QOTD: Delong on targets and the ‘great stagnation’

Golden passage from Brad Delong.  For once I’m going to put up a quote and not add my thoughts – as they’d just get in the way:

The focus on real GDP growth and its possible–or likely–slowing is a setup to panic us into making policy decisions we really do not want to make. The “great stagnation” literature as it is currently constituted seems to me at least to guide our attention in the wrong direction–and to quite possibly stampede us into making policy decisions we really would not want to make if we thought more deeply and calmly. The chain of logic is that measures to reduce inequality have a cost in terms of reducing the growth rate of the economy–that the bucket of redistribution is, in the terms of Arthur Okun’s Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, a leaky bucket–and that when growth is slower we can no longer afford to engage in redistribution. This seems to me to be the wrong way to conceptualize it: the evidence that the bucket is leaky is weak–or, rather, there are many buckets, some very leaky, some not leaky at all, some anti-leaky–and in any event whether we should tradeoff potential growth for other objectives is not something the depends on how fast growth is. Policies that make sense if underlying GDP per worker growth is 3% probably still make sense if underlying GDP per worker growth is 1%. Policies that don’t make sense if underlying GDP per worker growth is 1% probably still don’t make sense if underlying GDP per worker growth is 3%.

But my aim here is simply to lay down a marker as far as point is concerned: to enjoin you not to get stampeded into going someplace you really do not want to go.

 

Was Summers right in saying “pollute the LDCs”?

Back in 1991, Larry Summers upset a lot of people as Chief Economist at the World Bank.  His memo has been viewed as morally reprehensible, was cited in the second chapter of this book as indicative of the way economists ignore moral values, and was used as a key example in a philosophy class I sat in of the untenable nature of economic arguments.

But, as a description of what would happen if people in LDC’s (least developed countries) had the choice, was he actually correct?

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The excel error in Rogoff-Reinhart

I see the Rogoff-Reinhart figures regarding the correlation between GDP growth and the size of the debt stock are currently under attack – due largely to an unfortunate excel error discovered reported by Mike Konczal.  Here are the list of posts about it at the moment:

All very nice.  Depending on the message people were trying to sell they either said the result was meaningless, or central, so I don’t think this makes any actual difference.  Honestly, without clear causal drivers there just were not good evidence based claims for actual policy adjustments – a lot of people were actually just saying we need to do X based on their preconceptions.  And they found this correlation either something that supports that (somehow) or something they need to rule out.

Over the last few years I have seen authors, at different times, use R-R as central to their argument on one thing, and then dismiss it for arguments regarding other issues (I’m not going to name names).  For example, you can’t use this result to say we need more savings policy because the stock of debt is to high, then complain that the study is flawed when you want more government borrowing … just focus on the actual core elements of your frikken argument instead!

My problem with the result isn’t the excel errors, or anything R-R appear to have said – it is the way it has been used as an inconsistent marketing tool by people for selling their own unrelated ideological policies.  I’m just hoping that this shuts that up.

As a side note, here are my feelings on twitter:

People who think the R&R result caused austerity overestimate the impact evidence has on government policy.

An “ecosystem” of relative prices

I just noticed an article on the industrial research limited site discussing how NZ needs to think.  Money quote is:

What I take from that is we need to think laterally, not literally. When we think about investing in particular sectors, we must realise we will need capabilities that aren’t necessarily obvious to us. We just won’t know what types of knowledge we are going to need to build particular parts of our economy.

The interesting thing is that many economists agree with some of what the author mentions in their piece, in terms of discussing scale and the inter-relationships of firms – but from this loose description there is no clear role for policy, or understanding.

In truth, we need to understand the idea behind inter-relationships in a way consistent with methodological individualism.  Then given that theory, we need to go back to data truly quantify what is going on – given the framework that this theory provides.  From there, we can try to decipher if policy can help of not.

And any such theory relies strong on relative prices – contrary to the inference the article appears to be making, we do not have a command and control economy, and the government is not trying to work out the allocation of resources.  Relative prices, both implicit and explicit, are the driving force of any description of what is going on in New Zealand – and our starting point, and final discussion in terms of policy needs to rely on these.

