Tag Archives: Economics

How Redistribution Makes America Richer

Modeling the numbers on bottom-up and middle-out economics.
By Steve Roth – You hear a lot about bottom-up and middle-out economics these days, as antidotes to a half-century of “trickle-down” theorizing and rhetoric. You’re even hearing it, prominently, from Joe Biden.

They’re compelling ideas: put more wealth and income in the hands of millions, or hundreds of millions, and you’ll see more economic activity, more prosperity, and more widespread prosperity. To its proponents, it seems deeply intuitive or even obvious, a formula for The American Dream.

But curiously, you don’t find much nuts and bolts economic theory supporting that view of how economies work. There’s been lots of research on the sources and causes of wealth and income concentration. There’s been a lot of important work on the social and political effects of inequality — separate (though tightly related) issues. But unlike the steady stream of “incentive” theory from Right economists over decades, Left and heterodox economists have largely failed to ask or answer a rather basic theoretical (and empirical) question: what are the purely economic effects of highly-concentrated wealth, held by fewer people, families, and dynasties, in larger and larger fortunes?

In a new paper and model published in Real-World Economics Review, I try to tackle that question. The model takes advantage of national accountants’ wealth measures that have only been available since 2006 or 2012 (with coverage back to 1960), and measures of wealth distribution that were only published in 2019. Combined with thirty+ years of consistent survey data on consumer spending at different income levels, the paper derives a novel economic measure: velocity of wealth.

The bottom 80% group turns over its wealth in annual spending three or four times as fast as the top 20%. The arithmetic takeaway: at a given level of wealth, more broadly distributed wealth means more spending: the very stuff of economic activity, which is itself the ultimate source of wealth accumulation.

The details of the model are somewhat more complex, but it only employs five easy to understand formulas — all basically just arithmetic, and all expressed without resort to abstruse symbols; they use plain language. more>

Green markets won’t save us

Markets are an unreliable guide for navigating a problem as large and complex as climate change.
By Katharina Pistor – How can one make wise decisions about a perpetually unknowable future? This question is as old as humankind, but it has become existential in light of climate change. Although there is sufficient evidence that anthropogenic climate change is already here, we cannot possibly know all the ways that it will ramify in the coming decades. All we know is that we must either reduce our environmental footprint or risk another global crisis on the scale of the ‘little ice age’ in the 17th century, when climatic changes led to widespread disease, rebellion, war and mass starvation, cutting short the lives of two-thirds of the global population.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes famously argued that investors are driven ultimately by ‘animal spirits’. In the face of uncertainty, people act on gut feelings, not ‘a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities’, and it is these instinct-driven bets that may (or may not) pay off after the dust settles. And yet policy-makers would have us trust animal spirits to help us overcome the uncertainty associated with climate change.

Humanity has long sought to reduce uncertainty by making the natural world more legible, and thus subject to its control. For centuries, natural scientists have mapped the world, created taxonomies of plants and animals, and (more recently) sequenced the genomes of many species in the hope of discovering treatments against all imaginable maladies.

What maps, taxonomies and sequences are to chemists and biologists, numbers and indicators are to social scientists. Prices, for example, signal the market value of goods and services, and the expected future value of financial assets. If investors have largely ignored certain assets, the reason might be that they were improperly measured or priced. more>

Bad stimulus: Government payments to individuals are a terrible way to solve America’s structural economic problems

By Albena Azmanova and Marshall Auerback – The new Democratic administration is poised to make its first proud step in delivering on its electoral promise to build back (America) better: the successful adoption of a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, the main components of which are a third round of stimulus checks, a renewal of federal unemployment benefits, and a boost to the child tax credit, as well as funding for school reopenings and vaccinations. It will probably not include a federal minimum wage hike.

Biden’s stimulus is not the stuff of economic revolution—it’s a mix of common sense and keeping the lights on. And the fundamental thinking behind the stimulus approach reflects a continuation of neoliberal policies of the past 40 years; instead of advancing broader social programs that could uplift the population, the solutions are predicated on improving individual purchasing power and family circumstances.

Such a vision of society as a collection of enterprising individuals is a hallmark of the neoliberal policy formula—which, as the stimulus bill is about to make clear, is still prevalent within the Democratic and the Republican parties. This attention to individual purchasing power promises to be the basis for bipartisan agreement over the next four years.

