than mainstream economists is an assertion for which Graeber offers no evidence or examples. I would not be surprised if he could cite examples, but one would have to weigh the evidence surrounding those examples before concluding that predictions by heterodox economists were more accurate than those of their mainstream counterparts.

Graeber returns to the topic of monetary theory, which seems a particular bugaboo of his. Taking the extreme liberty of holding up Mrs. Theresa May as a spokesperson for orthodox economics, he focuses on her definitive 2017 statement that there is no magic money tree.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way.

What Graeber chooses to ignore is that banks do not operate magically; they make loans and create deposits in seeking to earn profits; their decisions are not magical, but are oriented toward making profits. Whether they make good or bad decisions is debatable, but the debate isn’t about a magical process; it’s a debate about theory and evidence. Graeber describe how he thinks that economists think about how banks create money, correctly observing that there is a debate about how that process works, but without understanding those differences or their significance.

Economists, for obvious reasons, can’t be completely oblivious to the role of banks, but they have spent much of the twentieth century arguing about what actually happens when someone applies for a loan. One school insists that banks transfer existing funds from their reserves, another that they produce new money, but only on the basis of a multiplier effect). . . Only a minority—mostly heterodox economists, post-Keynesians, and modern money theorists—uphold what is called the “credit creation theory of banking”: that bankers simply wave a magic wand and make the money appear, secure in the confidence that even if they hand a client a credit for $1 million, ultimately the recipient will put it back in the bank again, so that, across the system as a whole, credits and debts will cancel out. Rather than loans being based in deposits, in this view, deposits themselves were the result of loans.

The one thing it never seemed to occur to anyone to do was to get a job at a bank, and find out what actually happens when someone asks to borrow money. In 2014 a German economist named Richard Werner did exactly that, and discovered that, in fact, loan officers do not check their existing funds, reserves, or anything else. They simply create money out of thin air, or, as he preferred to put it, “fairy dust.”

Graeber is right that economists differ in how they understand banking. But the simple transfer-of-funds view, a product of the eighteenth century, was gradually rejected over the course of the nineteenth century; the money-multiplier view largely superseded it, enjoying a half-century or more of dominance as a theory of banking, still remains a popular way for introductory textbooks to explain how banking works, though it would be better if it were decently buried and forgotten. But since James Tobin’s classic essay “Commercial banks as creators of money” was published in 1963, most economists who have thought carefully about banking have concluded that the amount of deposits created by banks corresponds to the quantity of deposits that the public, given their expectations about the future course of the economy and the future course of prices, chooses to hold. The important point is that while a bank can create deposits without incurring more than the negligible cost of making a book-keeping, or an electronic, entry in a customer’s account, the creation of a deposit is typically associated with a demand by the bank to hold either reserves in its account with the Fed or to hold some amount of Treasury instruments convertible, on very short notice, into reserves at the Fed.

Graeber seems to think that there is something fundamental at stake for the whole of macroeconomics in the question whether deposits created loans or loans create deposits. I agree that it’s an important question, but not as significant as Graeber believes. But aside from that nuance, what’s remarkable is that Graeber actually acknowledges that the weight of professional opinion is on the side that says that loans create deposits. He thus triumphantly cites a report by Bank of England economists that correctly explained that banks create money and do so in the normal course of business by making loans.

Before long, the Bank of England . . . rolled out an elaborate official report called “Money Creation in the Modern Economy,” replete with videos and animations, making the same point: existing economics textbooks, and particularly the reigning monetarist orthodoxy, are wrong. The heterodox economists are right. Private banks create money. Central banks like the Bank of England create money as well, but monetarists are entirely wrong to insist that their proper function is to control the money supply.

Graeber, I regret to say, is simply exposing the inadequacy of his knowledge of the history of economics. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations explained that banks create money who, in doing so, saved the resources that would have been wasted on creating additional gold and silver. Subsequent economists from David Ricardo through Henry Thornton, J. S. Mill and R. G. Hawtrey were perfectly aware that banks can supply money — either banknotes or deposits — at less than the cost of mining and minting new coins, as they extend their credit in making loans to borrowers. So what is at issue, Graeber to the contrary notwithstanding, is not a dispute between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

In fact, central banks do not in any sense control the money supply; their main function is to set the interest rate—to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create.

Central banks set a rental price for reserves, thereby controlling the quantity of reserves into which bank deposits are convertible that is available to the economy. One way to think about that quantity is that the quantity of reserves along with the aggregate demand to hold reserves determines the exchange value of reserves and hence the price level; another way to think about it is that the interest rate or the implied policy stance of the central bank helps to determine the expectations of the public about the future course of the price level which is what determines – within some margin of error or range – what the future course of the price level will turn out to be.

Almost all public debate on these subjects is therefore based on false premises. For example, if what the Bank of England was saying were true, government borrowing didn’t divert funds from the private sector; it created entirely new money that had not existed before.

