Posts Tagged 'Tyler Cowen'

Stigler Confirms that Wicksteed Did Indeed Discover the Coase Theorem

The world is full of surprises, a fact with which rational-expectations theorists have not yet come to grips. Yesterday I was surprised to find that a post of mine from May 2016, was attracting lots of traffic. When published, that post had not attracted much attention, and I had more or less forgotten about it, but when I quickly went back to look at it, I recalled that I had thought well of it, because in the process of calling attention to Wicksteed’s anticipation of the Coase Theorem, I thought that I had done a good job of demonstrating one of my favorite talking points: that what we think of as microeconomics (supply-demand analysis aka partial-equilibrium analysis) requires a macrofoundation, namely that all markets but the one under analysis are in equilibrium. In particular, Wicksteed showed that to use cost as a determinant of price in the context of partial-equilibrium analysis, one must assume that the prices of everything else have already been determined, because costs don’t exist independently of the prices of all other outputs. But, unfortunately, the post went pretty much unnoticed. Until yesterday.

After noticing all the traffic that an old post was suddenly receiving, I found that the source was Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, a link to my three-year-old post having been included in a post with five other links. I was curious to see if readers of Tyler’s blog would react to my post, so I checked the comments to his post. Most of them were directed towards the other links that Tyler included, but there were a few that mentioned mine. None of the comments really engaged with my larger point about Wicksteed; most of them focused on my claim that Wicksteed had anticipated the Coase Theorem. Here’s the most pointed comment, by Alan Gunn.

If Wicksteed didn’t mention transaction costs, he didn’t discover the Coase theorem. The importance of transaction costs and the errors economists make when they ignore them are what make Coase’s work important. The stuff about how initial assignment of rights doesn’t matter if transaction costs are zero is obvious and trivial.

A bit later I found that Scott Sumner, whose recent post on Econlib was also linked to by Tyler, added a comment to my post that more gently makes precisely a point exactly opposite of Alan Gunn’s.

Very good post. Some would argue that the essence of the Coase Theorem is not that the initial distribution of property rights doesn’t matter, but rather that it doesn’t matter if there are no transactions costs. I seem to recall that that was Coase’s view.

I agree with Scott that the essential point of the Coase Theorem is that if there are zero transactions costs, the initial allocation doesn’t matter. To credit Wicksteed with anticipating the Coase Theorem, you have to assume that Wicksteed understood that transactions costs had to be zero. But the zero transactions costs assumption was the default assumption. The question is then whether the observation that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation is a real discovery even if the assumption of zero transactions cost is made only implicitly. Wicksteed obviously did make that assumption, because his result would not have followed if transactions costs were zero. Articulating explicitly an assumption that was assumed implicitly is important, but the substance of the argument is unchanged.

I can’t comment on what Coase’s view of his theorem was, but Stigler clearly did view the Theorem to refer to a situation in which transactions costs were zero. And it was Stigler who attached the name Coase Theorem to Coase’s discovery, and he clearly thought that it was a discovery because the chapter in Stigler’s autobiography Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist in which he recounts the events surrounding the discovery of the Coase Theorem is entitle “Eureka!” (exclamation point is Stigler’s).

The chapter begins as follows:

Scientific discoveries are usually the product of dozens upon dozens tentative explorations, with almost as many blind alleys followed too long. The rare idea that grows into a hypothesis, even more rarely overcomes the difficulties and contradictions it soon encounters. An Archimedes who suddenly has a marvelous idea and shouts “Eureka!” is the hero of the rarest of events. I have spend all of my professional life in the company of first-class scholars but only once have I encountered something like the sudden Archimedian revelation – as an observer. (p. 73)

After recounting the history of the Marshallian doctrine of external economies and its development by Pigou into a deviation between private and social costs, Stigler continues:

The disharmonies between private and social interests produced by external economies and diseconomies became gospel to the economics profession. . . . When, in 1960, Ronald Coase criticized Pigou’s theory rather casually, in the course of a masterly analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s work, Chicago economists could not understand how so fine an economist as Coase could make so obvious a mistake. Since he persisted [he persisted!], we invited Coase . . . to come and give a talk on it. Some twenty economists from the University of Chicago and Ronald Coase assembled one evening at the home of Aaron Director. Ronald asked us to assume, for a time, a world without transactions costs. That seemed reasonable because economists . . .  are accustomed . . . to deal with simplified . . . “models” and problems. . . .

