Economics Explained — Part II: Economic Principles in Perspective

This is the second installment of a long post. I may revise it as I post later parts. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference. If you haven’t read “Part I: What Is Economics About?“, you may benefit from doing so before you embark on this part.

What Drives Us

Humans are driven by the survival instinct and a host of psychological urges, which vary from person to person. Those urges include but are far from limited to the self-aggrandizement (ego), the need for love and friendship, and the need to be in control (which includes the needs to possess things and to control others, both in widely varying degrees). Economic activity, as I have said, excludes matters of love and friendship (though not calculated relationships that may seem like friendship), but aside from those things — which influence personal economic activity (e.g., the need to provide for loved ones) — there are more motivations for economic activity than can be dreamt of by economists. Those motivations are shaped genes and culture, which are so varied and malleable (in the case of culture) that specific knowledge about them is useful only to the purveyors of particular goods.

Therefore, economists long ago (and wisely) eschewed models of economic behavior that impute particular motivations to economic activity. Instead they said that individuals seek to maximize utility (something like happiness or satisfaction), whatever that might be for particular individuals. Similarly, they said that firms seek to maximize profits, which is easier to quantify because profit is measured in monetary units (dollars in America).

Irrational Rationality

Further, economists used to say that individuals act rationally when they strive to maximize utility. Behavioral economists (e.g., Richard Thaler) have challenged the rationality hypothesis by showing that personal choices are often irrational (in the judgment of the behavioral economist). The case of “saving too little” for retirement is often invoked in support of interventions (including interventions by the state) to “nudge” individuals toward making the “right” choices (in the judgment of the behavioral economist). The behavioral economist would thus impose his own definition of rational behavior (e.g., wealth-maximization) on individuals. This is arrogance in the extreme. All that the early economists meant by rationality was that individuals strive to make choices that advance their particular preferences.

Wealth-maximization is one such preference, but far from the only one. A young worker, for example, may prefer buying a car (that enables him to get to work faster than he could by riding a bus) to saving for his retirement. There are many other objections to the imposition of behavioral economists’ views. The links at the end of “No Tears for Cass Sunstein” (Thaler’s co-conspirator) will lead you to some of them. That post and the posts linked to at the end of it also provide insights into the authoritarian motivations of Thaler, Sunstein, and their ilk.

The Rise of Corporate Irresponsibility

Turning to firms — the providers of goods that satisfy wants — I have to say that the profit-maximization motive has been eroded by the rise of huge firms that are led and managed by bureaucrats rather than inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. The ownership of large firms is, in most cases, widely distributed and indirect (i.e., huge blocks of stock are held in diversified mutual-fund portfolios). This makes it possible for top managers (enabled by compliant boards of directors) to adopt policies that harm shareholders’ financial interests for the sake of presenting a “socially responsible” (“woke”) image of the firm to … whom?

The firm’s existing customers aren’t the general public, they are specific segments of the general public, and some of those segments don’t take kindly to public-relations ploys that flout the values that they (the specific segments) hold dearly. (Gillette and Dick’s Sporting Goods are recent cases in point.) The “whom” might therefore consist of segments of the public that the firms’ managers hope will buy the firm’s products because of the firm’s pandering. and — more likely — influential figures in business, politics, the arts, the media, etc., whom the managers are eager to impress.

“Social responsibility” fiascos are only part of the picture. Huge, bureaucratic firms are no more efficient in their use of resources to satisfy consumers’ wants than are huge, bureaucratic governments that (at best) provide essential services (defense and justice) but in fact provide services that politicians and bureaucrats are “needed” in order to buy votes and make work for themselves.

The bottom line here is that the satisfaction of consumers’ wants has been compromised badly. And the combination of government interventions and corporate misfeasance has made the economy far less productive than it could be.

The Flip Side of Economics: Failure to Produce

Economics, therefore, is about the satisfaction of human wants through the production and exchange of goods, given available resources. It is also about the failure to maximize the satisfaction of wants, given available resources, because of government interventions and corporate misfeasance.

The gross underperformance of America’s economy illustrates an important but usually neglected principle of economics: Every decision has an opportunity cost. When you choose to buy a car, for example, you forgo the opportunity to buy something else for the same amount of money. That something else, presumably, would afford you less satisfaction (utility) than the car. Or so the theory goes. But whether it would or wouldn’t isn’t for a behavioral economist to say.

Individuals (and firms) often make choices that they later regret. It’s called learning from experience. But “nudging”, government interventions, and corporate sluggishness reduce the opportunity to learn from experience. (Government interventions and corporate sluggishness also prevent, as I have said, behaviors that are essential to economic vitality: invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.)

Government interventions also incentivize economically and personally destructive behavior. There are many estimates of the costs of government interventions (e.g., this one and those documented quarterly in Regulation magazine) and a multitude of examples of the personally destructive behavior engendered by government interventions. It is impossible to say which intervention has been the most harmful to the citizenry, but if pressed I would choose the thing broadly called “welfare”, which disincentivizes work and is an important cause of the dissolution of black (welfare-dependent) families, with attendant (and dire) results (educational, occupational, criminal) that bleeding hearts prefer to attribute to “racism”. If not in second place, but high up on my list, is the counterproductive response (by government at the prodding of bleeding hearts) to homelessness.

Thus we have yet another principle: the “law” of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are the things that aren’t meant to happen — but which do happen — when an actor (be it governmental, corporate, or individual) doesn’t think about (or chooses to minimize or ignore) when it or he focuses on a particular problem or desire to the exclusion of other problems or desires. Individuals can learn from unintended consequences; governments and, increasingly, corporations are too rule-bound and infested by special interests to do so.

None of what I have said about corporations should be taken as an endorsement of governmental interventions to make them somehow more efficient and responsible. (The law of unintended consequences applies in spades when it comes to government.) The only justification for state action with respect to firms is to keep them from doing things that are inimical to liberty and can’t be rectified by private action. In an extreme case, a business that specializes in murder for hire is (or should be) a target for closure and prosecution. A business that sells a potentially harmful product (e.g., guns, cigarettes) isn’t a valid target of state action because the harmful use of the product is the responsibility of the buyer, product-liability law to the contrary notwithstanding.

What about a business that collaborates (perhaps tacitly) with other businesses or special interests to prevent the expression of views that are otherwise protected by the First Amendment but which are opposed by the managers of the business and their political allies? There are good arguments for a hand-off approach, in that markets — if they are allowed to operate freely — will provide alternatives that allow the expression (and wide circulation) of “objectionable” views. If anti-trust actions against purveyors of oil and steel (two take two examples from the past) are inadvisable (as I have argued), aren’t anti-trust actions against purveyors of information and ideas equally inadvisable? There is a qualitative difference between economic rapacity and what amounts to a war that is being waged by one segment of the nation against other segments of the nation. (See for example, “The Subtle Authoritarianism of the ‘Liberal Order’“.) Government action to defend the besieged segments is therefore fitting and proper. (See “Preemptive (Cold) Civil War“.)

Economics and Liberty

This brings me to the gravest economic threat to liberty, which is state socialism and its variants: communism, fascism, and social democracy. All of them vest control of the economy in the state, when not through outright state ownership of the means of production, then through laws and regulations that dictate allowable types of economic output, the means and methods of its production, and its beneficiaries. The United States has long been burdened with what has been called a “mixed” economic system, which is in fact a social democracy — an economy that has many of the trappings of free-market capitalism but is in fact heavily managed by governments (federal, State, and local) in the service of “social justice” and various trendy causes.

The most recent of these is the puritanical, often hypocritical, and anti-scientific effort to rescue the planet from “climate change”. The opportunity cost of this futile undertaking, were it conducted according to the dictates of its most strident supporters, would be a vast share of the economic output of the the Western world (inasmuch as Russia, China, India, and even Japan are disinclined to participate), thus demoting America and Western Europe to Third-World status and rendering them vulnerable to economic and military blackmail by Russia and China. (Old grudges die hard.) You can be sure, however, that even in their vastly diminished state, the Western “democracies” would find the resources with which to cosset the ruling class of politicians and their favorites.

Proponents of state action often defend it by adverting to the paradox of collective action, which is that individuals and firms, acting in what they perceive to be their own interests, can bring about a disaster that engulfs them. “Climate change” is the latest such so-called disaster. What the proponents of state action always omit to consider (or mention) is that state action itself can bring about a disaster that engulfs all of us. The attempt to control “climate change” is just such an action, and it is of the more dangerous kind because government programs, once started, are harder to turn around than the relatively modest and inexpensive projects of individuals and firms.

You may think that I have strayed a long way from the principles of economics. But I haven’t, if you’ve been following closely. What I have done — or tried to do — is put economic activity in perspective. Which is to say that I’ve tried to show that economic activity may be important and even crucial to our lives, but it is not the only important and crucial thing in our lives. Economic activity is shaped by government and culture. If the battle to contain government is successful, and if the battle to preserve a culture of personal responsibility and respect for traditional norms is successful, economic activity will thrive and be worth the striving.

Economics Explained – Part I: What Is Economics About?

This is the first installment of a long entry. I may revise it as I post later entries. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference.

Economics, as a discipline, often seems counterintuitive, when it is not downright paradoxical. Perhaps the most counterintuitive principle of economics is that unregulated markets are the best mechanism for meeting human wants, given limited resources. Despite that principle, most economists emulate politicians and rabble-rousers in their penchant for second-guessing market outcomes and devising ways of manipulating those outcomes. This penchant does not negate the principle; it merely underscores the unwarranted vanity of the “intellectual” class.

Economics is mysterious to laymen because its practitioners have embellished it with unduly complex mathematical theorizing. In other words, when economics is not counterintuitive it is simply incomprehensible.

There is no need for economics to be counterintuitive or mysterious. Many writers have essayed simple — and correct — expositions of the principles of economics. The most notable effort, perhaps, is Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Another good source is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at The Library of Economics and Liberty (a web site). (Good places to start there are “Basic Concepts” and “Ten Key Ideas“.)