This is just silly. Funds may or may not be diverted from the private sector, but the total available resources to society is finite. If the central bank creates additional money, it creates additional claims to those resources and the creation of additional claims to resources necessarily has an effect on the prices of inputs and of outputs.

One might have imagined that such an admission would create something of a splash, and in certain restricted circles, it did. Central banks in Norway, Switzerland, and Germany quickly put out similar papers. Back in the UK, the immediate media response was simply silence. The Bank of England report has never, to my knowledge, been so much as mentioned on the BBC or any other TV news outlet. Newspaper columnists continued to write as if monetarism was self-evidently correct. Politicians continued to be grilled about where they would find the cash for social programs. It was as if a kind of entente cordiale had been established, in which the technocrats would be allowed to live in one theoretical universe, while politicians and news commentators would continue to exist in an entirely different one.

Even if we stipulate that this characterization of what the BBC and newspaper columnists believe is correct, what we would have — at best — is a commentary on the ability of economists to communicate their understanding of how the economy works to the intelligentsia that communicates to ordinary citizens. It is not in and of itself a commentary on the state of economic knowledge, inasmuch as Graeber himself concedes that most economists don’t accept monetarism. And that has been the case, as Noah Smith pointed out in his Bloomberg column on Graeber, since the early 1980s when the Monetarist experiment in trying to conduct monetary policy by controlling the monetary aggregates proved entirely unworkable and had to be abandoned as it was on the verge of precipitating a financial crisis.

Only after this long warmup decrying the sorry state of contemporary economic theory does Graeber begin discussing the book under review Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky.

What [Skidelsky] reveals is an endless war between two broad theoretical perspectives. . . The crux of the argument always seems to turn on the nature of money. Is money best conceived of as a physical commodity, a precious substance used to facilitate exchange, or is it better to see money primarily as a credit, a bookkeeping method or circulating IOU—in any case, a social arrangement? This is an argument that has been going on in some form for thousands of years. What we call “money” is always a mixture of both, and, as I myself noted in Debt (2011), the center of gravity between the two tends to shift back and forth over time. . . .One important theoretical innovation that these new bullion-based theories of money allowed was, as Skidelsky notes, what has come to be called the quantity theory of money (usually referred to in textbooks—since economists take endless delight in abbreviations—as QTM).

But these two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, and, depending on time, place, circumstances, and the particular problem that is the focus of attention, either of the two may be the appropriate paradigm for analysis.

The QTM argument was first put forward by a French lawyer named Jean Bodin, during a debate over the cause of the sharp, destablizing price inflation that immediately followed the Iberian conquest of the Americas. Bodin argued that the inflation was a simple matter of supply and demand: the enormous influx of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies was cheapening the value of money in Europe. The basic principle would no doubt have seemed a matter of common sense to anyone with experience of commerce at the time, but it turns out to have been based on a series of false assumptions. For one thing, most of the gold and silver extracted from Mexico and Peru did not end up in Europe at all, and certainly wasn’t coined into money. Most of it was transported directly to China and India (to buy spices, silks, calicoes, and other “oriental luxuries”), and insofar as it had inflationary effects back home, it was on the basis of speculative bonds of one sort or another. This almost always turns out to be true when QTM is applied: it seems self-evident, but only if you leave most of the critical factors out.

In the case of the sixteenth-century price inflation, for instance, once one takes account of credit, hoarding, and speculation—not to mention increased rates of economic activity, investment in new technology, and wage levels (which, in turn, have a lot to do with the relative power of workers and employers, creditors and debtors)—it becomes impossible to say for certain which is the deciding factor: whether the money supply drives prices, or prices drive the money supply.

As a matter of logic, if the value of money depends on the precious metals (gold or silver) from which coins were minted, the value of money is necessarily affected by a change in the value of the metals used to coin money. Because a large increase in the stock of gold and silver, as Graeber concedes, must reduce the value of those metals, subsequent inflation then being attributable, at least in part, to the gold and silver discoveries even if the newly mined gold and silver was shipped mainly to privately held Indian and Chinese hoards rather than minted into new coins. An exogenous increase in prices may well have caused the quantity of credit money to increase, but that is analytically distinct from the inflationary effect of a reduced value of gold or silver when, as was the case in the sixteenth century, money is legally defined as a specific weight of gold or silver.

Technically, this comes down to a choice between what are called exogenous and endogenous theories of money. Should money be treated as an outside factor, like all those Spanish dubloons supposedly sweeping into Antwerp, Dublin, and Genoa in the days of Philip II, or should it be imagined primarily as a product of economic activity itself, mined, minted, and put into circulation, or more often, created as credit instruments such as loans, in order to meet a demand—which would, of course, mean that the roots of inflation lie elsewhere?

There is no such choice, because any theory must posit certain initial conditions and definitions, which are given or exogenous to the analysis. How the theory is framed and which variables are treated as exogenous and which are treated as endogenous is a matter of judgment in light of the problem and the circumstances. Graeber is certainly correct that, in any realistic model, the quantity of money is endogenously, not exogenously, determined, but that doesn’t mean that the value of gold and silver may not usefully be treated as exogenous in a system in which money is defined as a weight of gold or silver.

