A bad econ model is better than the alternative

Let us talk about this.

https://twitter.com/Noahpinion/status/1041714463060049920

I will be using this model myself next week to talk about migration (opps post timing changed and that was already up), so lets have some fun talking about this.

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Migration and wages: A model that is wrong but useful

The link between migration and wages is complex and confusing – especially when it is often communicated about in different ways (eg are we talking about wage growth now with regards to monetary policy, wages in specific industries due to the changing make-up of the economy, or long-run real wages?).  And I can’t be much help here.

However, I think this is one place where carefully using the macroeconomic model taught in ECON101 can help us to think about the issues a little bit – especially if we are narrowing the question to only “what is the monetary policy consequences of changes in migration flows“.  Now this model is wrong, assumptions in it are wrong, the outcomes it describes aren’t forecasts – but it clearly articulates tendencies we observe following a change in economic circumstances which will hold in more realistic models, and clarifies assumptions that may make these tendencies false.  We have pointed at this before for monetary policy – but lets outline a bit more now.

It is a model for thinking about the potential consequences of something in a critical way – not something that we accept uncritically as truth.  To me this is pretty damned useful as a way to start thinking about something, so let’s do it!

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“Left Youtube” is overusing the labour theory of value

While I have been MIA over the last four years a lot has changed on the internet and in terms of economic and social discourse.  The weird infatuation of the alt-right with “globalists” and nonsensical economic arguments is particularly upsetting – and I’ll be discussing how the decline in persuasiveness of economists has helped these types of people fill the void in the future.

My concern four years ago was that the non-rationalist identity politics of the left would open this type of negative nationalistic politics on the right – or would at least be used as a foil for it.  The refusal to actually state our assumptions and values is a failure irrespective of the intentions we hold.  In that way, when exploring Youtube I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the leftist video blogs – and their willingness to fully articulate their views.  Key examples of this are Shaun, Contrapoints, and Philosophy Tube.

However, these channels are distinctly “anti-capitalist” in terms of wanting sizable change in the status quo.  I am a mainstream economist that believes in incremental change.  A full discussion of this would be interesting – but give me time.  But to do so we need to get something clear about the labour theory of value that I am hearing them describe – it doesn’t make sense as a justification for anything let alone as a “theory of value”.

Note: The actual labour theory of value has been defined many ways – and the most profitable Marxian interpretation I’ve seen is trying to understand LTV as part of a subsistance wage argument on factor income shares.  That isn’t the focus here.

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Top 10: What has been happening in NZ?

I have spent most of the last four years trapped in a small space, pouring over legislation and microdata to figure out details of the New Zealand tax-transfer system prior to 2014 – with short breaks to deliver some lectures at Victoria University.  I learnt a lot, but I had no chance to keep up with the New Zealand economy.

So now I’m back, and I have questions.  This is what I bring up in my Top 10 over at interest.co.nz that went up this weekend.

So what are the key issues I’m struggling with:

  1. Why is the participation rate so high – this helps to describe it, but why? [Related facts:  It has been full time work climbing, with increasing participation by those over 65 AND rising female participation]
  2. Why has the NIIP liability position improved to the degree it has – this helps to describe it, but why?
  3. How are we seeing “late cycle” without input price pressures? [Note:  The RBNZ does not see this as late-cycle judging by this]
  4. The OCR looks low for “late cycle” – what is this due to?  I’m going to split this in two:  What part is due to real economy issues, and what part is due to changes in bank regulation/macroprudential policy?

Related questions – which are likely answered by the answers to the questions above are:

  1. Why is labour productivity so low?
  2. Why is the part-time employment as a percentage of employment so low?
  3. Why are house prices so high?
  4. Why is there no product price pressure – especially non-tradable prices?  This describes some – but why are non-tradables doing this now?
  5. Why is the terms of trade rising to the degree it is?

As you can tell reading this, I genuinely don’t know anything … but as someone who has a pretty clear view on macroeconomics and a good grasp on the NZ data and data history prior to 2014, I haven’t found any accessible answers to these questions easily.  So I am hoping you can help me here 😀

 

Why your GDP hate is misplaced

When it comes to economics the one single issue that seems to get everyone in a room in agreement is that GDP is trash.  Here is a transcript from a typical conversation between me and an individual who hears I’m an economist:

Individual: “You are an economist!  You must agree that GDP is crap.”

Nolan: “Ahh well, ummm, what question are you asking?”

Individual: “What, it is just crap though, you must agree that it is rubbish”

Nolan: “Well it depends on your question, why are we measur …”

Individual: “Come on, it is just rubbish, everyone agrees it is rubbish.  I mean we care about so many other things”

Nolan: “Ahh so your question is about what we should value. Ok yeah it doesn’t measure all social value but …”

Individual: “Yeah, it’s rubbish, exactly”

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve had this conversation – but in truth GDP is really good at measuring what it is supposed to measure … the problem is that people keep using it as a measure of something else.

But it is hardly the individual’s fault that they have come to this conclusion.  Decades of GDP fetishisation by policy makers combined with economists who spend more time talking about (and in the extreme teaching) the shortcomings of GDP than actually teaching what GDP is supposed to measure has provided this great rule of thumb that people follow to understand what is going on.

So in this post let me do something novel – let me stand up for GDP.

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GDP in three different charts

Flipchart Rick has a post up about Andy Haldane’s speech the other day and, like all Haldane’s work, it’s witty and engaging so you should definitely read it. The subject is the recent slowdown in growth in the developed world and it illustrates how different views of the same data can lead to very different conclusions.

Haldane plots the last 3000 years of GDP to show what a recent phenomenon exponential growth is:

screen-shot-2015-02-23-at-18-02-36
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