Unfortunately, Hazlitt’s short book is more than 200 pages long. And the entries at The Library of Economics and Liberty are disjointed. What the world needs is a truly concise but coherent and comprehensive statement of the principles of economics. Thus this post, in which I use not a single equation or graph. Why? Because equations and graphs can be off-putting to readers who are not habituated to them. Moreover, equations and graphs imply a degree of precision that is not found in the real world; verbal explanations, hedged with qualifications, give a more accurate picture of reality (albeit one that necessarily remains incomplete).

I begin with the basic question: What is economics about? The answer to that question leads to observations about the principles of economics, which are shaped by politics and culture. From there, I illustrate the principles by working through an example that eventually takes them all into account.

What Is Economics About?

Economics is about the satisfaction of human wants through the production and exchange of goods (a term that encompasses information, services, and tangible products). That simple definition raises several issues, which are the fundamental subjects of economic inquiry:

  1. What are human wants, and how do they arise?
  2. Are all human wants (e.g., love) the proper domain of economics?
  3. By what mechanisms are resources transformed into goods and then matched (or not) to human wants?
  4. What determines the rate of output of all goods, that is, the aggregate degree of satisfaction of human wants?
  5. What is the proper role of government in the satisfaction of human wants?

The brief answers to these questions, upon which I elaborate below, are as follows:

1. Human wants arise from basic human requirements and impulses (e.g., the need for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and status). Another way to say it is that human wants are both biological and emotional. Particular human wants, therefore, arise from a combination of biological impulses and cultural influences. Some wants clearly are essential to life (e.g., food); some wants clearly are nonessential but nevertheless fill emotional needs (e.g., yachts and mansions). But, like mountains and molehills, the extremes are distinguishable but they are connected by many indistinguishable intermediate stages; that is, there is no telling when wants transition from essential, to beneficial, to frivolous. Moreover — and this is an essential point to which I will return — the striving to fulfill what might seem to be frivolous wants can lead (by steps to be discussed later) to the creation of jobs that yield income from which the job-holders are able to fulfill essential wants (and others, as well).

2. Some human wants arise from impulses that economists should be wary of trying to analyze and measure. The most obvious of these is the kind of love that leads to marriage, sex, and children. Yes, there are sexual arrangements outside marriage that are purely economic transactions. But love of the kind that leads to marriage, sex, and children (and thence to love of parents for their children) is beyond the ken of economics. So, too, are other relationships that are non-transactional, such as friendship and membership in various voluntary organizations (churches, clubs, etc.).

3. Economics is therefore about arms-length transactions — transactions that aren’t bound up in non-contractual relationships like marriage, family, friendship, church, and club. Voluntary exchange and prices are the default mechanisms for matching goods with wants in arms-length transactions. The simplest example is barter: Andy makes bread and wants butter to put on it; Babette makes butter and wants bread for it: Andy and Babette strike a bargain that yields a rate of exchange between bread and butter (i.e., a price for bread in terms of butter and vice versa); the exchange makes both Andy and Babette better off (i.e., there are mutual gains from trade). The prices established by Andy and Babette also serve as signals (provide information) to others who seek to exchange bread and butter; for example, Chuck (a potential producer of butter) might be willing to make butter and trade with Andy on more favorable terms than those offered by Babette.

4. There is no such thing as an aggregate measure of the output of goods — though aggregation is implicit in macroeconomic constructs (e.g., gross domestic product). Thinking only of the United States, for example, how is it possible to aggregate the value of myriad goods that are produced and bought by dozens of millions of businesses and individuals? Hint: Because statistical sampling is arbitrary and uncertain, the answer cannot be found in the common denominator of money. It is nevertheless possible for an economy to move generally in the direction of growth or decline, with exceptions around the trend. It is obvious, for example, that most Americans use goods that are superior in number and quality to the goods that most Americans enjoyed 50 years ago. It is also obvious that during the episode known at the Great Depression, most Americans were materially worse off than they had been before the depression began, and that relatively few became better off. How such things happen, and how economic growth can be sustained and economic declines can be reversed, are valid subjects of economic analysis.

5. Voluntary exchange, unalloyed, can leave some persons “behind” (e.g., those who are incapable of producing bread in exchange for butter, those whose output is worth less to buyers than it used to be). But there is another human impulse (call it “altruism” for now) that leads to the voluntary redistribution of wealth and income, thus enabling the beneficiaries of the redistribution to buy more goods than they can afford on their own. Government action taken in the name of altruism displaces and discourages private altruistic action. More generally, government action throttles economic vitality, causes and exacerbates economic disruptions, and interferes with the constructive resolution of those disruptions. The proper role of government is to provide a framework of defense and justice within which economic actors can operate voluntarily and with little fear that their efforts to improve their lot (and the lot of others less fortunate) will be stymied by force or fraud. Government intervenes legitimately only when it prevents or discourages force and fraud (e.g., defending foreign sources of oil, detecting and preventing terrorism on U.S. soil, prosecuting thieves and murderers, prosecuting “boiler room” operators).

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.

Unorthodox Economics: 3. What Is Scientific about Economics?

This is the third 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

Perhaps the biggest pitfall that awaits an economist, student of economics, or reader of economic literature is the belief that economics is a science because of its mathematical and statistical content. David S. D’Amato takes a clear-headed view in “Is Economics a Hard Science?” (The American Spectator, January 4, 2017):

[E]conomists and social scientists are gathering and analyzing statistical data constantly. [But] those data are limited by the density of the causal atmosphere of the environment from which they emerge, a rich and variable sea of causes and effects. Isolating one or even a few factors becomes impossible.

As Jim Manzi explains in his book Uncontrolled, “[W]e can never be sure that any experiment actually has controlled for every possible alternative cause of an outcome.” And while this is, of course, true in every field of inquiry, the problem is especially acute within the social sciences, so-called. That’s because, as Manzi observes, “human social organizations have a causal density that dwarfs anything astrophysics considers.”…

For any given observable phenomenon, the scientist must attempt to parse a convoluted web of actual and potential causes. Unable to control the experiment, its environmental inputs, groups, etc., the social scientist is unable to know whether the hypothesis being tested has been confirmed. This causal density means economic data must always be the subject of several competing explanations, informed by ideology and extra-economic social theory…

…The great classical liberal political economist Jean-Baptiste Say foresaw the complacency of today’s economists, their tendency to oversell the power of data and mathematics. Anticipating the praxeology of Ludwig von Mises, Say held the proper foundations for economics are “the rigorous deductions of undeniable general facts,” not “new particular fact[s]” (i.e., statistics), but basic laws of human action….

If empirical data are often too messy, too causally intricate, without the help of a philosophical or interpretative framework, then mathematical models are in a sense too neat to tell us very much about reality; they reduce enormously complex concepts and arguments about economic behavior to sterile formulae. Sometimes this is useful, as in the case of an economic model that explains the relationship between supply and demand. But as economists address their model-building processes to more difficult questions, the serviceability of the models diminishes. And if we are to believe the critics of “mathiness,” whom we can find all over the spectrum of ideas, the preoccupation with practically useless mathematical models has all but completely overtaken the economics profession.

Mathematical models, agglomerations of equations using multivariable calculus, are, it turns out, not a language suited to the task of describing something as dynamic as human behavior. Among the axioms of modern economics is the idea that economic value is something assigned to good and services subjectively by individual buyers and sellers. As Austrian School economists frequently point out, there is an irreducible subjectivity at the heart of all economic action. This explanation of value in terms of subjective preference and marginal utility replaced classical theories that made value a function of the quantities of labor expended during a good’s production. If value subjectivism holds, then, for example, one’s partiality for Chicago-style pizza as opposed to New York-style pizza is simply not the kind of preference that can be quantified. There is, as the saying goes, no accounting for taste.

It’s a simple example, but it points to a much more general and far-reaching truth: Formal logic and mathematics are not a stable foundation for the economist. This has been borne out by the inability of computer models to anticipate the movements of actual markets. For all their complex mathematics and pretensions to rigorousness, these models rely on crude oversimplifications. As New York University economist Mario J. Rizzo notes, “Ceteris paribus prediction is prediction of ‘stylized facts,’” whose connection to the real world is tenuous at best.

Yet, as Arnold Kling explains in “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm” (TCS Daily, March 2, 2005), many (perhaps most) economists have lost sight of the axioms of economics in their misplaced zeal to emulate the methods of the physical sciences:

The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson’s (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus.

Today, the “theory sequence” at most top-tier graduate schools in economics is controlled by math bigots. As a result, it is impossible to survive as an economics graduate student with a math background that is less than that of an undergraduate math major. In fact, I have heard that at this year’s American Economic Association meetings, at a seminar on graduate education one professor quite proudly said that he ignored prospective students’ grades in economics courses, because their math proficiency was the key predictor of their ability to pass the coursework required to obtain an advanced degree.

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.

. . . The basic question of What Causes Prosperity? is not a question of how trading opportunities play out among a given array of goods. Instead, it is a question of how innovation takes place or does not take place in the context of institutional factors that are still poorly understood.

Economic models usually are clothed in the language of mathematics and statistics. But those aren’t scientific disciplines in themselves; they are tools of science. Expressing a theory in mathematical terms may lend the theory a scientific aura, but a theory couched in mathematical terms is not a scientific one unless (a) it can be tested against facts yet to be ascertained and events yet to occur, and (b) it is found to accord with those facts and events consistently, by rigorous statistical tests. In sum, modeling is not science.

Economics is a science only to the extent that it yields empirically valid insights about  specific economic phenomena (e.g., the effects of laws and regulations on the prices and outputs of specific goods and services). The Keynesian multiplier, about which I’ll say more in a later chapter, is not a scientific theory. It is a hypothesis that rests on a simplistic, hydraulic view of the economic system. (Other examples of pseudo-scientific economic theories are the labor theory of value and historical determinism.)