To put it bluntly: QTM is obviously wrong. Doubling the amount of gold in a country will have no effect on the price of cheese if you give all the gold to rich people and they just bury it in their yards, or use it to make gold-plated submarines (this is, incidentally, why quantitative easing, the strategy of buying long-term government bonds to put money into circulation, did not work either). What actually matters is spending.

Graeber is talking in circles, failing to distinguish between the quantity theory of money – a theory about the value of a pure medium of exchange with no use except to be received in exchange — and a theory of the real value of gold and silver when money is defined as a weight of gold or silver. The value of gold (or silver) in monetary uses must be roughly equal to its value in non-monetary uses. which is determined by the total stock of gold and the demand to hold gold or to use it in coinage or for other uses (e.g., jewelry and ornamentation). An increase in the stock of gold relative to demand must reduce its value. That relationship between price and quantity is not the same as QTM. The quantity of a metallic money will increase as its value in non-monetary uses declines. If there is literally an unlimited demand for newly mined gold to be immediately sent unused into hoards, Graeber’s argument would be correct. But the fact that much of the newly mined gold initially went into hoards does not mean that all of the newly mined gold went into hoards.

In sum, Graeber is confused between the quantity theory of money and a theory of a commodity money used both as money and as a real commodity. The quantity theory of money of a pure medium of exchange posits that changes in the quantity of money cause proportionate changes in the price level. Changes in the quantity of a real commodity also used as money have nothing to do with the quantity theory of money.

Relying on a dubious account of the history of monetary theory by Skidelsky, Graeber blames the obsession of economists with the quantity theory for repeated monetary disturbances starting with the late 17th century deflation in Britain when silver appreciated relative to gold causing prices measured in silver to fall. Graeber thus fails to see that under a metallic money, real disturbances do have repercussion on the level of prices, repercussions having nothing to do with an exogenous prior change in the quantity of money.

According to Skidelsky, the pattern was to repeat itself again and again, in 1797, the 1840s, the 1890s, and, ultimately, the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Thatcher and Reagan’s (in each case brief) adoption of monetarism. Always we see the same sequence of events:

(1) The government adopts hard-money policies as a matter of principle.

(2) Disaster ensues.

(3) The government quietly abandons hard-money policies.

(4) The economy recovers.

(5) Hard-money philosophy nonetheless becomes, or is reinforced as, simple universal common sense.

There is so much indiscriminate generalization here that it is hard to know what to make of it. But the conduct of monetary policy has always been fraught, and learning has been slow and painful. We can and must learn to do better, but blanket condemnations of economics are unlikely to lead to better outcomes.

How was it possible to justify such a remarkable string of failures? Here a lot of the blame, according to Skidelsky, can be laid at the feet of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. An early advocate of QTM, Hume was also the first to introduce the notion that short-term shocks—such as Locke produced—would create long-term benefits if they had the effect of unleashing the self-regulating powers of the market:

Actually I agree that Hume, as great and insightful a philosopher as he was and as sophisticated an economic observer as he was, was an unreliable monetary theorist. And one of the reasons he was led astray was his unwarranted attachment to the quantity theory of money, an attachment that was not shared by his close friend Adam Smith.

Ever since Hume, economists have distinguished between the short-run and the long-run effects of economic change, including the effects of policy interventions. The distinction has served to protect the theory of equilibrium, by enabling it to be stated in a form which took some account of reality. In economics, the short-run now typically stands for the period during which a market (or an economy of markets) temporarily deviates from its long-term equilibrium position under the impact of some “shock,” like a pendulum temporarily dislodged from a position of rest. This way of thinking suggests that governments should leave it to markets to discover their natural equilibrium positions. Government interventions to “correct” deviations will only add extra layers of delusion to the original one.

I also agree that focusing on long-run equilibrium without regard to short-run fluctuations can lead to terrible macroeconomic outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that long-run effects are never of concern and may be safely disregarded. But just as current suffering must not be disregarded when pursuing vague and uncertain long-term benefits, ephemeral transitory benefits shouldn’t obscure serious long-term consequences. Weighing such alternatives isn’t easy, but nothing is gained by denying that the alternatives exist. Making those difficult choices is inherent in policy-making, whether macroeconomic or climate policy-making.

Although Graeber takes a valid point – that a supposed tendency toward an optimal long-run equilibrium does not justify disregard of an acute short-term problem – to an extreme, his criticism of the New Classical approach to policy-making that replaced the flawed mainstream Keynesian macroeconomics of the late 1970s is worth listening to. The New Classical approach self-consciously rejected any policy aimed at short-run considerations owing to a time-inconsistency paradox was based almost entirely on the logic of general-equilibrium theory and an illegitimate methodological argument rejecting all macroeconomic theories not rigorously deduced from the unarguable axiom of optimizing behavior by rational agents (and therefore not, in the official jargon, microfounded) as unscientific and unworthy of serious consideration in the brave New Classical world of scientific macroeconomics.