The reality is that social programs on health care and education, and a new era of labor and banking regulation, would put the wider society on sounder feet than a check for $1,400.

There are very few federally elected officials who behave as though they understand that economic insecurity can breed political instability and governing paralysis.

Globalization, deindustrialization, the contraction of the public sector, and the rise of contract labor via the gig economy have made individuals feel insecure in their private circumstances. This has contributed to the appeal of populist politicians, whose tenures generally are corrosive to liberal democracies. Moreover, these tendencies have together undermined our social contract as a whole, depriving governments of the means and resources to tend to the public interest. more>

What Do Economists Mean When They Talk About “Capital Accumulation”?

In every other science, this inability to measure the key category of the theory would be devastating. But not in the science of economics.
By Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan – What do economists mean when they talk about “capital accumulation”? Surprisingly, the answer to this question is anything but clear, and it seems the most unclear in times of turmoil. Consider the “financial crisis” of the late 2000s. The very term already attests to the presumed nature and causes of the crisis, which most observers indeed believe originated in the financial sector and was amplified by pervasive financialization.

However, when theorists speak about a financial crisis, they don’t speak about it in isolation. They refer to finance not in and of itself, but in relation to the so-called real capital stock. The recent crisis, they argue, happened not because of finance as such, but due to a mismatch between financial and real capital. The world of finance, they complain, has deviated from and distorted the real world of accumulation.

According to the conventional script, this mismatch commonly appears as a “bubble”, a recurring disease that causes finance to inflate relative to reality. The bubble itself, much like cancer, develops stealthily. It is extremely hard to detect, and as long as it’s growing, nobody – save a few prophets of doom – seems able to see it. It is only after the market has crashed and the dust has settled that, suddenly, everybody knows it had been a bubble all along. Now, bubbles, like other deviations, distortions and mismatches, are born in sin. They begin with “the public” being too greedy and “policy makers” too lax; they continue with “irrational exuberance” that conjures up fictitious wealth out of thin air; and they end with a financial crisis, followed by recession, mounting losses and rising unemployment – a befitting punishment for those who believed they could trick Milton Friedman into giving them a free lunch.

This “mismatch thesis” – the notion of a reality distorted by finance – is broadly accepted. In 2009, The Economist of London accused its readers of confusing “financial assets with real ones”, singling out their confusion as the root cause of the brewing crisis (Figure 1). Real assets, or wealth, the magazine explained, consist of “goods and products we wish to consume” or of “things that give us the ability to produce more of what we want to consume”. Financial assets, by contrast, are not wealth; they are simply “claims on real wealth”. To confuse the inflation of the latter for the expansion of the former is the surest recipe for disaster. more>

Evidence for Tribalism in Economics

While economists like to pretend otherwise, humans are social animals.
By Blair Fix – The ideal of science is beautifully summarized by the motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba. It means ‘take nobody’s word for it’. In science, there is no authority. There are no gods, no kings, and no masters. Only evidence.

In this post, I reflect on how ‘taking nobody’s word for it’ cuts against some of our deepest instincts as humans. As social animals, we have evolved to trust members of our group. Among these group members, our instinct is to ‘take their word for it’. I call this the ‘tribal instinct’.

When we do science, we have to fight against this tribal instinct. Not surprisingly, we often fail. Rational skepticism gets overpowered by the instinct to trust members of our group. If the group happens to be powerful — say it dominates academia in a particular discipline — then false ideas get entrenched as ‘facts’.

This is a problem in all areas of science. But it’s a rampant problem in economics. The teaching of economics is dominated by the neoclassical sect, which has managed to entrench itself in academia. Among this sect, I believe, tribal instincts trump the rational appeal to evidence. more>

Updates from McKinsey

Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts
By Jonathan Woetzel, Dickon Pinner, Hamid Samandari, Hauke Engel, Mekala Krishnan, Brodie Boland, and Carter Powis – After more than 10,000 years of relative stability—the full span of human civilization—the Earth’s climate is changing. As average temperatures rise, climate science finds that acute hazards such as heat waves and floods grow in frequency and severity, and chronic hazards, such as drought and rising sea levels, intensify.

In this report, we focus on understanding the nature and extent of physical risk from a changing climate over the next one to three decades, exploring physical risk as it is the basis of both transition and liability risks.