A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has thus far been confirmed by observation, and which has not yet been refuted (falsified) by observation.* (The Keynesian multiplier has been falsified.) Every scientific theory rests eventually on axioms: self-evident principles that are accepted as true without proof. Economics, as D’Amato notes, is no exception. It rests on these self-evident axioms:

1. Each person strives to maximize his or her sense of satisfaction, which may also be called well-being, happiness, or utility (an ugly word favored by economists). Striving isn’t the same as achieving, of course, because of lack of information, emotional decision-making, buyer’s remorse, etc

2. Happiness can and often does include an empathic or expedient concern for the well-being of others; that is, one’s happiness may be served by what is usually labelled altruism or self-sacrifice.

3. Happiness can be and often is served by the attainment of non-material ends. Not all persons (perhaps not even most of them) are interested in the maximization of wealth, that is, claims on the output of goods and services. In sum, not everyone is a wealth maximizer. (But see axiom number 12.)

4. The feeling of satisfaction that an individual derives from a particular product or service is situational — unique to the individual and to the time and place in which the individual undertakes to acquire or enjoy the product or service. Generally, however, there is a (situationally unique) point at which the acquisition or enjoyment of additional units of a particular product or service during a given period of time tends to offer less satisfaction than would the acquisition or enjoyment of units of other products or services that could be obtained at the same cost.

5. The value that a person places on a product or service is subjective. Products and services don’t have intrinsic values that apply to all persons at a given time or period of time.

6. The ability of a person to acquire products and services, and to accumulate wealth, depends (in the absence of third-party interventions) on the valuation of the products and services that are produced in part or whole by the person’s labor (mental or physical), or by the assets that he owns (e.g., a factory building, a software patent). That valuation is partly subjective (e.g., consumers’ valuation of the products and services, an employer’s qualitative evaluation of the person’s contributions to output) and partly objective (e.g., an employer’s knowledge of the price commanded by a product or service, an employer’s measurement of an employees’ contribution to the quantity of output).

7. The persons and firms from which products and services flow are motivated by the acquisition of income, with which they can acquire other products and services, and accumulate wealth for personal purposes (e.g., to pass to heirs) or business purposes (e.g., to expand the business and earn more income). So-called profit maximization (seeking to maximize the difference between the cost of production and revenue from sales) is a key determinant of business decisions but far from the only one. Others include, but aren’t limited to, being a “good neighbor,” providing employment opportunities for local residents, and underwriting philanthropic efforts.

8. The cost of production necessarily influences the price at which a good or and service will be offered for sale, but doesn’t solely determine the price at which it will be sold. Selling price depends on the subjective valuation of the products or service, prospective buyers’ incomes, and the prices of other products and services, including those that are direct or close substitutes and those to which users may switch, depending on relative prices.

9. The feeling of satisfaction that a person derives from the acquisition and enjoyment of the “basket” of products and services that he is able to buy, given his income, etc., doesn’t necessarily diminish, as long as the person has access to a great variety of products and services. (This axiom and axiom 12 put paid to the myth of diminishing marginal utility of income.)

10. Work may be a source of satisfaction in itself or it may simply be a means of acquiring and enjoying products and services, or acquiring claims to them by accumulating wealth. Even when work is satisfying in itself, it is subject to the “law” of diminishing marginal satisfaction.

11. Work, for many (but not all) persons, is no longer be worth the effort if they become able to subsist comfortably enough by virtue of the wealth that they have accumulated, the availability of redistributive schemes (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), or both. In such cases the accumulation of wealth often ceases and reverses course, as it is “cashed in” to defray the cost of subsistence (which may be far more than minimal).

12. However, there are not a few persons whose “work” is such a great source of satisfaction that they continue doing it until they are no longer capable of doing so. And there are some persons whose “work” is the accumulation of wealth, without limit. Such persons may want to accumulate wealth in order to “do good” or to leave their heirs well off or simply for the satisfaction of running up the score. The justification matters not. There is no theoretical limit to the satisfaction that a particular person may derive from the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, many of the persons (discussed in axiom 11) who aren’t able to accumulate wealth endlessly would do so if they had the ability and the means to take the required risks.

13. Individual degrees of satisfaction (happiness, etc.) are ephemeral, nonquantifiable, and incommensurable. There is no such thing as a social welfare function that a third party (e.g., government) can maximize by taking from A to give to B. If there were such a thing, its value would increase if, for example, A were to punch B in the nose and derive a degree of pleasure that somehow more than offsets the degree of pain incurred by B. (The absurdity of a social-welfare function that allows As to punch Bs in their noses ought to be enough shame inveterate social engineers into quietude — but it won’t. They derive great satisfaction from meddling.) Moreover, one of the primary excuses for meddling is that income (and thus wealth) has a  diminishing marginal utility, so it makes sense to redistribute from those with higher incomes (or more wealth) to those who have less of either. Marginal utility is, however, unknowable (see axioms 4 and 5), and may not always be negative (see axioms 9 and 12).

14. Whenever a third party (government, do-gooders, etc.) intervene in the affairs of others, that third party is merely imposing its preferences on those others. The third party sometimes claims to know what’s best for “society as a whole,” etc., but no third party can know such a thing. (See axiom 13.)

15. It follows from axiom 13 that the welfare of “society as a whole” can’t be aggregated or measured. An estimate of the monetary value of the economic output of a nation’s economy (Gross Domestic Product) is by no means an estimate of the welfare of “society as a whole.”

That may seem like a lot of axioms, which might give you pause about my claim that some aspects of economics are scientific. But economics is inescapably grounded in axioms such as the ones that I propound, just as much of modern physics is inescapably grounded in the principle of uniformity.**

It is important to distinguish between axioms, which are self-evidently true, and biases that stem from normative views of what ought to be. Behavioral economists, for example, see the world through the lens of wealth-and-utility-maximization. Their great crusade is to force everyone to make rational decisions (by their lights), through “nudging.” It almost goes without saying that government should be the nudger-in-chief. (See “The Perpetual Nudger” and the many posts linked to therein.)

Other economists — though not as many as in the past — are obsessed by monopoly and oligopoly (the domination of a market by one or a few sellers). They’re heirs to the trust-busting of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement led by non-economists who sought to blame the woes of working-class Americans on the “plutocrats” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, etc.) who had merely made life better and more affordable for Americans, while also creating jobs for millions of them and reaping rewards for the great financial risks that they took. (See “Monopoly and the General Welfare” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public.”) As it turns out, the biggest and most destructive monopoly of all is the federal government, so beloved and trusted by trust-busters — and too many others. (See “The Rahn Curve Revisited.”)

Nowadays, a lot of economists are preoccupied by income inequality, as if it were something evil and not mainly an artifact of differences in intelligence, ambition, and education, etc. And inequality — the prospect of earning rather grand sums of money — is what drives a lot of economic endeavor, to the benefit of workers and consumers. (See “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes” and the many posts linked to therein.) Remove inequality and what do you get? The Soviet Union and Communist China, in which everyone is equal except party operatives and their families, friends, and favorites. As George Orwell put it in Animal Farm, “all [people] are equal, but some [people] are more equal than others.”

When the inequality-preoccupied economists are confronted by the facts of life, they usually turn their attention from inequality as a general problem to the (inescapable) fact that an income distribution has a top one-percent and top one-tenth of one-percent — as if there were something especially loathsome about people in those categories. (Paul Krugman shifted his focus to the top one-tenth of one percent when he realized that he’s in the top one percent, so perhaps he knows that’s he’s loathsome and wishes to deny it — to himself, at least.)

Crony capitalism is trotted out as a major cause of very high incomes. But that’s hardly a universal cause, given that a lot of very high incomes are earned by athletes and film stars beside whom most investment bankers and CEOs earn slave wages. Moreover, as I’ve said on several occasions, crony capitalists are bright and driven enough to be in the stratosphere of any income distribution. Further, the breeding ground of crony capitalism is the regulatory power of government that makes it possible.

Many economists became such, it would seem, in order to promote big government and its supposed good works — income redistribution being one of them. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are two leading exemplars of what I call the New Deal school of economic thought, which amounts to throwing government and taxpayers’ money at every perceived problem, that is, every economic outcome that is deemed unacceptable by accountants of the soul. (See “Accountants of the Soul.”)

Stiglitz and Krugman — both Nobel laureates in economics — are typical “public intellectuals” whose intelligence breeds in them a kind of arrogance. (See “Intellectuals and Society: A Review.”) It’s the kind of arrogance that reveals itself in a penchant for deciding what’s best for others, even beyond the arrogance of behavioral “nudgers.”

New Deal economists like Stiglitz and Krugman carry it a few steps further. They ascribe to government an impeccable character, an intelligence to match their own, and a monolithic will. They then assume that this infallible and wise automaton can and will do precisely what they would do: Create the best of all possible worlds. (See the preceding chapter, in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

I hold economists of the New Deal stripe partly responsible for the swamp of stagnation into which the nation’s economy has descended. (See “Economic Growth Since World War II.”) Largely responsible, of course, are opportunistic if not economically illiterate politicians who pander to rent-seeking, economically illiterate constituencies. (Yes, I’m thinking of pensioners and the many “disadvantaged” groups with which “compassionate” politicians have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

Enough said, for now. Some economics is science. Too much of it is nothing more than special pleading cloaked in the jargon of economics, and pseudo-scientific theorizing overlaid with a veneer of mathematics or statistics.

Caveat lector.
__________
* This is from Karl Popper‘s classic statement of the scientific method. Richard Feynman, a physicist (and real scientist), had a different view. I see Feynman’s view as complementary to Popper’s, not at odds with it. What is “constructive skepticism” (Feynman’s term) but a gentler way of saying that a hypothesis or theory might be falsified and that the act of falsification may point to a better hypothesis or theory?

** The principle of uniformity is a fundamental axiom of modern physics, most notably of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. According to the principle of uniformity, for example, if observer B is moving away from observer A at a certain speed, observer A will perceive that he is moving away from observer B at that speed. This statement holds only if A and B can’t see another object. But suppose, for example, there’s an object C that’s visible to A, and which A perceives as stationary. If A sees that B is moving away from C as well as from A, then A will perceive that B is in motion while A is at rest (relative to C, at least). That aside, A still doesn’t have an absolute velocity or direction of travel. Velocity and direction are always relative to an arbitrary reference point.