It’s difficult for outsiders to see what was really at stake here, because the argument has come to be recounted as a technical dispute between the roles of micro- and macroeconomics. Keynesians insisted that the former is appropriate to studying the behavior of individual households or firms, trying to optimize their advantage in the marketplace, but that as soon as one begins to look at national economies, one is moving to an entirely different level of complexity, where different sorts of laws apply. Just as it is impossible to understand the mating habits of an aardvark by analyzing all the chemical reactions in their cells, so patterns of trade, investment, or the fluctuations of interest or employment rates were not simply the aggregate of all the microtransactions that seemed to make them up. The patterns had, as philosophers of science would put it, “emergent properties.” Obviously, it was necessary to understand the micro level (just as it was necessary to understand the chemicals that made up the aardvark) to have any chance of understand the macro, but that was not, in itself, enough.

As an aisde, it’s worth noting that the denial or disregard of the possibility of any emergent properties by New Classical economists (of which what came to be known as New Keynesian economics is really a mildly schismatic offshoot) is nicely illustrated by the un-self-conscious alacrity with which the representative-agent approach was adopted as a modeling strategy in the first few generations of New Classical models. That New Classical theorists now insist that representative agency is not an essential to New Classical modeling is true, but the methodologically reductive nature of New Classical macroeconomics, in which all macroeconomic theories must be derived under the axiom of individually maximizing behavior except insofar as specific “frictions” are introduced by explicit assumption, is essential. (See here, here, and here)

The counterrevolutionaries, starting with Keynes’s old rival Friedrich Hayek . . . took aim directly at this notion that national economies are anything more than the sum of their parts. Politically, Skidelsky notes, this was due to a hostility to the very idea of statecraft (and, in a broader sense, of any collective good). National economies could indeed be reduced to the aggregate effect of millions of individual decisions, and, therefore, every element of macroeconomics had to be systematically “micro-founded.”

Hayek’s role in the microfoundations movement is important, but his position was more sophisticated and less methodologically doctrinaire than that of the New Classical macroeconomists, if for no other reason than that Hayek didn’t believe that macroeconomics should, or could, be derived from general-equilibrium theory. His criticism, like that of economists like Clower and Leijonhufvud, of Keynesian macroeconomics for being insufficiently grounded in microeconomic principles, was aimed at finding microeconomic arguments that could explain and embellish and modify the propositions of Keynesian macroeconomic theory. That is the sort of scientific – not methodological — reductivism that Hayek’s friend Karl Popper advocated: a theoretical and empirical challenge of reducing a higher level theory to its more fundamental foundations, e.g., when physicists and chemists search for theoretical breakthroughs that allow the propositions of chemistry to be reduced to more fundamental propositions of physics. The attempt to reduce chemistry to underlying physical principles is very different from a methodological rejection of all chemistry that cannot be derived from underlying deep physical theories.

There is probably more than a grain of truth in Graeber’s belief that there was a political and ideological subtext in the demand for microfoundations by New Classical macroeconomists, but the success of the microfoundations program was also the result of philosophically unsophisticated methodological error. How to apportion the share of blame going to mistaken methodology, professional and academic opportunism, and a hidden political agenda is a question worthy of further investigation. The easy part is to identify the mistaken methodology, which Graeber does. As for the rest, Graeber simply asserts bad faith, but with little evidence.

In Graeber’s comprehensive condemnation of modern economics, the efficient market hypothesis, being closely related to the rational-expectations hypothesis so central to New Classical economics, is not spared either. Here again, though I share and sympathize with his disdain for EMH, Graeber can’t resist exaggeration.

In other words, we were obliged to pretend that markets could not, by definition, be wrong—if in the 1980s the land on which the Imperial compound in Tokyo was built, for example, was valued higher than that of all the land in New York City, then that would have to be because that was what it was actually worth. If there are deviations, they are purely random, “stochastic” and therefore unpredictable, temporary, and, ultimately, insignificant.

Of course, no one is obliged to pretend that markets could not be wrong — and certainly not by a definition. The EMH simply asserts that the price of an asset reflects all the publicly available information. But what EMH asserts is certainly not true in many or even most cases, because people with non-public information (or with superior capacity to process public information) may affect asset prices, and such people may profit at the expense of those less knowledgeable or less competent in anticipating price changes. Moreover, those advantages may result from (largely wasted) resources devoted to acquiring and processing information, and it is those people who make fortunes betting on the future course of asset prices.

Graeber then quotes Skidelsky approvingly:

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, the theory says that there is no point in trying to profit from speculation, because shares are always correctly priced and their movements cannot be predicted. But on the other hand, if investors did not try to profit, the market would not be efficient because there would be no self-correcting mechanism. . .

Secondly, if shares are always correctly priced, bubbles and crises cannot be generated by the market….

