The Future of Everything

February 8, 2016

The Five Stages of Economic Grief (Part 3)

Filed under: Economics — David @ 4:09 pm

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five separate stages or aspects of the grief process. These were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The field of economics experienced a traumatic loss during the financial crisis, which left Alan Greenspan in what he called in 2008 testimony “a state of shocked disbelief.” Economists are now working their way slowly through the grief progress, as they realise that their treasured economic models not only failed to predict the crisis, but played an active role in creating it.

The first two stages have already been charted in this blog. A 2014 post asked Is economics in a state of denial? (the answer was: yes). 2015’s Book burning economists discussed the anger that some economists were venting on certain critics (e.g. me). The next stage – and the subject of this post – is “bargaining”. Part of this is bargaining with the future – if we follow certain rules perhaps we can put things right – but another is a kind of retroactive bargaining with the past, saying that the event would not have occurred if only such-and-such had happened.

A case in point is the book Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science, by Dani Rodrik of Harvard University, which sets out to explain “why economics sometimes gets it right and sometimes doesn’t.” Rodrik’s conclusion is that mathematical models “are both economics’ strength and its Achilles’ heel.” On the one hand they offer a degree of clarity and consistency which is not possible with purely verbal descriptions. However they are easily misused or taken out of context.

Telling a story

As Rodrik points out, models are best seen as a kind of story. No single model can accurately capture every detail of the economy, but it can illuminate some aspect of the system. The trick is therefore to choose which model is the most suitable for any particular situation. One conclusion is that very large and general models, of the sort often favoured by macroeconomists, are not very useful: “I cannot think of an important economic insight that has come out of such models. In fact, they have often led us astray.”

Rodrik also acknowledges that most economists missed the causes of the financial crisis, with some notable exceptions who were quickly shouted down (such as the IMF’s Raghuram Rajan, who in 2005 told an audience of central bankers including Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke that financial innovation had introduced new risks into the financial system, only to be called a “Luddite” by Larry Summers).

According to Rodrik, the reason that the profession did not cover itself in glory before and during the crisis was that leading economists had bought into the dominant efficient market paradigm which saw markets “not only as inherently efficient and stable, but also as self-disciplining.” Regulators just had to get out of the way and the invisible hand would do its job. However, economists use all kinds of models in their work, and “what makes this episode particularly curious is that there were, in fact, plenty of models to help explain what had been going on under the economy’s hood.”

If only they had chosen the right model, perhaps something could have been done! Indeed one such model, which Rodrik does not mention, is that of Hyman Minsky, whose work on financial stability became famous after the crisis, but was all but unknown before it; an assessment published a year after his 1996 death concluded that his “work has not had a major influence in the macroeconomic discussions of the last thirty years.” Curious indeed.

Rodrik also seems a little surprised by claims, from student-based groups such as Manchester University’s Post Crash Economics Society, that economics is overly narrow and lacks pluralism. “How do we understand these complaints,” Rodrik asks, “in light of the patent multiplicity of models within economics?”

A possible reason might be that economists have what he notes is a “guild mentality” which “renders the profession insular and immune to outside criticism.” He observes in a couple of places that “Only card-carrying members of the profession are viewed as legitimate participants in economic debates.” But later he cites the influence of behavioural psychologists and so on to conclude that “the view of economics as an insular, inbred discipline closed to outside influence is more caricature than reality.”

His answer instead is that there is nothing wrong with economics per se, there is just a communication problem. Most economists are poor at presenting their arguments to the public, because they “see themselves as scientists and researchers whose job it is to write academic papers.” Also undergraduate students at Manchester, or Rodrik’s Harvard where students launched their own protest in 2011, obviously don’t get exposed to the full rich diversity of economic thought. Though this still doesn’t quite explain why, as Cambridge University economists Ha-Joon Chang and Jonathan Aldred wrote in 2014, their subject “is the only academic discipline in which a significant and increasing number of students are in an open revolt against the content of their degree courses.”

Good grief

Rodrik concludes his book with “Ten Commandments” – though “bargaining points” might be a better term – for economists, and ten for noneconomists. The latter includes “If you think all economists think alike, attend one of their seminars” and “If you think economists are especially rude to noneconomists, attend one of their seminars” (as if rudeness were a sign of healthy debate). However there is no such exhortation for economists to attend seminars outside their own field; and indeed the book makes little attempt to find out what these complaints from students, hetereodox economists, and other non-card carriers actually are.

For example, one of the major criticisms of economic models is that they rarely account for the effects of money, banks, credit, or the financial sector. This omission, which played a hugely important role in the crisis, is beyond curious, it is downright bizarre; but as with other such books to emerge from the mainstream there is hardly any mention of money, apart from the observation that phenomena such as bubbles and bank runs have been known about for a long time. Nor does the book come to grips with the interesting questions of why theories of non-conformists such as Minsky were repressed, or why the field’s core teachings of efficiency, rationality, etc. came to be so perfectly aligned with the PR needs of the financial sector.

Economics Rules offers many useful and valid insights into the nature of economic models, but attempts to rationalise away the problems which confront the field rather than face them squarely. So here is not a commandment, but a gentle suggestion to economists in this difficult time: let’s try to get stage 4 (“depression”) over with quickly, it’s time for stage 5: “acceptance”.