Unorthodox Economics: 2. Pitfalls

This is the second 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

A person who wants to learn about economics should be forewarned about pernicious tendencies and beliefs — often used unthinkingly and expressed subtly — that lurk in writings and speeches about economics and economic issues. This chapter treats seven such tendencies and beliefs:

  • misuse of probability
  • reductionism
  • nirvana fallacy
  • social welfare
  • romanticizing the state
  • paternalism
  • judging motives instead of results

MISUSE OF PROBABILITY

Probability is seldom invoked in non-technical economics. But when it is, beware of it. A statement about the probability of an event is either (a) a subjective evaluation (“educated” guess) about what is likely to happen or (b) a strict, mathematical statement about the observed frequency of the occurrence of a well-defined random event. I will bet you even money that the first meaning applies in at least six of the next ten times that you read or hear a statement about probability or its cognate “chance,” as in 50-percent chance of rain. And my subjective evaluation is that I have a 90-percent probability of winning the bet.

Let’s take the chance of rain (or snow or sleet, etc.). You may rely heavily on a weather forecaster’s statement about the probability that it will rain today. If the stated probability is high, you may postpone an outing of some kind, or take an umbrella when you leave the house, or wear a water-repellent coat instead of a cloth one, and so on. That’s prudent behavior on your part, even though the weather forecaster’s statement isn’t really probabilistic.

What the weather forecaster is telling you (or relaying to you from the National Weather Service) is a subjective evaluation of the “chance” that it will rain in a given geographic area, based on known conditions (e.g., wind direction, presence of a nearby front, water-vapor imagery). The “chance” may be computed mathematically, but its computation rests on judgments about the occurrence of rain-producing events, such as the speed of a front’s movement and the direction of water-vapor flow. In the end, however, you’re left with only a weather forecaster’s judgment, and it’s up to you to evaluate it and act accordingly.

What about something that involves “harder” numbers, such as the likelihood of winning a lottery (where there’s good information about the number of tickets sold) or casting the deciding vote in an election (where there’s good information about the number of votes that will be cast)? I will continue with the case of voting, which is discussed in chapter 1 as an example of the extent to which economics has spread beyond its former preoccupations with buyers, sellers, and the aggregation of their activities.

An economist named Bryan Caplan has written a lot about voting. For example, he says the following in “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth” (EconLog, September 13, 2016):

Aren’t we [economists] always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak?  Sure, but abstention [from voting] is totally an option.  And while politicians have a clear incentive to ignore we abstainers, only remaining aloof from our polity gives me inner peace.

You could respond, “Inner peace at what price?”  It is only at this point that I invoke the miniscule probability of voter decisiveness.  If I had a 5% chance of tipping an electoral outcome, I might hold my nose, scrupulously compare the leading candidates, and vote for the Lesser Evil.  Indeed, if, like von Stauffenberg, I had a 50/50 shot of saving millions of innocent lives by putting my own in grave danger, I’d consider it.  But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance.  And one-in-a-million is grossly optimistic.

Caplan links to a portion of his lecture notes for a course in the logic of collective action. The notes include this mathematical argument:

III. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, I: Mathematics

A. When does a vote matter? At least in most systems, it only matters if it “flips” the outcome of the election.

B. This can only happen if the winner wins by a single vote. In that case, each voter is “decisive”; if one person decided differently, the outcome would change.

C. In all other cases, the voter is not decisive; the outcome would not change if one person decided differently.

D. It is obvious that the probability of casting the decisive vote in a large electorate is extremely small….

H. Now suppose that everyone but yourself votes “for” with probability p – and “against” with probability (1-p).

I. Then from probability theory: caplan-on-voting-probability-of-tie

J. From this formula, we can see that the probability of a tie falls when the number of voters goes up….

K. Intuitively, the more people there are, the less likely one person makes a difference….

IV. Calculating the Probability of Decisiveness, II: Examples

A. What is neat about the above formula is that it allows us to say not just how the probability of decisiveness changes, but how much….

I. Upshot: For virtually any real-world election, the probability of casting the decisive vote is not just small; it is normally infinitesimal. The extreme observation that “You will not affect the outcome of an election by voting” is true for all practical purposes.

J. Even if you were to play around with the formula to increase your estimate a thousand-fold, your estimated answer would remain vanishingly small.

What Caplan and other economists who write in the same vein ignore is the influence of their point of view. It’s self-defeating because it appeals to extremely rationalistic people like Caplan. One aspect of their rationalism is a cold-eyed view of government, namely, that it almost always does more harm than good. That’s a position with which I agree, but it’s a reason to vote rather than abstain. If rationalists like Caplan abstain from voting in large numbers, their abstention may well cause some elections to be won by candidates who favor more government rather than less.

Moreover, Caplan’s argument against voting is really a way of rationalizing his disdain for voting. This is from “Why I Don’t Vote: The Honest Truth”:

My honest answer begins with extreme disgust.  When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst.  When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies.  Yes, some hysterical, innumerate people are more hysterical and innumerate than others.  Yes, some mendacious, callous bullies are more mendacious, callous, and bully-like than others.  But even a bare hint of any of these traits appalls me.  When someone gloats, “Politifact says Trump is pants-on-fire lying 18% of the time, versus just 2% for Hillary,” I don’t want to cheer Hillary.  I want to retreat into my Bubble, where people dutifully speak the truth or stay silent.

Thus demonstrating the confirmation bias in Caplan’s mathematical “proof” of the futility of voting.

Nor is his “proof” really probabilistic. A single event — be it an election, a lottery drawing, of the toss of a fair coin — doesn’t have a probability.  What does it mean to say, for example, that there’s a probability of 0.5 (50 percent) that a tossed coin will come up heads (H), and a probability of 0.5 that it will come up tails (T)? Does such a statement have any bearing on the outcome of a single toss of a coin? No, it doesn’t. The statement is only a shorthand way of saying that in a sufficiently large number of tosses, approximately half will come up H and half will come up T. The result of each toss, however, is a random event — it has no probability. You may have an opinion (or a hunch or a guess) about the outcome of a single coin toss, but it’s only your opinion (hunch, guess). In the end, you have to bet on a discrete outcome.

An election that hasn’t taken place can’t have a probability. There will be opinion polls — a lot of them in the case of a presidential election — but choosing to vote (or not) because of opinion polls can be self-defeating. Take the recent presidential election. Almost all of the polls, including those that forecast the electoral vote as well as the popular vote, had Mrs. Clinton winning over Mr. Trump.

But despite the high “probability” of a victory by Mrs. Clinton, she lost. Why? Because the “ignorant” voters in several swing States turned out in large numbers, while too many pro-Clinton voters evidently didn’t bother to vote. It’s possible that she lost some crucial States because of the abstention of voters who believed the high “probability” that she would win.

The election of 2016 — like every other election — isn’t even close to being something as simple as the toss of a fair coin. And, despite its mathematical precision, a statement about the probability of the next toss of a fair coin is meaningless. It will come up H or it will come up T, but it will not come up 0.5 H or T.

REDUCTIONISM

This subject is more important than probability, so I will say far less about it.

Reductionism is the adoption of a theory or method which holds that a complex idea or system can be completely understood in terms of its simpler components. Most reductionists will defend their theory or method by agreeing that it is simple, if not simplistic. But they will nevertheless adhere to that theory or method because it’s “the best we have.” That claim should remind you of the hoary joke about the drunk who searched for his keys under a street light because he could see the ground there, even though he had dropped the keys half a block away.

Caplan’s adherence to the simplistic, mathematical analysis of voting is a good example of reductionism. Why? Because it omits the crucial influence of group behavior. It also omits other reasons for voting (or not). It certainly omits Caplan’s real reason, which is his “extreme disgust” for voters and the candidates from whom they must choose. Finally, it omits the psychic value of voting — its “feel good” effect.

Economists also are guilty of reductionism when they suggest that persons act rationally only when they pursue the maximization of income or wealth. I’ll say more about that when I get to paternalism.

NIRVANA FALLACY

The nirvana fallacy is the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. The actual things usually are the “somethings” about which government is supposed to “do something.” The unrealistic, idealized alternatives are the outcomes sought by the proponents of a particular course of government action.

There is also a pervasive nirvana fallacy about government itself. Government — which is a mere collection of fallible, squabbling, power-lusting humans — is too often thought and spoken of as if it were a kind of omniscient, single-minded, benevolent being that can overcome the forces of nature and human nature which give rise, in the first place, to the “something” about which “something must be done.”

Specific examples of the nirvana fallacy will arise in later chapters of this book.

SOCIAL WELFARE

Wouldn’t you like to arrange the world so that everyone is better off? If you would — and I suspect that most people would — you’d have to define “better off.” Happier, healthier, and wealthier make a good starting point. Of course, you’d have to arrange it so that everyone would be happier and healthier and wealthier in the future as well as in the present. That is, for example, you couldn’t arrange greater happiness at the cost of greater wealth, or at the cost of the greater happiness or wealth of those living today or their descendants.

It’s a tall order isn’t it? In fact, it’s an impossibility. (You might even call it a state of nirvana.) In the real world of limited resources, the best that can happen is that a change of some kind (e.g., the invention of an anti-polio vaccine, hybridization to produce healthier and more abundant crops) makes it possible for many people to be better off — but at a price. There is no free lunch. Someone must bear the costs of devising and implementing beneficial changes. In market economies, those costs are borne by the people who reap the benefits because they (the beneficiaries) voluntarily pay for whatever it is that makes their lives better.

Enter government, whose agents decide such things what lines of medical research to fund, and how much to spend on each line of research. A breakthrough in a line of research might be a boon to millions of Americans. But other millions of Americans — many more millions, in fact — won’t benefit from the breakthrough, though a large fraction of them will have funded the underlying research through taxes extracted from them by force. I say by force because tax collections would decline sharply if it weren’t for the credible threat of heavy fines and imprisonment tax collections.