This attitude leached into policy: “government officials, starting with [Fed Chairman] Alan Greenspan, were unwilling to burst the bubble precisely because they were unwilling to even judge that it was a bubble.” The EMH made the identification of bubbles impossible because it ruled them out a priori.

So the apparent paradox that concerns Skidelsky and Graeber dissolves upon (only a modest amount of) further reflection. Proper understanding and revision of the EMH makes it clear that bubbles can occur. But that doesn’t mean that bursting bubbles is a job that can be safely delegated to any agency, including the Fed.

Moreover, the housing bubble peaked in early 2006, two and a half years before the financial crisis in September 2008. The financial crisis was not unrelated to the housing bubble, which undoubtedly added to the fragility of the financial system and its vulnerability to macroeconomic shocks, but the main cause of the crisis was Fed policy that was unnecessarily focused on a temporary blip in commodity prices persuading the Fed not to loosen policy in 2008 during a worsening recession. That was a scenario similar to the one in 1929 when concern about an apparent stock-market bubble caused the Fed to repeatedly tighten money, raising interest rates, thereby causing a downturn and crash of asset prices triggering the Great Depression.

Graeber and Skidelsky correctly identify some of the problems besetting macroeconomics, but their indiscriminate attack on all economic theory is unlikely to improve the situation. A pity, because a focused and sophisticated critique of economics than they have served up has never been more urgently needed than it is now to enable economists to perform the modest service to mankind of which they might be capable.

Thomas Piketty and Joseph Schumpeter (and Gerard Debreu)

Everybody else seems to have an opinion about Thomas PIketty, so why not me? As if the last two months of Piketty-mania (reminiscent, to those of a certain age, of an earlier invasion of American shores, exactly 50 years ago, by four European rock-stars) were not enough, there has been a renewed flurry of interest this week about Piketty’s blockbuster book triggered by Chris Giles’s recent criticism in the Financial Times of Piketty’s use of income data, which mainly goes to show that, love him or hate him, people cannot get enough of Professor Piketty. Now I will admit upfront that I have not read Piketty’s book, and from my superficial perusal of the recent criticisms, they seem less problematic than the missteps of Reinhart and Rogoff in claiming that, beyond a critical 90% ratio of national debt to national income, the burden of national debt begins to significantly depress economic growth. But in any event, my comments in this post are directed at Piketty’s conceptual approach, not on his use of the data in his empirical work. In fact, I think that Larry Summers in his superficially laudatory, but substantively critical, review has already made most of the essential points about Piketty’s book. But I think that Summers left out a couple of important issues — issues touched upon usefully by George Cooper in a recent blog post about Piketty — which bear further emphasis, .

Just to set the stage for my comments, here is my understanding of the main conceptual point of Piketty’s book. Piketty believes that the essence of capitalism is that capital generates a return to the owners of capital that, on average over time, is equal to the rate of interest. Capital grows; it accumulates. And the rate of accumulation is equal to the rate of interest. However, the rate of interest is generally somewhat higher than the rate of growth of the economy. So if capital is accumulating at a rate of growth equal to, say, 5%, and the economy is growing at a rate of growth equal to only 3%, the share of income accruing to the owners of capital will grow over time. It is in this simple theoretical framework — the relationship between the rate of economic growth to the rate of interest — that Piketty believes he has found the explanation not only for the increase in inequality over the past few centuries of capitalist development, but for the especially rapid increase in inequality over the past 30 years.

While praising Piketty’s scholarship, empirical research and rhetorical prowess, Summers does not handle Piketty’s main thesis gently. Summers points out that, as accumulation proceeds, the incentive to engage in further accumulation tends to weaken, so the iron law of increasing inequality posited by Piketty is not nearly as inflexible as Piketty suggests. Now one could respond that, once accumulation reaches a certain threshold, the capacity to consume weakens as well, if only, as Gary Becker liked to remind us, because of the constraint that time imposes on consumption.

Perhaps so, but the return to capital is not the only, or even the most important, source of inequality. I would interpret Summers’ point to be the following: pure accumulation is unlikely to generate enough growth in wealth to outstrip the capacity to increase consumption. To generate an increase in wealth so large that consumption can’t keep up, there must be not just a return to the ownership of capital, there must be profit in the Knightian or Schumpeterian sense of a profit over and above the return on capital. Alternatively, there must be some extraordinary rent on a unique, irreproducible factor of production. Accumulation by itself, without the stimulus of entrepreneurial profit, reflecting the the application of new knowledge in the broadest sense of the term, cannot go on for very long. It is entrepreneurial profits and rents to unique factors of production (or awards of government monopolies or other privileges) not plain vanilla accumulation that account for the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of wealth. Moreover, it seems that philanthropy (especially conspicuous philanthropy) provides an excellent outlet for the dissipation of accumulated wealth and can easily be combined with quasi-consumption activities, like art patronage or political activism, as more conventional consumption outlets become exhausted.