We estimate inherent physical risk, absent adaptation and mitigation, to dimension the magnitude of the challenge and highlight the case for action. Climate science makes extensive use of scenarios ranging from lower (Representative Concentration Pathway 2.6) to higher (RCP 8.5) CO2 concentrations. We have chosen to focus on RCP 8.5, because the higher-emission scenario it portrays enables us to assess physical risk in the absence of further decarbonization.

In this report, we link climate models with economic projections to examine nine cases that illustrate exposure to climate change extremes and proximity to physical thresholds. A separate geospatial assessment examines six indicators to assess potential socioeconomic impact in 105 countries. We also provide decision makers with a new framework and methodology to estimate risks in their own specific context.

We find that physical risk from a changing climate is already present and growing. Seven characteristics stand out. Physical climate risk is:

Increasing: In each of our nine cases, the level of physical climate risk increases by 2030 and further by 2050. Across our cases, we find increases in socioeconomic impact of between roughly two and 20 times by 2050 versus today’s levels. We also find physical climate risks are increasing across our global country analysis even as some countries find some benefits (such as expected increase in agricultural yields in countries such as Canada).

Spatial: Climate hazards manifest locally. The direct impacts of physical climate risk thus need to be understood in the context of a geographically defined area. There are variations between countries and within countries. more>

Productivity Does Not Explain Wages

As long as we believe the neoclassical farce, we will know nothing about what causes prices.
By Blair Fix – Let’s start with the evidence trumpeted as proof that productivity explains wages. Looking across firms, we find that sales per worker correlates with average wages. Figure 1 shows this correlation for about 50,000 US firms over the years 1950 to 2015.

Mainstream economists take this correlation as evidence that productivity explains wages. Sales, they say, measure firms’ output. So sales per worker indicates firms’ labor productivity. Thus the evidence in Figure 1 indicates that productivity explains (much of) workers’ income. Case closed.

Yes, sales per worker correlates with average wages. No one disputes this fact. What I dispute is that this correlation says anything about productivity. The problem is simple. Sales per worker doesn’t measure productivity.

To understand the problem, let’s do some basic accounting. A firm’s sales equal the unit price of the firm’s product times the quantity of this product:

Sales = Unit Price × Unit Quantity

Dividing both sides by the number of workers gives:

Sales per Worker = Unit Price × Unit Quantity per Worker

Let’s unpack this equation. The ‘unit quantity per worker’ measures labor productivity. It tells us the firm’s output per worker. For instance, a farm might grow 10 tons of potatoes per worker. If another farm grows 15 tons of potatoes per worker, it unambiguously produces more potatoes per worker (assuming the potatoes are the same).

The problem with using sales to measure productivity is that prices get in the way. Imagine that two farms, Old McDonald’s and Spuds-R-Us, both produce 10 tons of potatoes per worker. Next, imagine that Old McDonald’s sells their potatoes for $100 per ton. Spuds-R-Us, however, sells their potatoes for $200 per ton. The result is that Spuds-R-Us has double the sales per worker as Old McDonald’s. When we equate sales with productivity, it appears that workers at Spuds-R-Us are twice as productive as workers at Old McDonald’s. But they’re not. We’ve been fooled by prices.

The solution to this problem seems simple. Rather than use sales to measure output, we should measure a firm’s output directly. Count up what the firm produces, and that’s its output. Problem solved.

So why don’t economists measure output directly? Because the restrictions needed to do so are severe. In fact, they’re so severe that they’re almost never met in the real world. more>

There is No Economics without Politics

Every economic model is built on political assumptions
By Anat Admati – There is absolutely no way to understand events before, during, and since the financial crisis of 2007-2009 while ignoring the powerful political forces that have shaped them. Yet, remarkably, much of the economics and finance literature about financial crises focuses on studying unspecified “shocks” to a system that it largely accepts as inevitable while ignoring critical governance frictions and failures. Removing blind spots would offer economists and other academics rich opportunities to leverage their expertise to benefit society.

The history of financial economics is revealing in this regard. By the second half of the 20th century, when modern finance emerged as part of economics, the holistic approach of early thinkers such as Adam Smith—which combined economics, moral philosophy, and politics—was long gone. Narrow social-science disciplines replaced the holistic approach by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, economists sought to make economics formal, precise, and elegant, similar to Newton’s 17th-century physics.