A voluntary exchange results when each of the parties to the exchange believes that he will be better off as a result of the exchange. An honest voluntary exchange — one in which there is no deception or material lack of information — therefore improves the well-being (welfare) of all parties. An involuntary exchange, as in the case of tax-funded medical research, cannot result make all parties better off. No government agent — or economist, pundit, or politician — can look into the minds of millions of people and say that each of them would willingly donate a certain amount of money to fund this or that government program. And yet, that is the presumption which lies behind government spending.

That presumption is the fallacious foundation of cost-benefit analysis undertaken to evaluate government programs. If the “social benefit” of a program is said to equal or exceed its cost, the program is presumably justified because the undertaking of it would cause “social welfare” to increase. But a “social benefit” — like a breakthrough in medical research — is a always a benefit to some persons, while the taxes paid to elicit the benefit are nothing but a burden to other persons, who have their own problems and priorities.

Why doesn’t the good outweigh the bad? Think of it this way: If a bully punches you in the nose, thus deriving much pleasure at your expense, who is to say that the bully’s pleasure outweighs your pain? Do you believe that there’s a third party who is entitled to say that the result of your transaction with the bully is a heightened state of social welfare? Evidently, there are a lot of voters, economists, pundits, and politician who act as if they believe it.

ROMANTICIZING THE STATE

This section is a corollary to the preceding one.

It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

PATERNALISM

Paternalism arises from the same source as “social welfare”; that is, it reflects a presumption that there are some persons who are competent to decide what’s best for other persons. That may be true of parents, but it is most assuredly not true of so-called libertarian paternalists.

Consider an example that’s used to explain libertarian paternalism. Some workers choose “irrationally” — according to libertarian paternalists — when they decline to sign up for an employer’s 401(k) plan. The paternalists characterize the “do not join” option as the default option. In my experience, there is no default option: An employee must make a deliberate choice between joining a 401(k) or not joining it. And if the employee chooses not to join it, he or she must sign a form certifying that choice. That’s not a default, it’s a clear-cut and deliberate choice which reflects the employee’s best judgment, at that time, as to the best way to allocate his or her income. Nor is it an irrevocable choice; it can be revisited annually (or more often under certain circumstances).

But to help employees make the “right” choice, libertarian paternalists would find a way to herd employees into 401(k) plans (perhaps by law). In one variant of this bit of paternalism, an employee is automatically enrolled in a 401(k) and isn’t allowed to opt out for some months, by which time he or she has become used to the idea of being enrolled and declines to opt out.

The underlying notion is that people don’t always choose what’s “best” for themselves. Best according to whom? According to libertarian paternalists, of course, who tend to equate “best” with wealth maximization. They simply disregard or dismiss the truly rational preferences of those who must live with the consequences of their decisions.

Libertarian paternalism incorporates two fallacies. One is what I call the rationality fallacy (a kind of reductionism), the other is the fallacy of central planning.

As for the rationality fallacy, there is simply a lot more to maximizing satisfaction than maximizing wealth. That’s why some couples choose to have a lot of children, when doing so obviously reduces the amount of wealth that they can accumulate. That’s why some persons choose to retire early rather than stay in stressful jobs. Rationality and wealth maximization are two very different things, but a lot of laypersons and too many economists are guilty of equating them.

Nevertheless, many economists do equate rationality and wealth maximization, which leads them to propose schemes for forcing us to act more “rationally.” Such schemes, of course, are nothing more than central planning, dreamt up by self-anointed wise men who seek to impose their preferences on the rest of us. They are, in other words, schemes to maximize that which can’t be maximized: social welfare.

JUDGING MOTIVES INSTEAD OF RESULTS

If a person commits what seems to be an altruistic act, that person may seem to sacrifice something (e.g., a life, a fortune) but the “sacrifice” was that person’s choice. An altruistic act serves an end: the satisfaction of one’s personal values — nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing inherent in a supposedly altruistic act that makes it morally superior to profit-seeking, which is usually thought of as the opposite of altruism.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa’s acts of “sacrifice” were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she “suffered” the more her parents suffered and the happier she became.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother, on her deathbed, said “Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer.” So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother’s sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But Billy obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values. And in doing so, he make life better for millions of people, many millions more than were served by Mother Teresa’s efforts. It’s just that Billy’s efforts weren’t heart-rending, and were seemingly motivated by profit-seeking.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can’t say (for sure) why she took those actions. Suppose that the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, regardless of their motivation. The same goes for the real Bill Gates.

Results matter more than motivations. (“The road to hell,” and all that.) It is arguable that profit-seekers like the real Bill Gates — and the real John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and their ilk — brought more happiness to humankind than did Mother Teresa and others of her ilk.

That insight is at least 240 years old. Adam Smith put it this way in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

By pursuing his own interest [a person] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

A person who makes a profit makes it by doing something of value for others.

Unorthodox Economics: 1. What Is Economics?

This is the first 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. This first chapter gives a hint of things to come. 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

A book about economics should begin by explaining what the author means by the word. Many economists have given many definitions of economics. You can look them up.

Regardless of where it started, economics seems to have become the study of how human beings make choices and how those choices affect them directly (e.g., the demand for and supply of new automobiles, enrollment in an employer’s retirement plan) and indirectly (e.g., the effects of government actions on the income available for the purchase of new automobiles or on the benefits paid out by retirement plans). The parenthetical examples are about choices that usually come with dollar signs attached. And most non-economists probably think of economics as having something (or everything) to do with money – earning it, spending it, making a profit (or not) by making and selling things, adding up the dollar value of items bought and sold to arrive at an estimate of aggregate economic activity, and understanding why the aggregate grows and shrinks, for example.

But there are many economists nowadays who have taken the study of choice into areas that would seem strange to economists of yore. Here’s just one example: voting, as in whether or not to vote and how much time (if any) to spend in the pursuit of information about the candidates or issues on the ballot. Some economists tackle voting as they would any other aspect of economics: by arguing (pro or con) that voting is rational (or irrational) given the amount of time involved (time that could spent on other pursuits, such as making money), the vanishingly small chance that an individual vote will tip the balance in an election (at least in an election where there are more than a few hundred voters), and the effect of the election results on the individual voter’s well-being (usually in terms of money).

On the other hand (as economists are supposedly fond of saying), there are economists who recognize that casting a ballot is a “feel good” act, and that voting is therefore rational if it makes one happier. But that’s only a local, short-run effect. Some economists understand that voting leads to the enactment of policies that harm voters (or many of them), regardless of why they choose to vote. This points to two conclusions: (1) Voting should be discouraged, and (2) the power of government should be curbed so that voters can feel good without causing harm (or as much of it as they do now).

So, which is it? Is voting a waste of time or is it a good use of time if it makes the voter feel good? And is it worse than a waste of time if it leads to harm? This conundrum illustrates a key point about economics (and analysis in general): It leads to conclusions that are built into the assumptions (usually implicit) that guide the economist who studies an issue. If the economist cares about liberty, he is likely to tackle the issue of voting as it affects persons other than the voter. If the economist isn’t interested in liberty – or if he sees it only as a peripheral issue — he is likely to tackle the issue of voting as it affects the voter.

Unfortunately, too many economists take the view that if government can do something to promote economic well-being, it ought to be empowered to do so. But economic well-being is in the eye of the beholder. And in this era of massive redistribution, one person’s benefit is another person’s cost. Who, other than an arrogant economist, presumes to weigh one person’s benefit against another person’s cost? My list begins with the greedy voter who believes that he can get something for nothing; the smug pundit; and the power-hungry, vote-buying politician.

There is much more to be said about the wayward paths taken by economists, and the essays in this book say a lot of it. But more than that, this book is a defense of liberty against economists who – wittingly or not – undermine it. And, ironically, the diminution of liberty results in the diminution of prosperity, which economists claim to love.

In sum economics is fraught with dangerous error. This book is meant as a warning and antidote.

Mathematical Economics

This is the fourth entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. Previous entries are here, here, and here.

Economics is a study of human behavior, not an exercise in mathematical modeling or statistical analysis, though both endeavors may augment an understanding of human behavior. Economics is about four things:

  • wants, as they are perceived by the persons who have those wants
  • how people try to satisfy their wants through mutually beneficial, cooperative action, which includes but is far from limited to market-based exchanges
  • how exogenous forces, including government interventions, enable or thwart the satisfaction of wants
  • the relationships between private action, government interventions, and changes in the composition, rate, and direction of economic activity

In sum, economics is about the behavior of human beings, which is why it’s called a social science. Well, economics used to be called a social science, but it’s been a long time (perhaps fifty years) since I’ve heard or read an economist refer to it as a social science. The term is too reminiscent of “soft and fuzzy” disciplines such as history, social psychology, sociology, political science, and civics or social studies (names for the amalgam of sociology and government that was taught in high schools way back when). No “soft and fuzzy” stuff for physics-envying economists.

However, the behavior of human beings — their thoughts and emotions, how those things affect their actions, and how they interact — is fuzzy, to say the least. Which explains why mathematical economics is largely an exercise in mental masturbation.

In my disdain for mathematical economics, I am in league with Arnold Kling, who is the most insightful economist I have yet encountered in more than fifty years of studying and reading about economics. I especially recommend Kling’s Specialization and Trade: A Reintroduction to Economics. It’s a short book, but chock-full of wisdom and straight thinking about what makes the economy tick. Here’s the blurb from Amazon.com:

Since the end of the second World War, economics professors and classroom textbooks have been telling us that the economy is one big machine that can be effectively regulated by economic experts and tuned by government agencies like the Federal Reserve Board. It turns out they were wrong. Their equations do not hold up. Their policies have not produced the promised results. Their interpretations of economic events — as reported by the media — are often of-the-mark, and unconvincing.