Summers backs up his conceptual criticism with a powerful factual argument. Comparing the Forbes list of the 400 richest individuals in 1982 with the Forbes list for 2012 Summers observes:

When Forbes compared its list of the wealthiest Americans in 1982 and 2012, it found that less than one tenth of the 1982 list was still on the list in 2012, despite the fact that a significant majority of members of the 1982 list would have qualified for the 2012 list if they had accumulated wealth at a real rate of even 4 percent a year. They did not, given pressures to spend, donate, or misinvest their wealth. In a similar vein, the data also indicate, contra Piketty, that the share of the Forbes 400 who inherited their wealth is in sharp decline.

But something else is also going on here, a misunderstanding, derived from a fundamental ambiguity, about what capital actually means. Capital can refer either to a durable physical asset or to a sum of money. When economists refer to capital as a factor of production, they are thinking of capital as a physical asset. But in most models, economists try to simplify the analysis by collapsing the diversity of the entire stock of heterogeneous capital assets into single homogeneous substance called “capital” and then measure it not in terms of its physical units (which, given heterogeneity, is strictly impossible) but in terms of its value. This creates all kinds of problems, leading to some mighty arguments among economists ever since the latter part of the nineteenth century when Carl Menger (the first Austrian economist) turned on his prize pupil Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk who wrote three dense volumes discussing the theory of capital and interest, and pronounced Bohm-Bawerk’s theory of capital “the greatest blunder in the history of economics.” I remember wanting to ask F. A. Hayek, who, trying to restate Bohm-Bawerk’s theory in a coherent form, wrote a volume about 75 years ago called The Pure Theory of Capital, which probably has been read from cover to cover by fewer than 100 living souls, and probably understood by fewer than 20 of those, what he made of Menger’s remark, but, to my eternal sorrow, I forgot to ask him that question the last time that I saw him.

At any rate, treating capital as a homogeneous substance that can be measured in terms of its value rather than in terms of physical units involves serious, perhaps intractable, problems. For certain purposes, it may be worthwhile to ignore those problems and work with a simplified model (a single output which can be consumed or used as a factor of production), but the magnitude of the simplification is rarely acknowledged. In his discussion, Piketty seems, as best as I could determine using obvious search terms on Amazon, unaware of the conceptual problems involved in speaking about capital as a homogeneous substance measured in terms of its value.

In the real world, capital is anything but homogeneous. It consists of an array of very specialized, often unique, physical embodiments. Once installed, physical capital is usually sunk, and its value is highly uncertain. In contrast to the imaginary model of a homogenous substance that just seems to grow at fixed natural rate, the real physical capital that is deployed in the process of producing goods and services is complex and ever-changing in its physical and economic characteristics, and the economic valuations associated with its various individual components are in perpetual flux. While the total value of all capital may be growing at a fairly steady rate over time, the values of the individual assets that constitute the total stock of capital fluctuate wildly, and few owners of physical capital have any guarantee that the value of their assets will appreciate at a steady rate over time.

Now one would have thought that an eminent scholar like Professor Piketty would, in the course of a 700-page book about capital, have had occasion to comment on enormous diversity and ever-changing composition of the stock of physical capital. These changes are driven by a competitive process in which entrepreneurs constantly introduce new products and new methods of producing products, a competitive process that enriches some owners of new capital, and, it turns out, impoverishes others — owners of old, suddenly obsolete, capital. It is a process that Joseph Schumpeter in his first great book, The Theory of Economic Development, memorably called “creative destruction.” But the term “creative destruction” or the title of Schumpeter’s book does not appear at all in Piketty’s book, and Schumpeter’s name appears only once, in connection not with the notion of creative destruction, but with his, possibly ironic, prediction in a later book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that socialism would eventually replace capitalism.

Thus, Piketty’s version of capitalist accumulation seems much too abstract and too far removed from the way in which great fortunes are amassed to provide real insight into the sources of increasing inequality. Insofar as such fortunes are associated with accumulation of capital, they are likely to be the result of the creation of new forms of capital associated with new products, or new production processes. The creation of new capital simultaneously destroys old forms of capital. New fortunes are amassed, and old ones dissipated. The model of steady accumulation that is at the heart of Piketty’s account of inexorably increasing inequality misses this essential feature of capitalism.

I don’t say that Schumpeter’s account of creative destruction means that increasing inequality is a trend that should be welcomed. There may well be arguments that capitalist development and creative destruction are socially inefficient. I have explained in previous posts (e.g., here, here, and here) why I think that a lot of financial-market activity is likely to be socially wasteful. Similar arguments might be made about other kinds of activities in non-financial markets where the private gain exceeds the social gain. Winner-take-all markets seem to be characterized by this divergence between private and social benefits and costs, apparently accounting for a growing share of economic activity, are an obvious source of inequality. But what I find most disturbing about the growth in inequality over the past 30 years is that great wealth has gained increased social status. That seems to me to be a very unfortunate change in public attitudes. I have no problem with people getting rich, even filthy rich. But don’t expect me to admire them because they are rich.