Ronald asked us to believe . . . [that] whatever the assignment of legal liability for damages, or whatever assignment of legal rights of ownership, the assignments would have no effect upon the way economic resources would be used! We strongly objected to this heresy. Milton Friedman did most of the talking, as usual. He also did much of the thinking, as usual. In the course of two hours of argument the vote went from twenty against and one for Coase to twenty-one for Coase. What an exhilarating event! I lamented afterward that we had not the clairvoyance to tape it (pp. 74-76)

Stigler then summarizes Coase’s argument and proceeds to tell his understanding of the proposition that he called the Coase Theorem.

This proposition, that when there are no transactions costs the assignments of legal rights have no effect upon the allocation of resources among economic enterprises, will, I hope, be reasonable and possibly even obvious once it is explained. Nevertheless there were a fair number of “refutations” published in the economic journals. I christened the proposition the “Coase Theorem” and that is how it is known today. Scientific theories are hardly ever named after their first discoverers . . . so this is a rare example of correct attribution of a priority.

Well, not so much. Coase’s real insight was to see that all economic exchange involves an exchange of rights over resources rather than over the resources themselves. But the insight that the final allocation is independent of the initial allocation was Wicksteed’s.

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Can We All Export Our Way out of Depression?

Tyler Cowen has a post chastising Keynesians for scolding Germany for advising their Euro counterparts to adopt the virtuous German example of increasing their international competitiveness so that they can increase their exports, thereby increasing GDP and employment. The Keynesian response is that increasing exports is a zero-sum game, so that, far from being a recipe for recovery, the German advice is actually a recipe for continued stagnation.

Tyler doesn’t think much of the Keynesian response.

But that Keynesian counter is a mistake, perhaps brought on by the IS-LM model and its impoverished treatment of banking and credit.

Let’s say all nations could indeed increase their gross exports, although of course the sum of net exports could not go up.  The first effect is that small- and medium-sized enterprises would be more profitable in the currently troubled economies.  They would receive more credit and the broader monetary aggregates would go up in those countries, reflating their economies.  (Price level integration is not so tight in these cases, furthermore much of the reflation could operate through q’s rather than p’s.)  It sometimes feels like the IS-LM users have a mercantilist gold standard model, where the commodity base money can only be shuffled around in zero-sum fashion and not much more can happen in a positive direction.

The problem with Tyler’s rejoinder to the Keynesian response, which, I agree, provides an incomplete picture of what is going on, is that he assumes that which he wants to prove, thereby making his job just a bit too easy. That is, Tyler just assumes that “all nations could indeed increase their gross exports.” Obviously, if all nations increase their gross exports, they will very likely all increase their total output and employment. (It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that all the additional exports could be generated by shifting output from non-tradables to tradables, but that seems an extremely unlikely scenario.) The reaction of credit markets and monetary aggregates would be very much a second-order reaction. It’s the initial assumption–  that all nations could increase gross exports simultaneously — that is doing all the heavy lifting.

Concerning Tyler’s characterization of the IS-LM model as a mercantilist gold-standard model, I agree that IS-LM has serious deficiencies, but that characterization strikes me as unfair. The simple IS-LM model is a closed economy model, with an exogenously determined price level. Such a model certainly has certain similarities to a mercantilist gold standard model, but that doesn’t mean that the two models are essentially the same. There are many ways of augmenting the IS-LM model to turn it into an open-economy model, in which case it would not necessarily resemble the a mercantilist gold-standard model.

Now I am guessing that Tyler would respond to my criticism by asking: “well, why wouldn’t all countries increase their gross exports is they all followed the German advice?”