Stay tuned.

Update: A version of this article was published in the February issue of the WEA Newsletter.

September 6, 2015

The true value of money: What would a revolution of economics look like?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — David @ 11:50 am

Economics needs a revolution.

This sentiment has been expressed by people from the physicist turned hedge-fund manager Jean-Philippe Bouchaud (in a 2008 paper), to the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane (in a 2014 foreword for Manchester’s student-run Post-Crash Economics), to activist groups such as Kick It Over. So what would such a revolution look like?

Perhaps the archetypal model for a scientific revolution is the quantum revolution that shocked the world at the turn of the last century. In the space of a few short years, almost everything that was known about the nature of matter was overturned. The Newtonian view of the world as a predictable machine crumbled with it.

Except, that is, in economics – which continues to base its models on quasi-Newtonian economic laws.

Read the full article at Adbusters.

August 27, 2015

99 Bitcoins interview

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — David @ 1:00 pm

Chatted about cryptocurrencies with Maria Santos from 99 Bitcoins, full interview is here.

August 19, 2015

Bitcoin needs a new theory of money

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — David @ 4:06 pm

Is bitcoin money? To its users the answer will be a resounding yes, but to many people, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the answer is less clear. Indeed, one of the things holding back the adoption of cybercurrencies such as bitcoin is that they do not conform with traditional ideas about money.

Read the rest of the article at Bitcoin Magazine.

July 19, 2015

A Quantum Theory of Money and Value

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , — David @ 9:09 pm

Abstract of a new paper posted to SSRN:

The answer to the question “what is money?” has changed throughout history. During the gold standard era, money was seen as gold or silver (the theory known as bullionism). In the early 20th century, the alternative theory known as chartalism proposed that money was a token chosen by the state for payment of taxes. Today, many economists take an agnostic line, and argue that money is best defined in terms of its function, e.g. as a neutral medium of exchange. This paper argues that none of these approaches adequately describe the nature of money, and proposes a new theory, inspired by non-Newtonian physics, which takes into account the dualistic real/virtual properties and complex nature of money. The theory is applied to the example of the emergence of cybercurrencies.

 

Read the full article here.

July 13, 2015

Home Capital Group

Filed under: Economics — Tags: — David @ 7:49 pm

Home Capital is the leading supplier for the uninsured mortgage market, especially in Toronto. Is today’s fall a leading indicator for the Toronto housing market?

HomeCapitalGroup

July 11, 2015

Book burning economists

Filed under: Economics, World Finance column — Tags: — David @ 4:20 pm

Readers of this column, no doubt concerned for my wellbeing, have occasionally asked how my book Economyths – a critique of mainstream economics from the point of view of an applied mathematician – was received by economists.

The book, which also served as the basis for many Econoclast articles, did muster a number of positive reviews, from publications ranging from Bloomberg to Handelsblatt. The science writer Brian Clegg called it “probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read” (he’s not an economist, I just wanted to mention it, before we go on). Perhaps the strongest endorsement was from Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, who co-wrote a subsequent book with me.

Not everyone was so complimentary. (Read the rest of this article at World Finance.)

May 8, 2015

Quantum money

Filed under: Economics, World Finance column — Tags: , — David @ 3:42 pm

It is often said that quantum physics is so weird that it is beyond our understanding. But there is one area where some quantum insights might prove applicable to our everyday lives, and it’s a surprisingly common one: money. Just as subatomic objects have a dual nature, so do the money objects that we use to make payments. The main difference is that these objects are things we have designed ourselves. They are our contribution to the quantum universe.

Read latest World Finance column here.

April 30, 2015

Canada house prices overvalued?

Filed under: Economics — Tags: — David @ 4:17 pm

The Globe and Mail recently came out with an article comparing different studies of Canada’s housing market. What was striking was how different the results are. According to Deutsche Bank, houses are 60 percent too expensive, while according to economist Will Dunning they are actually undervalued by 9 percent. Here are all seven estimates:

Deutsche Bank: +60 percent

Fitch (rating agency): +24 percent

Bank of Canada: +20 percent

IMF: +11 percent

TD Bank: +11 percent

CMHC: +3 percent

Dunning: -9 percent

How can they be so different? One reason is that they used different valuation metrics. But a more simple explanation is that the answers depend on the particular stance of the forecaster, and the message they are trying to give.

Fitch (at +24 percent) is sending a warning.

The Bank of Canada (+20) is sending a warning but trying not to be alarmist.

The IMF (+11) is playing it safe.

TD Bank (+11) is also trying to play it safe, since it is exposed to the housing market but mostly protected against declines by government insurance programs.

CMHC (+3) has a lot to lose since they are on the hook for insurance. Safe bet that they will never predict a decline.

Will Dunning (-9) works as chief economist for the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals.

And Deutsche Bank (+60)? Maybe they’re just genuinely worried.

April 27, 2015

Kick It Over – reforming economics

Filed under: Economics — Tags: — David @ 7:52 pm

“Despite its enormous failings in the face of the financial crash, the mainstream of the profession has by and large failed to embrace self-criticism or open itself up to different approaches.”

Keith Harrington from the activist group Kick It Over. Sounds like economists in denial.

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