Finally, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Gerard Debreu. Well, nothing really, but I couldn’t help noticing that Piketty refers in an endnote (p. 654) to “the work of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Kenneth Arrow and  Claude Debreu” apparently forgetting that the name of his famous countryman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1983, is not Claude, but Gerard, Debreu. Perhaps Piketty confused Debreu with another eminent Frenchman Claude Debussy, but I hope that in the next printing of his book, Piketty will correct this unfortunate error.

UPDATE (5/29 at 9:46 EDST): Thanks to Kevin Donoghue for checking with Arthur Goldhammer, who translated Piketty’s book from the original French. Goldhammer took responsibility for getting Debreu’s first name wrong in the English edition. In the French edition, only Debreu’s last name was mentioned.

Armen Alchian, The Economists’ Economist

The first time that I ever heard of Armen Alchian was when I took introductory economics at UCLA as a freshman, and his book (co-authored with his colleague William R. Allen who was probably responsible for the macro and international chapters) University Economics (the greatest economics textbook ever written) was the required text. I had only just started to get interested in economics, and was still more interested in political philosophy than in economics, but I found myself captivated by what I was reading in Alchian’s textbook, even though I didn’t find the professor teaching the course very exciting. And after 10 weeks (the University of California had switched to a quarter system) of introductory micro, I changed my major to economics. So there is no doubt that I became an economist because the textbook that I was taught from was written by Alchian.

In my four years as an undergraduate at UCLA, I took three classes from Axel Leijonhufvud, two from Ben Klein, two from Bill Allen, and one each from Robert Rooney, Nicos Devletoglou, James Buchanan, Jack Hirshleifer, George Murphy, and Jean Balbach. But Alchian, who in those days was not teaching undergrads, was a looming presence. It became obvious that Alchian was the central figure in the department, the leader and the role model that everyone else looked up to. I would see him occasionally on campus, but was too shy or too much in awe of him to introduce myself to him. One incident that I particularly recall is when, in my junior year, F. A. Hayek visited UCLA in the fall and winter quarters (in the department of philosophy!) teaching an undergraduate course in the philosophy of the social sciences and a graduate seminar on the first draft of Law, Legislation and Liberty. I took Hayek’s course on the philosophy of the social sciences, and audited his graduate seminar, and I occasionally used to visit his office to ask him some questions. I once asked his advice about which graduate programs he would suggest that I apply to. He mentioned two schools, Chicago, of course, and Princeton where his friends Fritz Machlup and Jacob Viner were still teaching, before asking, “but why would you think of going to graduate school anywhere else than UCLA? You will get the best training in economics in the world from Alchian, Hirshleifer and Leijonhufvud.” And so it was, I applied to, and was accepted at, Chicago, but stayed at UCLA.

As a first year graduate student, I took the (three-quarter) microeconomics sequence from Jack Hirshleifer (who in the scholarly hierarachy at UCLA ranked only slightly below Alchian) and the two-quarter macroeconomics sequence from Leijonhufvud. Hirshleifer taught a great course. He was totally prepared, very organized and his lectures were always clear and easy to follow. To do well, you had to sit back listen, review the lecture notes, read through the reading assignments, and do the homework problems. For me at least, with the benefit of four years of UCLA undergraduate training, it was a breeze.

Great as Hirshleifer was as a teacher, I still felt that I was missing out by not having been taught by Alchian. Perhaps Alchian felt that the students who took the microeconomics sequence from Hirshleifer should get some training from him as well, so the next year he taught a graduate seminar in topics in price theory, to give us an opportunity to learn from him how to do economics. You could also see how Alchian operated if you went to a workshop or lecture by a visiting scholar, when Alchian would start to ask questions. He would smile, put his head on his forehead, and say something like, “I just don’t understand that,” and force whoever it was to try to explain the logic by which he had arrived at some conclusion. And Alchian would just keep smiling, explain what the problem was with the answer he got, and ask more questions. Alchian didn’t shout or rant or rave, but if Alchian was questioning you, you were not in a very comfortable position.

So I was more than a bit apprehensive going into Alchian’s seminar. There were all kinds of stories told by graduate students about how tough Alchian could be on his students if they weren’t able to respond adequately when subjected to his questioning in the Socratic style. But the seminar could not have been more enjoyable. There was give and take, but I don’t remember seeing any blood spilled. Perhaps by the time I got to his seminar, Alchian, then about 57, had mellowed a bit, or, maybe, because we had all gone through the graduate microeconomics sequence, he felt that we didn’t require such an intense learning environment. At any rate, the seminar, which met twice a week for an hour and a quarter for 10 weeks, usually involved Alchian picking a story from the newspaper and asking us how to analyze the economics underlying the story. Armed with nothing but a chalkboard and piece of chalk, Alchian would lead us relatively painlessly from confusion to clarity, from obscurity to enlightenment. The key concepts with which to approach any problem were to understand the choices available to those involved, to define the relevant costs, and to understand the constraints under which choices are made, the constraints being determined largely by the delimitation of the property rights under which the resources can be used or exchanged, or, to be more precise, the property rights to use those resources can be exchanged.

