Unorthodox Economics: 5. Economic Progress, Microeconomics, and Microeconomics

This is the fifth entry in what I hope will become a book-length series of posts. That result, if it comes to pass, will amount to an unorthodox economics textbook. Here are the chapters that have been posted to date:

1. What Is Economics?
2. Pitfalls
3. What Is Scientific about Economics?
4. A Parable of Political Economy
5. Economic Progress, Microeconomics, and Macroeconomics

What is economic progress? It is usually measured as an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) or, better yet, per-capita GDP. But such measures say nothing about the economic status or progress of particular economic units. In fact, the economic progress of some economic units will be accompanied by the economic regress of others. GDP captures the net monetary effect of those gains and losses. And if the net effect is positive, the nation under study is said to have made economic progress. But that puts the cart of aggregate measures (macroeconomics) before the horse of underlying activity (microeconomics). This chapter puts them in the right order.

The economy of the United States (or any large political entity) consists of myriad interacting units. Some of them contribute to the output of the economy; some of them constrain the output; some of them are a drain upon it. The contributing units are the persons, families, private charities, and business (small and large) that produce economic goods (products and services) which are voluntarily exchanged for the mutual benefit of the trading parties. (Voluntary, private charities are among the contributing units because they help willing donors attain the satisfaction of improving the lot of persons in need. Voluntary charity — there is no other kind — is not a drain on the economy.)

Government is also a contributing unit to the extent that it provides a safe zone for the production and exchange of economic goods, to eliminate or reduce the debilitating effects of force and fraud. The safe zone is international as well as domestic when the principals of the U.S. government have the wherewithal and will to protect Americans’ overseas interests. The provision of a safe zone is usually referred to as the “rule of law”.

Most other governmental functions constrain or drain the economy. Those functions consist mainly of regulatory hindrances and forced “charity,” which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal, State, and local “welfare” programs. In “The Rahn Curve Revisited,” I estimate the significant negative effects of regulation and government spending on GDP.

There is a view that government contributes directly to economic progress by providing “infrastructure” (e.g., the interstate highway system) and underwriting innovations that are adopted and adapted by the private sector (e.g., the internet). Any such positive effects are swamped by the negative ones (see “The Rahn Curve Revisited”). Diverting resources to government uses in return for the occasional “social benefit” is like spending one’s paycheck on lottery tickets in return for the occasional $5 winner. Moreover, when government commandeers resources for any purpose — including the occasional ones that happen to have positive payoffs — the private sector is deprived of opportunities to put those resources to work in ways that more directly advance the welfare of consumers.

I therefore dismiss the thrill of occasionally discovering  a gold nugget in the swamp of government, and turn to the factors that underlie steady, long-term economic progress: hard work; smart work; saving and investment; invention and innovation; implementation (entrepreneurship); specialization and trade; population growth; and the rule of law. These are defined in the first section of “Economic Growth Since World War II“.

It follows that economic progress — or a lack thereof — is a microeconomic phenomenon, even though it is usually treated as a macroeconomic one. One cannot write authoritatively about macroeconomic activity without understanding the microeconomic activity that underlies it. Moreover, macroeconomic aggregates (e.g., aggregate demand, aggregate supply, GDP) are essentially meaningless because they represent disparate phenomena.

Consider A and B, who discover that, together, they can have more clothing and more food if each specializes: A in the manufacture of clothing, B in the production of food. Through voluntary exchange and bargaining, they find a jointly satisfactory balance of production and consumption. A makes enough clothing to cover himself adequately, to keep some clothing on hand for emergencies, and to trade the balance to B for food. B does likewise with food. Both balance their production and consumption decisions against other considerations (e.g., the desire for leisure).

A and B’s respective decisions and actions are microeconomic; the sum of their decisions, macroeconomic. The microeconomic picture might look like this:

  • A produces 10 units of clothing a week, 5 of which he trades to B for 5 units of food a week, 4 of which he uses each week, and 1 of which he saves for an emergency.
  • B, like A, uses 4 units of clothing each week and saves 1 for an emergency.
  • B produces 10 units of food a week, 5 of which she trades to A for 5 units of clothing a week, 4 of which she consumes each week, and 1 of which she saves for an emergency.
  • A, like B, consumes 4 units of food each week and saves 1 for an emergency.

Given the microeconomic picture, it is trivial to depict the macroeconomic situation:

  • Gross weekly output = 10 units of clothing and 10 units of food
  • Weekly consumption = 8 units of clothing and 8 units of food
  • Weekly saving = 2 units of clothing and 2 units of food

You will note that the macroeconomic metrics add no useful information; they merely summarize the salient facts of A and B’s economic lives — though not the essential facts of their lives, which include (but are far from limited to) the degree of satisfaction that A and B derive from their consumption of food and clothing.

The customary way of getting around the aggregation problem is to sum the dollar values of microeconomic activity. But this simply masks the aggregation problem by assuming that it is possible to add the marginal valuations (i.e., prices) of disparate products and services being bought and sold at disparate moments in time by disparate individuals and firms for disparate purposes. One might as well add two bananas to two apples and call the result four bapples.

The essential problem is that A and B will derive different kinds and amounts of enjoyment from clothing and food, and those different kinds and amounts of enjoyment cannot be summed in any meaningful way. If meaningful aggregation is impossible for A and B, how can it be possible for an economy that consists of millions of economic actors and an untold, constantly changing, often improving variety of goods and services?

GDP, in other words, is nothing more than what it seems to be on the surface: an estimate of the dollar value of economic output. It is not a measure of “social welfare” because there is no such thing. (See “Social Welfare” in Chapter 2). And yet it is a concept that infests microeconomics and macroeconomics.

Aggregate demand and aggregate supply are nothing but aggregations of the dollar values of myriad transactions. Aggregate demand is an after-the-fact representation of the purchases made by economic units; aggregate supply is an after-the-fact representation of the sales made by economic units. There is no “aggregate demander” or “aggregate supplier”.

Interest rates, though they tend to move in concert, are set at the microeconomic level by lenders and borrowers. Interest rates tend to move in concert because of factors that influence them: inflation, economic momentum, and the supply of money.

Inflation is a microeconomic phenomenon which is arbitrarily estimated by sampling the prices of defined “baskets” of products and services. The arithmetic involved doesn’t magically transform inflation into a macroeconomic phenomenon.

Economic momentum, as measured by changes in GDP, is likewise a microeconomic phenomenon disguised as a macroeconomic, as previously discussed.

The supply of money, over which the Federal Reserve has some control, is the closest thing there is to a truly macroeconomic phenomenon. But the Fed’s control of the supply of money, and therefor of interest rates, is tenuous.

Macroeconomic models of the economy are essentially worthless because they can’t replicate the billions of transactions that are the flesh and blood of the real economy. (See “Economic Modeling: A Case of Unrewarded Complexity“.) One of the simplest macroeconomic models — the Keynesian multiplier — is nothing more than a mathematical trick. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Fiction vs. Fact”.)

Macroeconomics is a sophisticated form of mental masturbation — nothing more, nothing less.

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