Think about it, we are told how these firms rely on each other, how they add value to each other, and in each others markets.  This doesn’t make an “externality” in the traditional sense, it just tells us that we have firms whose markets are interconnected – and as a result, there will be some implicit contracts between these firms (and implicit prices) that help to share the surplus of their trade.  In an extreme case, when the benefit is enough, and the outside contracting is weak enough, these firms would horizontally (or vertically depending on the relationship) integrate.

The fact that firms are inter-related doesn’t suddenly provide a role for government.  The fact that scale matters for output does not mean that FORCING an increase in the population distribution will increase welfare.

Update Bill discussed this hereAnd Eric.  How did I miss it when I read both of those blogs daily … I blame my new Kindle for making me focus on Mill instead of my blog reading.

Sidenote:  I have to mention this statement:

Because New Zealand doesn’t have a truly large city by international standards, we must work harder at innovation to compensate for our economic geography and collaborate as if we were a city of four million people.

I have tried to be kind in the rest of the piece, but I have to admit that this statement is blatantly ridiculous.

Two things:

  1. The benefits of population density in large cities come very much from population density – saying we are a city doesn’t do anything to change this.
  2. More importantly, saying we need to “innovate more” because of our disadvantages doesn’t necessarily make sense – it depends on the marginal benefit of innovation relative to the cost.  If our distance from market reduces the marginal benefit from innovation, then this statement isn’t just wrong – its harmful if its followed through with.

I love to hear scientists describe the potentials for technology, and discuss the production possibilities they face.  But they really should get an economist to join the party when it comes to discussing issues of allocation – given that this is the economists area of expertise.

Size matters

The Economist thinks that the prevalence of small firms in Greece is a problem.

A bias to small firms is costly. The productivity of European firms with fewer than 20 workers is on average little more than half that of firms with 250 or more workers (see right-hand chart). …If the best small firms were able to grow bigger, Greece and the rest might solve their competitiveness problems…

This is pertinent to New Zealand since we also have a small number of very large firms, although we may not have the prevalence of very small firms that Greece does. Beyond the arguments over data issues, it’s interesting to ask whether we might agree with The Economist that this poses a problem for growth. Certainly, New Zealand’s growth might be higher if firms grew, but then why haven’t they already? Not because the owners don’t want to reap the rewards of growth, surely.

Of course, what we need to ask is why the proportion of small firms/large firms is the way it is. The Economist points to tax and labour laws in Greece that punish large firms. In New Zealand it is hard to point to similar legal barriers to growth in firm size, as far as I know. It may be that New Zealand firm owners prefer smaller firms, or that it is difficult for firms to find local, skilled labour (random speculation, not to be taken too seriously). What this highlights is the importance of understanding the differences in countries, as well as their similarities, before rushing to emulate them. Are we the next Ireland/Singapore/Finland? Well, no, we’re a bit different from all those countries and we can’t replicate their successes without understanding those differences.

Wealth distribution and demographics

A very good point from Stephen Gordon at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative that the growing concentration of wealth may, in part, be to do with changing demographics.

Although I doubt this is the sole factor behind the growing concentration of wealth, it is a factor I’ve been thinking about – and that I’m keen to see someone else quantify.

One thing we have to keep in mind is that standard economic theory does predict a growing concentration of wealth as

  • the idea of  “rational expectations” when some agents are not rational implies that rational agents will tend to suck up wealth from irrational agents – it is a common misconception that “rational expectations” requires any agents to be “rational” in the strictest sense …  however, it does imply that agents that are “more rational” do receive transfers through time from their “irrational” buddies.
  • the fact that individuals have different discount factors suggests that more patient individuals who are more patient will tend to accumulate more wealth.

Now this isn’t necessarily even an issue, after all if people built up wealth due to their own choices they deserve it.  However, trying to understand how much of the recent change is due to the full functioning of financial markets in recent decades, how much is due to demographics, and how much is due to other policy change is important to understand before we really know anything.