Ultimately, the lesson that I learned from Alchian is that, at its best, economic theory is a tool for solving actual real problems, and the nature of the problem ought to dictate the way in which the theory (verbal, numerical, graphical, higher mathematical) is deployed, not the other way around. The goal is not to reach any particular conclusion, but to apply the tools in the best and most authentic way that they can be applied. Alchian did not wear his politics on his sleeve, though it wasn’t too hard to figure out that he was politically conservative with libertarian tendencies. But you never got the feeling that his politics dictated his economic analysis. In many respects, Alchian’s closest disciple was Earl Thompson, who studied under Alchian as an undergraduate, and then, after playing minor-league baseball for a couple of years, going to Harvard for graduate school, eventually coming back to UCLA as an assistant professor where he remained for his entire career. Earl, discarding his youthful libertarianism early on, developed many completely original, often eccentric, theories about the optimality of all kinds of government interventions – even protectionism – opposed by most economists, but Alchian took them all in stride. Mere policy disagreements never affected their close personal bond, and Alchian wrote the forward to Earl’s book with Charles Hickson, Ideology and the Evolution of Vital Economics Institutions. If Alchian was friendly with and an admirer of Milton Friedman, he just as friendly with, and just as admiring of, Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow, with whom he collaborated on several projects in the 1950s when they consulted for the Rand Corporation. Alchian cared less about the policy conclusion than he did about the quality of the underlying economic analysis.

As I have pointed out on several prior occasions, it is simply scandalous that Alchian was not awarded the Noble Prize. His published output was not as voluminous as that of some other luminaries, but there is a remarkably high proportion of classics among his publications. So many important ideas came from him, especially thinking about economic competition as an evolutionary process, the distinction between the functional relationship between cost and volume of output and cost and rate of output, the effect of incomplete information on economic action, the economics of property rights, the effects of inflation on economic activity. (Two volumes of his Collected Works, a must for anyone really serious about economics, contain a number of previously unpublished or hard to find papers, and are available here.) Perhaps in the future I will discuss some of my favorites among his articles.

Although Alchian did not win the Nobel Prize, in 1990 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Harry Markowitz, Merton Miller, and William F. Sharpe for their work on financial economics. Sharp, went to UCLA, writing his Ph.D. dissertation on securities prices under Alchian, and worked at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s with Markowitz.  Here’s what Sharpe wrote about Alchian:

Armen Alchian, a professor of economics, was my role model at UCLA. He taught his students to question everything; to always begin an analysis with first principles; to concentrate on essential elements and abstract from secondary ones; and to play devil’s advocate with one’s own ideas. In his classes we were able to watch a first-rate mind work on a host of fascinating problems. I have attempted to emulate his approach to research ever since.

And if you go to the Amazon page for University Economics and look at the comments you will see a comment from none other than Harry Markowitz:

I am about to order this book. I have just read its quite favorable reviews, and I am not a bit surprised at their being impressed by Armen Alchian’s writings. I was a colleague of Armen’s, at the Rand Corporation “think tank,” during the 1950s, and hold no economist in higher regard. When I sat down at my keyboard just now it was to find out what happened to Armen’s works. One Google response was someone saying that Armen should get a Nobel Prize. I concur. My own Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in 1990 along with the prize for Wm. Sharpe. I see in Wikipedia that Armen “influenced” Bill, and that Armen is still alive and is 96 years old. I’ll see if I can contact him, but first I’ll buy this book.

I will always remember Alchian’s air of amused, philosophical detachment, occasionally bemused (though, perhaps only apparently so, as he tried to guide his students and colleagues with question to figure out a point that he already grasped), always curious, always eager for the intellectual challenge of discovery and problem solving. Has there ever been a greater teacher of economics than Alchian? Perhaps, but I don’t know who. I close with one more quotation, this one from Axel Leijonhufvud written about Alchian 25 years ago.  It still rings true.

[Alchian’s] unique brand of price theory is what gave UCLA Economics its own intellectual profile and achieved for us international recognition as an independent school of some importance—as a group of scholars who did not always take their leads from MIT, Chicago or wherever. When I came here (in 1964) the Department had Armen’s intellectual stamp on it (and he remained the obvious leader until just a couple of years ago ….). Even people outside Armen’s fields, like myself, learned to do Armen’s brand of economic analysis and a strong esprit de corps among both faculty and graduate students sprang from the consciousness that this ‘New Institutional Economics’ was one of the waves of the future and that we, at UCLA, were surfing it way ahead of the rest. But Armen’s true importance to the UCLA school did not stem just from the new ideas he taught or the outwardly recognized “brandname” that he created for us. For many of his young colleagues he embodied qualities of mind and character that seemed the more important to seek to emulate the more closely you got to know him.


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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