A key alternative to the one big machine mindset is to recognize how the economy is instead an evolutionary system, with constantly-changing patterns of specialization and trade. This book introduces you to this powerful approach for understanding economic performance. By putting specialization at the center of economic analysis, Arnold Kling provides you with new ways to think about issues like sustainability, financial instability, job creation, and inflation. In short, he removes stiff, narrow perspectives and instead provides a full, multi-dimensional perspective on a continually evolving system.

And he does, without using a single graph. He uses only a few simple equations to illustrate the bankruptcy of macroeconomic theory.

Those economists who rely heavily on mathematics like to say (and perhaps even believe) that mathematical expression is more precise than mere words. But, as Kling points out in “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm,” mathematical economics is a language of “faux precision,” which is useful only when applied to well defined, narrow problems. It can’t address the big issues — such as economic growth — which depend on variables such as the rule of law and social norms which defy mathematical expression and quantification.

I would go a step further and argue that mathematical economics borders on obscurantism. It’s a cult whose followers speak an arcane language not only to communicate among themselves but to obscure the essentially bankrupt nature of their craft from others. Mathematical expression actually hides the assumptions that underlie it. It’s far easier to identify and challenge the assumptions of “literary” economics than it is to identify and challenge the assumptions of mathematical economics.

I daresay that this is true even for persons who are conversant in mathematics. They may be able to manipulate easily the equations of mathematical economics, but they are able to do so without grasping the deeper meanings — the assumptions and complexities — hidden by those equations. In fact, the ease of manipulating the equations gives them a false sense of mastery of the underlying, real concepts.

Much of the economics profession is nevertheless dedicated to the protection and preservation of the essential incompetence of mathematical economists. This is from “An Important Emerging Economic Paradigm”:

One of the best incumbent-protection rackets going today is for mathematical theorists in economics departments. The top departments will not certify someone as being qualified to have an advanced degree without first subjecting the student to the most rigorous mathematical economic theory. The rationale for this is reminiscent of fraternity hazing. “We went through it, so should they.”

Mathematical hazing persists even though there are signs that the prestige of math is on the decline within the profession. The important Clark Medal, awarded to the most accomplished American economist under the age of 40, has not gone to a mathematical theorist since 1989.

These hazing rituals can have real consequences. In medicine, the controversial tradition of long work hours for medical residents has come under scrutiny over the last few years. In economics, mathematical hazing is not causing immediate harm to medical patients. But it probably is working to the long-term detriment of the profession.

The hazing ritual in economics has as least two real and damaging consequences. First, it discourages entry into the economics profession by persons who aren’t high-IQ freaks, and who, like Kling, can discuss economic behavior without resorting to the sterile language of mathematics. Second, it leads to economics that’s irrelevant to the real world — and dead wrong.

Reaching back into my archives, I found a good example of irrelevance and wrongness in Thomas Schelling‘s game-theoretic analysis of segregation. Eleven years ago, Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution), who was mentored by Schelling at Harvard, praised Schelling’s Nobel prize by noting, among other things, Schelling’s analysis of the economics of segregation:

Tom showed how communities can end up segregated even when no single individual cares to live in a segregated neighborhood. Under the right conditions, it only need be the case that the person does not want to live as a minority in the neighborhood, and will move to a neighborhood where the family can be in the majority. Try playing this game with white and black chess pieces, I bet you will get to segregation pretty quickly.

Like many game-theoretic tricks, Schelling’s segregation gambit omits much important detail. It’s artificial to treat segregation as a game in which all whites are willing to live with black neighbors as long as they (the whites) aren’t in the minority. Most whites (including most liberals) do not want to live anywhere near any “black rednecks” if they can help it. Living in relatively safe, quiet, and attractive surroundings comes far ahead of whatever value there might be in “diversity.”

“Diversity” for its own sake is nevertheless a “good thing” in the liberal lexicon. The Houston Chronicle noted Schelling’s Nobel by saying that Schelling’s work

helps explain why housing segregation continues to be a problem, even in areas where residents say they have no extreme prejudice to another group.

Segregation isn’t a “problem,” it’s the solution to a potential problem. Segregation today is mainly a social phenomenon, not a legal one. It reflects a rational aversion on the part of whites to having neighbors whose culture breeds crime and other types of undesirable behavior.

As for what people say about their racial attitudes: Believe what they do, not what they say. Most well-to-do liberals — including black one like the Obamas — choose to segregate themselves and their children from black rednecks. That kind of voluntary segregation, aside from demonstrating liberal hypocrisy about black redneck culture, also demonstrates the rationality of choosing to live in safer and more decorous surroundings.

Dave Patterson of the defunct Order from Chaos put it this way:

[G]ame theory has one major flaw inherent in it: The arbitrary assignment of expected outcomes and the assumption that the values of both parties are equally reflected in these external outcomes. By this I mean a matrix is filled out by [a conductor, and] it is up to that conductor’s discretion to assign outcome values to that grid. This means that there is an inherent bias towards the expected outcomes of conductor.

Or: Garbage in, garbage out.

Game theory points to the essential flaw in mathematical economics, which is reductionism: “An attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts, entities, phenomena, or structures by another, simpler set.”

Reductionism is invaluable in many settings. To take an example from everyday life, children are warned — in appropriate stern language — not to touch a hot stove or poke a metal object into an electrical outlet. The reasons given are simple ones: “You’ll burn yourself” and “You’ll get a shock and it will hurt you.” It would be futile (in almost all cases) to try to explain to a small child the physical and physiological bases for the warnings. The child wouldn’t understand the explanations, and the barrage of words might cause him to forget the warnings.

The details matter in economics. It’s easy enough to say, for example, that a market equilibrium exists where the relevant supply and demand curves cross (in a graphical representation) or where the supply and demand functions yield equal values of price and quantity (in a mathematical representation). But those are gross abstractions from reality, as any economist knows — or should know. Expressing economic relationships in mathematical terms lends them an unwarranted air of precision.

Further, all mathematical expressions, no matter how complex, can be expressed in plain language, though it may be hard to do so when the words become too many and their relationships too convoluted. But until one tries to do so, one is at the mercy of the mathematical economist whose equation has no counterpart in the real world of economic activity. In other words, an equation represents nothing more than the manipulation of mathematical relationships until it’s brought to earth by plain language and empirical testing. Short of that, it’s as meaningful as Urdu is to a Cockney.

Finally, mathematical economics lends aid and comfort to proponents of economic control. Whether or not they understand the mathematics or the economics, the expression of congenial ideas in mathematical form lends unearned — and dangerous — credibility to the controller’s agenda. The relatively simple multiplier is a case in point. As I explain in “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,”

the Keynesian investment/government-spending multiplier simply tells us that if ∆Y = $5 trillion, and if b = 0.8, then it is a matter of mathematical necessity that ∆C = $4 trillion and ∆I + ∆G = $1 trillion. In other words, a rise in I + G of $1 trillion doesn’t cause a rise in Y of $5 trillion; rather, Y must rise by $5 trillion for C to rise by $4 trillion and I + G to rise by $1 trillion. If there’s a causal relationship between ∆G and ∆Y, the multiplier doesn’t portray it.

I followed that post with “The True Multiplier“:

Math trickery aside, there is evidence that the Keynesian multiplier is less than 1. Robert J. Barro of Harvard University opens an article in The Wall Street Journal with the statement that “economists have not come up with explanations … for multipliers above one.”

Barro continues:

A much more plausible starting point is a multiplier of zero. In this case, the GDP is given, and a rise in government purchases requires an equal fall in the total of other parts of GDP — consumption, investment and net export. . . .

What do the data show about multipliers? Because it is not easy to separate movements in government purchases from overall business fluctuations, the best evidence comes from large changes in military purchases that are driven by shifts in war and peace. A particularly good experiment is the massive expansion of U.S. defense expenditures during World War II. The usual Keynesian view is that the World War II fiscal expansion provided the stimulus that finally got us out of the Great Depression. Thus, I think that most macroeconomists would regard this case as a fair one for seeing whether a large multiplier ever exists.

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8 (430/540). The other way to put this is that the war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports — personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier. . . .

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. [“Government Spending Is No Free Lunch,” The Wall Street Journal (online.WSJ.com), January 22, 2009]

This is from Valerie A. Ramsey of  the University of California-San Diego and the National Bureau of Economic Research:

. . . [I]t appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5. [“Government Spending and Private Activity,” January 2012]

In fact,

for the period 1947-2012 I estimated the year-over-year percentage change in GDP (denoted as Y%) as a function of G/GDP (denoted as G/Y):

Y% = 0.09 – 0.17(G/Y)

Solving for Y% = 0 yields G/Y = 0.53; that is, Y% will drop to zero if G/Y rises to 0.53 (or thereabouts). At the present level of G/Y (about 0.4), Y% will hover just above 2 percent, as it has done in recent years. (See the graph immediately above.)

If G/Y had remained at 0.234, its value in 1947:

  • Real growth would have been about 5 percent a year, instead of 3.2 percent (the actual value for 1947-2012).
  • The total value of Y for 1947-2012 would have been higher by $500 trillion (98 percent).
  • The total value of G would have been lower by $61 trillion (34 percent).

The last two points, taken together, imply a cumulative government-spending multiplier (K) for 1947-2012 of about -8. That is, aggregate output in 1947-2012 declined by 8 dollars for every dollar of government spending above the amount represented by G/Y = 0.234.

But -8 is only an average value for 1947-2012. It gets worse. The reduction in Y is cumulative; that is, every extra dollar of G reduces the amount of Y that is available for growth-producing investment, which leads to a further reduction in Y, which leads to a further reduction in growth-producing investment, and on and on. (Think of the phenomenon as negative compounding; take a dollar from your savings account today, and the value of the savings account years from now will be lower than it would have been by a multiple of that dollar: [1 + interest rate] raised to nth power, where n = number of years.) Because of this cumulative effect, the effective value of K in 2012 was about -14.

The multiplier is a seductive and easy-to-grasp mathematical construct. But in the hands of politicians and their economist-enablers, it has been an instrument of economic destruction.

Perhaps “higher” mathematical economics is potentially less destructive because it’s inside game played by economists for the benefit of economists. I devoutly hope that’s true.