The focus in much of economics, particularly in finance, is on markets. Even when economists postulate a “social planner” and discuss policy, they rarely consider how this social planner gets to know what is needed or the process by which policy decisions are made and implemented. Collective action and politics are messy. Neat and elegant models are more fun and easier to market to editors and colleagues.

Lobbyists, who engage in “marketing” ideas to policymakers and to the public, are actually influential. They know how to work the system and can dismiss, take out of context, misquote, misuse, or promote research as needed. If policymakers or the public are unable or unwilling to evaluate the claims people make, lobbyists and others can create confusion and promote misleading narratives if it benefits them. In the real political economy, good ideas and worthy research can fail to gain traction while bad ideas and flawed research can succeed and have an impact.

Having observed governance and policy failures in banking, I realized that the focus on shareholder-manager conflicts is far too narrow and often misses the most important problems. We must also worry about the governance of the institutions that create and enforce the rules for all. How power structures and information asymmetries play out within and between institutions in the private and public sectors is critical. more>

How ergodicity reimagines economics for the benefit of us all

By Mark Buchanan – The principles of economics form the intellectual atmosphere in which most political discussion takes place. Its prevailing ideas are often invoked to justify the organization of modern society, and the positions enjoyed by the most wealthy and powerful. Any threat to these ideas could also be an implicit threat to that power – and to the people who possess it. Their response might be brutal.

In the real world, through the pages of scientific journals, in blog posts and in spirited Twitter exchanges, the set of ideas now called ‘Ergodicity Economics’ is overturning a fundamental concept at the heart of economics, with radical implications for the way we approach uncertainty and cooperation. The economics group at LML is attempting to redevelop economic theory from scratch, starting with the axiom that individuals optimize what happens to them over time, not what happens to them on average in a collection of parallel worlds.

The new concept is a key theme of research initiated by Peters about a decade ago, and developed with the collaboration of Gell-Mann and the late Ken Arrow at SFI, and of Alex Adamou, Yonatan Berman and many others at the LML. Much of this view rests on a careful critique of a model of human decisionmaking known as expected utility theory.

But there is one odd feature in this framework of expectations – it essentially eliminates time. Yet anyone who faces risky situations over time needs to handle those risks well, on average, over time, with one thing happening after the next. The seductive genius of the concept of probability is that it removes this historical aspect by imagining the world splitting with specific probabilities into parallel universes, one thing happening in each.

The expected value doesn’t come from an average calculated over time, but from one calculated over the different possible outcomes considered outside of time. In doing so, it simplifies the problem – but actually solves a problem that is fundamentally different from the real problem of acting wisely through time in an uncertain world. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Why banning plastic bags doesn’t work as intended
Benefits of bag regulations are mitigated by changes in consumer behavior
By Rebecca Stropoli – As well-intentioned bans on plastic shopping bags roll out across the United States, there’s an unintended consequence that policy makers should take into account. It turns out that when shoppers stop receiving free bags from supermarkets and other retailers, they make up for it by buying more plastic trash bags, significantly reducing the environmental effectiveness of bag bans by substituting one form of plastic film for another, according to University of Sydney’s Rebecca L. C. Taylor.

Economists call this phenomenon “leakage”—when partial regulation of a product results in increased consumption of unregulated goods, Taylor writes. But her research focusing on the rollout of bag bans across 139 California cities and counties from 2007 to 2015 puts a figure on the leakage and develops an estimate for how much consumers already reuse those flimsy plastic shopping bags.

This is a live issue. After all those localities banned disposable bags, California outlawed them statewide, in 2016. In April 2019, New York became the second US state to impose a broad ban on single-use plastic bags. Since 2007, more than 240 local governments in the US have enacted similar policies.

She finds that the bag bans reduced the use of disposable shopping bags by 40 million pounds a year. But purchases of trash bags increased by almost 12 million pounds annually, offsetting about 29 percent of the benefit, her model demonstrates. Sales of small trash bags jumped 120 percent, of medium bags, 64 percent, and of tall kitchen garbage bags, 6 percent. Moreover, use of paper bags rose by more than 80 million pounds, or 652 million sacks, she finds. more>

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