It’s economic analysis, not commentary

Every time the statistical authority releases new data there is a surge in economic commentary. Not analysis, but commentary. A thoughtful analysis would usually say that a single new data point doesn’t provide enough information to change anything we thought previously. There’s just too much randomness and error in point estimates to be able to tell much from them. Commentary is different because it creates a narrative and fits the data into that narrative.

A good example is the narrative about double and triple-dips in the UK. Commentators made much of the ONS’ revisions to the GDP series that ‘revised away’ the triple-dip, ‘vindicating Osborne’. The revisions may have eliminated a slight dip in GDP but they didn’t change anyone’s understanding of what had happened in the macroeconomy. That data was important for commentary but not for analysis. In fairness to commentators, distinguishing genuine trends from randomness is not easy. Our eyes are drawn to ‘streaks’, whether in football games or economic time series, even when the series is essentially random. Economists are always looking for techniques to separate the streaks from the randomness. The problem we face is that many of the tools are fairly impenetrable to casual observers and hard to explain.

Edward Tufte has suggested using randomised sparklines to visually distinguish genuine trends from deceptive streaks, so I thought I’d give it a go with the last four years of UK unemployment data. Here is the monthly change in the UK unemployment rate since June 2009: Monthly percentage point change in UK unemployment rate: June 2009-October 2013. We think that a recovery has begun so the recent years’ falling unemployment looks good. Now let’s try randomising the values and see if the ‘streak’ disappears. Read more

The economist and the politician

There has been a small kerfuffle over the appearance of Jonathan Portes, Director of NIESR, at the Treasury Select Committee. Portes was there to discuss NIESR’s latest economic forecasts and encountered unexpectedly aggressive questioning about his political beliefs from one of the Members. Jesse Norman claimed Portes’ statement that the Government’s austerity plans had ‘failed’ relied upon his personal politics. Portes responded that, while his opinions might be politically relevant, they were purely positive economics.

Norman has now clarified on his blog (HT) that he is specifically saying that reaching a conclusion about a policy’s ‘failure’ requires a normative judgment. Regular readers of TVHE will know that we entirely support Mr Norman’s view that policy judgements require normative statements. Given that a normative statement doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, it must at least be influenced by the same set of personal beliefs as a political view. Hence, it may be that knowing somebody’s personal, political view is helpful for interpreting some of their policy judgements. However, there is a spectrum of normative judgements from those that would be agreed with by only people who share one’s specific political views to those that would be agreeable to experts of all political stripes.

In this case it is clear that Portes statement about ‘failure’ referred to two things: the results of a NIESR modelling exercise, and a belief that the UK’s current economic predicament is due to a demand shortage. His conclusions about each require value judgements, but not the sort that would usually generate a political division among serious macroeconomists—which isn’t to say they’re not divided! Norman, despite his protestations, was not seeking to engage in a discussion about whether the specific value judgements were likely to be politically motivated. Rather, he sought to discredit Portes view of gilt rates by casting aspersions upon his independence.

It is episodes such as these that discourage experts from contributing to the policy debate, even when they have much to contribute. That is a great shame. As Antonio Fatas says

…some of what we do as academics is not useful enough for policy makers, and in these circumstances is better to be honest and stay out of the debate. But …one can find answers to those questions after careful thinking and a lot of data analysis.

policy makers need to choose a number, not a range. [Academics] can be criticized on their assumptions or calculations but not on their willingness to advance the knowledge on an issue of great policy relevance. If any, they should be praised as academics who want to go beyond writing great papers to make those papers useful for policy makers or society at large.

The unknown economist

He is known for tirelessly bringing the facts to every debate and applying economic theory in the midst of heated arguments. The unknown economist works behind a veil of nerdiness, invisible to normal people going about their daily lives. Yet through his perseverance we hope that some order is brought to the world, one internet argument at a time. We can now exclusively reveal his secret identity…
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Larry Summers: revealed brilliance

If you’re not an economist you may not have heard of Larry Summers. He’s the nephew of Paul Samuleson and Kenneth Arrow, and has himself received the John Bates Clark medal, been president of Harvard university, Chief Economist of the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury for Clinton, and Director of the National Economic Council for Obama. So, a fairly stellar CV, really. What makes this interesting? Well, Wikipedia tells us:

Summers resigned as Harvard’s president in the wake of a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty that resulted in large part from Summers’s conflict with Cornel West, financial conflict of interest questions regarding his relationship with Andrei Shleifer, and a 2005 speech in which he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due to a “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” and less to patterns of discrimination and socialization.

Summers stated in a 1991 interview: “There are no… limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.”

In December 1991, while at the World Bank, Summers signed a memo … stat[ing] that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that…. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.”

More recently, he has claimed that there is no point learning to speak any language other than English–the native tongue of only 6% of the world.

Whatever you think of the substance of those comments, they’re probably not what you’d put in your firm’s PR material. So Summers is not exactly a stranger to controversy. Just imagine your thought process when faced with a man that has such a history of gaffes: he would have to absolutely stun you with his brilliance to win your confidence such that you’d appoint him to a role under any public scrutiny. Yet, Summers continues to win the most prestigious positions that an economist could hold. If that doesn’t reveal how persuasive and impressive the man must be in person then I’m not sure what would! Unfortunately, it probably also says something about how first-world institutions view statements that appear to demean socially disadvantaged groups.

The day where Panadol was needed

I realise that oft times my writing style, and the writing on this blog is very “faux academic”.  That suits my purposes as I like having the fully described arguments that come from this sort of writing – however, it can also be boring.

In order to help related economic ideas to the common man, I’ve decided to start up a Friday post – a day in the life of an economist.  In these posts I will go through everyday things, and discuss how economic ideas can crop up while we are living our daily lives.

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