Economists As Scientists

This is the third entry in a series of loosely connected posts on economics. The first entry is here and the second entry is here. (Related posts by me are noted parenthetically throughout this one.)

Science is something that some people “do” some of the time. There are full-time human beings and part-time scientists. And the part-timers are truly scientists only when they think and act in accordance with the scientific method.*

Acting in accordance with the scientific method is a matter of attitude and application. The proper attitude is one of indifference about the correctness of a hypothesis or theory. The proper application rejects a hypothesis if it can’t be tested, and rejects a theory if it’s refuted (falsified) by relevant and reliable observations.

Regarding attitude, I turn to the most famous person who was sometimes a scientist: Albert Einstein. This is from the Wikipedia article about the Bohr-Einstein debate:

The quantum revolution of the mid-1920s occurred under the direction of both Einstein and [Niels] Bohr, and their post-revolutionary debates were about making sense of the change. The shocks for Einstein began in 1925 when Werner Heisenberg introduced matrix equations that removed the Newtonian elements of space and time from any underlying reality. The next shock came in 1926 when Max Born proposed that mechanics were to be understood as a probability without any causal explanation.

Einstein rejected this interpretation. In a 1926 letter to Max Born, Einstein wrote: “I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” [Apparently, Einstein also used the line in Bohr’s presence, and Bohr replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” — TEA]

At the Fifth Solvay Conference held in October 1927 Heisenberg and Born concluded that the revolution was over and nothing further was needed. It was at that last stage that Einstein’s skepticism turned to dismay. He believed that much had been accomplished, but the reasons for the mechanics still needed to be understood.

Einstein’s refusal to accept the revolution as complete reflected his desire to see developed a model for the underlying causes from which these apparent random statistical methods resulted. He did not reject the idea that positions in space-time could never be completely known but did not want to allow the uncertainty principle to necessitate a seemingly random, non-deterministic mechanism by which the laws of physics operated.

It’s true that quantum mechanics was inchoate in the mid-1920s, and that it took a couple of decades to mature into quantum field theory. But there’s more than a trace of “attitude” in Einstein’s refusal to accept quantum mechanics, to stay abreast of developments in the theory, and to search quixotically for his own theory of everything, which he hoped would obviate the need for a non-deterministic explanation of quantum phenomena.

Improper application of the scientific method is rife. See, for example the Wikipedia article about the replication crisis, John Ioannidis’s article, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” (See also “Ty Cobb and the State of Science” and “Is Science Self-Correcting?“) For a thorough analysis of the roots of the crisis, read Michael Hart’s book, Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.

A bad attitude and improper application are both found among the so-called scientists who declare that the “science” of global warming is “settled,” and that human-generated CO2 emissions are the primary cause of the apparent rise in global temperatures during the last quarter of the 20th century. The bad attitude is the declaration of “settled science.” In “The Science Is Never Settled” I give many prominent examples of the folly of declaring it to be “settled.”

The improper application of the scientific method with respect to global warming began with the hypothesis that the “culprit” is CO2 emissions generated by the activities of human beings — thus anthropogenic global warming (AGW). There’s no end of evidence to the contrary, some of which is summarized in these posts and many of the links found therein. There’s enough evidence, in my view, to have rejected the CO2 hypothesis many times over. But there’s a great deal of money and peer-approval at stake, so the rush to judgment became a stampede. And attitude rears its ugly head when pro-AGW “scientists” shun the real scientists who are properly skeptical about the CO2 hypothesis, or at least about the degree to which CO2 supposedly influences temperatures. (For a depressingly thorough account of the AGW scam, read Michael Hart’s Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change.)

I turn now to economists, as I have come to know them in more than fifty years of being taught by them, working with them, and reading their works. Scratch an economist and you’re likely to find a moralist or reformer just beneath a thin veneer of rationality. Economists like to believe that they’re objective. But they aren’t; no one is. Everyone brings to the table a large serving of biases that are incubated in temperament, upbringing, education, and culture.

Economists bring to the table a heaping helping of tunnel vision. “Hard scientists” do, too, but their tunnel vision is generally a good thing, because it’s actually aimed at a deeper understanding of the inanimate and subhuman world rather than the advancement of a social or economic agenda. (I make a large exception for “hard scientists” who contribute to global-warming hysteria, as discussed above.)

Some economists, especially behavioralists, view the world through the lens of wealth-and-utility-maximization. Their great crusade is to force everyone to make rational decisions (by their lights), through “nudging.” It almost goes without saying that government should be the nudger-in-chief. (See “The Perpetual Nudger” and the many posts linked to therein.)

Other economists — though far fewer than in the past — have a thing about monopoly and oligopoly (the domination of a market by one or a few sellers). They’re heirs to the trust-busting of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement led by non-economists who sought to blame the woes of working-class Americans on the “plutocrats” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, etc.) who had merely made life better and more affordable for Americans, while also creating jobs for millions of them and reaping rewards for the great financial risks that they took. (See “Monopoly and the General Welfare” and “Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public.”) As it turns out, the biggest and most destructive monopoly of all is the federal government, so beloved and trusted by trust-busters — and too many others. (See “The Rahn Curve Revisited.”)

Nowadays, a lot of economists are preoccupied by income inequality, as if it were something evil and not mainly an artifact of differences in intelligence, ambition, and education, etc. And inequality — the prospect of earning rather grand sums of money — is what drives a lot of economic endeavor, to good of workers and consumers. (See “Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes” and the many posts linked to therein.) Remove inequality and what do you get? The Soviet Union and Communist China, in which everyone is equal except party operatives and their families, friends, and favorites.

When the inequality-preoccupied economists are confronted by the facts of life, they usually turn their attention from inequality as a general problem to the (inescapable) fact that an income distribution has a top one-percent and top one-tenth of one-percent — as if there were something especially loathsome about people in those categories. (Paul Krugman shifted his focus to the top one-tenth of one percent when he realized that he’s in the top one percent, so perhaps he knows that’s he’s loathsome and wishes to deny it, to himself.)

Crony capitalism is trotted out as a major cause of very high incomes. But that’s hardly a universal cause, given that a lot of very high incomes are earned by athletes and film stars beside whom most investment bankers and CEOs are making peanuts. Moreover, as I’ve said on several occasions, crony capitalists are bright and driven enough to be in the stratosphere of any income distribution. Further, the fertile soil of crony capitalism is the regulatory power of government that makes it possible.

Many economists became such, it would seem, in order to promote big government and its supposed good works — income redistribution being one of them. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are two leading exemplars of what I call the New Deal school of economic thought, which amounts to throwing government and taxpayers’ money at every perceived problem, that is, every economic outcome that is deemed unacceptable by accountants of the soul. (See “Accountants of the Soul.”)

Stiglitz and Krugman — both Nobel laureates in economics — are typical “public intellectuals” whose intelligence breeds in them a kind of arrogance. (See “Intellectuals and Society: A Review.”) It’s the kind of arrogance that I mentioned in the preceding post in this series: a penchant for deciding what’s best for others.

New Deal economists like Stiglitz and Krugman carry it a few steps further. They ascribe to government an impeccable character, an intelligence to match their own, and a monolithic will. They then assume that this infallible and wise automaton can and will do precisely what they would do: Create the best of all possible worlds. (See the many posts in which I discuss the nirvana fallacy.)

New Deal economists, in other words, live their intellectual lives  in a dream-world populated by the likes of Jiminy Cricket (“When You Wish Upon a Star”), Dorothy (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), and Mary Jane of a long-forgotten comic book (“First I shut my eyes real tight, then I wish with all my might! Magic words of poof, poof, piffles, make me just as small as [my mouse] Sniffles!”).

I could go on, but you should by now have grasped the point: What too many economists want to do is change human nature, channel it in directions deemed “good” (by the economist), or simply impose their view of “good” on everyone. To do such things, they must rely on government.

It’s true that government can order people about, but it can’t change human nature, which has an uncanny knack for thwarting Utopian schemes. (Obamacare, whose chief architect was economist Jonathan Gruber, is exhibit A this year.) And government (inconveniently for Utopians) really consists of fallible, often unwise, contentious human beings. So government is likely to march off in a direction unsought by Utopian economists.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to thwart the tax collector. The regulator can and does make things so hard for business that if one gets off the ground it can’t create as much prosperity and as many jobs as it would in the absence of regulation. And the redistributor only makes things worse by penalizing success. Tax, regulate, and redistribute should have been the mantra of the New Deal and most presidential “deals” since.

I hold economists of the New Deal stripe partly responsible for the swamp of stagnation into which the nation’s economy has descended. (See “Economic Growth Since World War II.”) Largely responsible, of course, are opportunistic if not economically illiterate politicians who pander to rent-seeking, economically illiterate constituencies. (Yes, I’m thinking of old folks and the various “disadvantaged” groups with which they have struck up an alliance of convenience.)

The distinction between normative economics and positive economics is of no particular use in sorting economists between advocates and scientists. A lot of normative economics masquerades as positive economics. The work of Thomas Piketty and his comrades-in-arms comes to mind, for example. (See “McCloskey on Piketty.”) Almost everything done to quantify and defend the Keynesian multiplier counts as normative economics, inasmuch as the work is intended (wittingly or not) to defend an intellectual scam of 80 years’ standing. (See “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,” “The True Multiplier,” and “Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier.”)

Enough said. If you want to see scientific economics in action, read Regulation. Not every article in it exemplifies scientific inquiry, but a good many of them do. It’s replete with articles about microeconomics, in which the authors uses real-world statistics to validate and quantify the many axioms of economics.

A final thought is sparked by Arnold Kling’s post, “Ed Glaeser on Science and Economics.” Kling writes:

I think that the public has a sort of binary classification. If it’s “science,” then an expert knows more than the average Joe. If it’s not a science, then anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. I strongly favor an in-between category, called a discipline. Think of economics as a discipline, where it is possible for avid students to know more than ordinary individuals, but without the full use of the scientific method.