My response to that question would be that the conclusion that everybody’s exports would increase if everybody became more efficient logically follows only in a comparative-statics framework. But, for purposes of this exercise, we are not starting from an equilibrium, and we have no assurance that, in a disequilibrium environment, the interaction of the overall macro disequilibrium with the posited increase of efficiency would produce, as the comparative-statics exercise would lead us to believe, a straightforward increase in everyone’s exports. Indeed, even the comparative-statics exercise is making an unsubstantiated assumption that the initial equilibrium is locally unique and stable.

Of course, this response might be dismissed as a mere theoretical possibility, though the likelihood that widespread adoption of export-increasing policies in the midst of an international depression, unaccompanied by monetary expansion, would lead to increased output does not seem all that high to me. So let’s think about what might happen if all countries simultaneously adopted export-increasing policies. The first point to consider is that not all countries are the same, and not all are in a position to increase their exports by as much or as quickly as others. Inevitably, some countries would increase their exports faster than others. As a result, it is also inevitable that some countries would lose export markets as other countries penetrated export markets before they did. In addition, some countries would experience declines in domestic output as domestic-import competing industries were forced by import competition to curtail output. In the absence of demand-increasing monetary policies, output and employment in some countries would very likely fall. This is the kernel of truth in the conventional IS-LM analysis that Tyler tries to dismiss. The IS-LM framework abstracts from the output-increasing tendency of export-led growth, but the comparative-statics approach abstracts from aggregate-demand effects that could easily overwhelm the comparative-statics effect.

Now, to be fair, I must acknowledge that Tyler reaches a pretty balanced conclusion:

This interpretation of the meaning of zero-sum net exports is one of the most common economic mistakes you will hear from serious economists in the blogosphere, and yet it is often presented dogmatically or dismissively in a single sentence, without much consideration of more complex or more realistic scenarios.

That is a reasonable conclusion, but I think it would be just as dogmatic, if not more so, to rely on the comparative-statics analysis that Tyler goes through in the first part of his post without consideration of more complex or more realistic scenarios.

Let me also offer a comment on Scott Sumner’s take on Tyler’s post. Scott tries to translate Tyler’s analysis into macroeconomic terms to support Tyler’s comparative-statics analysis. Scott considers three methods by which exports might be increased: 1) supply-side reforms, 2) monetary stimulus aimed at currency depreciation, and 3) increased government saving (fiscal austerity). The first two, Scott believes, lead to increased output and employment, and that the third is a wash. I agree with Scott about monetary stimulus aimed at currency depreciation, but I disagree (at least in part) about the other two.

Supply-side reforms [to increase exports] boost output under either an inflation target, or a dual mandate.  If you want to use the Keynesian model, these reforms boost the Wicksellian equilibrium interest rate, which makes NGDP grow faster, even at the zero bound.

Scott makes a fair point, but I don’t think it is necessarily true for all inflation targets. Here is how I would put it. Because supply-side reforms to increase exports could cause aggregate demand in some countries to fall, and we have very little ability to predict by how much aggregate demand could go down in some countries adversely affected by increased competition from exports by other countries, it is at least possible that worldwide aggregate demand would fall if such policies were generally adopted. You can’t tell how the Wicksellian natural rate would be affected until you’ve accounted for all the indirect feedback effects on aggregate demand. If the Wicksellian natural rate fell, an inflation target, even if met, might not prevent a slowdown in NGDP growth, and a net reduction in output and employment. To prevent a slowdown in NGDP growth would require increasing the inflation target. Of course, under a real dual mandate (as opposed to the sham dual mandate now in place at the Fed) or an NGDP target, monetary policy would have to be loosened sufficiently to prevent output and employment from falling.

As far as government saving (fiscal austerity), I’d say it’s a net wash, for monetary offset reasons.

I am not sure what Scott means about monetary offset in this context. As I have argued in several earlier posts (here, here, here and here), attempting to increase employment via currency depreciation and increased saving involves tightening monetary policy, not loosening it. So I don’t see how fiscal policy can be used to depreciate a currency at the same time that monetary policy is being loosened. At any rate, if monetary policy is being used to depreciate the currency, then I see no difference between options 2) and 3).

But my general comment is that, like Tyler, Scott seems to be exaggerating the difference between his bottom line and the one that comes out of the IS-LM model, though I am certainly not saying that IS-LM is  last word on the subject.


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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