On this rare occasion I disagree with Kling. The accumulation of knowledge about economic variables, or pseudo-knowledge such as estimates of GDP (see “Macroeconomics and Microeconomics“), either leads to well-tested, verified, and reproducible theories of economic behavior or it leads to conjectures, of which there are so many opposing ones that it’s “take your pick.” If that’s what makes a discipline, give me the binary choice between science and story-telling. Most of economics seems to be story-telling. “Discipline” is just a fancy word for it.

Collecting baseball cards and memorizing the statistics printed on them is a discipline. Most of economics is less useful than collecting baseball cards — and a lot more destructive.

Here’s my hypothesis about economists: There are proportionally as many of them who act like scientists as there are baseball players who have career batting averages of at least .300.
__________
* Richard Feynman, a physicist and real scientist, had a different view of the scientific method than Karl Popper’s standard taxonomy. I see Feynman’s view as complementary to Popper’s, not at odds with it. What is “constructive skepticism” (Feynman’s term) but a gentler way of saying that a hypothesis or theory might be falsified and that the act of falsification may point to a better hypothesis or theory?

Economics and Science

This is the second entry in what I expect to be a series of loosely connected posts on economics. The first entry is here.

Science is unnecessarily daunting to the uninitiated, which is to say, the vast majority of the populace. Because scientific illiteracy is rampant, advocates of policy positions — scientists and non-scientists alike — are able to invoke “science” wantonly, thus lending unwarranted authority to their positions.

Here I will dissect science, then turn to economics and begin a discussion of its scientific and non-scientific aspects. It has both, though at least one non-scientific aspect (the Keynesian multiplier) draws an inordinate amount of attention, and has many true believers within the profession.

Science is knowledge, but not all knowledge is science. A scientific body of knowledge is systematic; that is, the granular facts or phenomena which comprise the body of knowledge must be connected in patterned ways. The purported facts or phenomena of a science must represent reality, things that can be observed and measured in some way. Scientists may hypothesize the existence of an unobserved thing (e.g., the ether, dark matter), in an effort to explain observed phenomena. But the unobserved thing stands outside scientific knowledge until its existence is confirmed by observation, or because it remains standing as the only plausible explanation of observable phenomena. Hypothesized things may remain outside the realm of scientific knowledge for a very long time, if not forever. The Higgs boson, for example, was hypothesized in 1964 and has been tentatively (but not conclusively) confirmed since its “discovery” in 2011.

Science has other key characteristics. Facts and patterns must be capable of validation and replication by persons other than those who claim to have found them initially. Patterns should have predictive power; thus, for example, if the sun fails to rise in the east, the model of Earth’s movements which says that it will rise in the east is presumably invalid and must be rejected or modified so that it correctly predicts future sunrises or the lack thereof. Creating a model or tweaking an existing model just to account for a past event (e.g., the failure of the Sun to rise, the apparent increase in global temperatures from the 1970s to the 1990s) proves nothing other than an ability to “predict” the past with accuracy.

Models are usually clothed in the language of mathematics and statistics. But those aren’t scientific disciplines in themselves; they are tools of science. Expressing a theory in mathematical terms may lend the theory a scientific aura, but a theory couched in mathematical terms is not a scientific one unless (a) it can be tested against facts yet to be ascertained and events yet to occur, and (b) it is found to accord with those facts and events consistently, by rigorous statistical tests.

A science may be descriptive rather than mathematical. In a descriptive science (e.g., plant taxonomy), particular phenomena sometimes are described numerically (e.g., the number of leaves on the stem of a species), but the relations among various phenomena are not reducible to mathematics. Nevertheless, a predominantly descriptive discipline will be scientific if the phenomena within its compass are connected in patterned ways, can be validated, and are applicable to newly discovered entities.

Non-scientific disciplines can be useful, whereas some purportedly scientific disciplines verge on charlatanism. Thus, for example:

  • History, by my reckoning, is not a science because its account of events and their relationships is inescapably subjective and incomplete. But a knowledge of history is valuable, nevertheless, for the insights it offers into the influence of human nature on the outcomes of economic and political processes.
  • Physics is a science in most of its sub-disciplines, but there are some (e.g., cosmology) where it descends into the realm of speculation. It is informed, fascinating speculation to be sure, but speculation all the same. The idea of multiverses, for example, can’t be tested, inasmuch as human beings and their tools are bound to the known universe.
  • Economics is a science only to the extent that it yields empirically valid insights about  specific economic phenomena (e.g., the effects of laws and regulations on the prices and outputs of specific goods and services). Then there are concepts like the Keynesian multiplier, about which I’ll say more in this series. It’s a hypothesis that rests on a simplistic, hydraulic view of the economic system. (Other examples of pseudo-scientific economic theories are the labor theory of value and historical determinism.)

In sum, there is no such thing as “science,” writ large; that is, no one may appeal, legitimately, to “science” in the abstract. A particular discipline may be a science, but it is a science only to the extent that it comprises a factual and replicable body of patterned knowledge. Patterned knowledge includes theories with predictive power.

A scientific theory is a hypothesis that has thus far been confirmed by observation. Every scientific theory rests eventually on axioms: self-evident principles that are accepted as true without proof. The principle of uniformity (which can be traced to Galileo) is an example of such an axiom:

Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe. It refers to invariance in the metaphysical principles underpinning science, such as the constancy of causal structure throughout space-time, but has also been used to describe spatiotemporal invariance of physical laws. Though an unprovable postulate that cannot be verified using the scientific method, uniformitarianism has been a key first principle of virtually all fields of science

Thus, for example, if observer B is moving away from observer A at a certain speed, observer A will perceive that he is moving away from observer B at that speed. It follows that an observer cannot determine either his absolute velocity or direction of travel in space. The principle of uniformity is a fundamental axiom of modern physics, most notably of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity.

There’s a fine line between an axiom and a theory. Was the idea of a geocentric universe an axiom or a theory? If it was taken as axiomatic — as it surely was by many scientists for about 2,000 years — then it’s fair to say that an axiom can give way under the pressure of observational evidence. (Such an event is what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift.) But no matter how far scientists push the boundaries of knowledge, they must at some point rely on untestable axioms, such as the principle of uniformity. There are simply deep and (probably) unsolvable mysteries that science is unlikely to fathom.

This brings me to economics, which — in my view — rests on these self-evident axioms:

1. Each person strives to maximize his or her sense of satisfaction, which may also be called well-being, happiness, or utility (an ugly word favored by economists). Striving isn’t the same as achieving, of course, because of lack of information, emotional decision-making, buyer’s remorse, etc

2. Happiness can and often does include an empathic concern for the well-being of others; that is, one’s happiness may be served by what is usually labelled altruism or self-sacrifice.

3. Happiness can be and often is served by the attainment of non-material ends. Not all persons (perhaps not even most of them) are interested in the maximization of wealth, that is, claims on the output of goods and services. In sum, not everyone is a wealth maximizer. (But see axiom number 12.)

4. The feeling of satisfaction that an individual derives from a particular product or service is situational — unique to the individual and to the time and place in which the individual undertakes to acquire or enjoy the product or service. Generally, however, there is a (situationally unique) point at which the acquisition or enjoyment of additional units of a particular product or service during a given period of time tends to offer less satisfaction than would the acquisition or enjoyment of units of other products or services that could be obtained at the same cost.

5. The value that a person places on a product or service is subjective. Products and services don’t have intrinsic values that apply to all persons at a given time or period of time.

6. The ability of a person to acquire products and services, and to accumulate wealth, depends (in the absence of third-party interventions) on the valuation of the products and services that are produced in part or whole by the person’s labor (mental or physical), or by the assets that he owns (e.g., a factory building, a software patent). That valuation is partly subjective (e.g., consumers’ valuation of the products and services, an employer’s qualitative evaluation of the person’s contributions to output) and partly objective (e.g., an employer’s knowledge of the price commanded by a product or service, an employer’s measurement of an employees’ contribution to the quantity of output).

7. The persons and firms from which products and services flow are motivated by the acquisition of income, with which they can acquire other products and services, and accumulate wealth for personal purposes (e.g., to pass to heirs) or business purposes (e.g., to expand the business and earn more income). So-called profit maximization (seeking to maximize the difference between the cost of production and revenue from sales) is a key determinant of business decisions but far from the only one. Others include, but aren’t limited to, being a “good neighbor,” providing employment opportunities for local residents, and underwriting philanthropic efforts.

8. The cost of production necessarily influences the price at which a good or and service will be offered for sale, but doesn’t solely determine the price at which it will be sold. Selling price depends on the subjective valuation of the products or service, prospective buyers’ incomes, and the prices of other products and services, including those that are direct or close substitutes and those to which users may switch, depending on relative prices.

9. The feeling of satisfaction that a person derives from the acquisition and enjoyment of the “basket” of products and services that he is able to buy, given his income, etc., doesn’t necessarily diminish, as long as the person has access to a great variety of products and services. (This axiom and axiom 12 put paid to the myth of diminishing marginal utility of income.)

10. Work may be a source of satisfaction in itself or it may simply be a means of acquiring and enjoying products and services, or acquiring claims to them by accumulating wealth. Even when work is satisfying in itself, it is subject to the “law” of diminishing marginal satisfaction.

11. Work, for many (but not all) persons, is no longer be worth the effort if they become able to subsist comfortably enough by virtue of the wealth that they have accumulated, the availability of redistributive schemes (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), or both. In such cases the accumulation of wealth often ceases and reverses course, as it is “cashed in” to defray the cost of subsistence (which may be far more than minimal).

12. However, there are not a few persons whose “work” is such a great source of satisfaction that they continue doing it until they are no longer capable of doing so. And there are some persons whose “work” is the accumulation of wealth, without limit. Such persons may want to accumulate wealth in order to “do good” or to leave their heirs well off or simply for the satisfaction of running up the score. The justification matters not. There is no theoretical limit to the satisfaction that a particular person may derive from the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, many of the persons (discussed in axiom 11) who aren’t able to accumulate wealth endlessly would do so if they had the ability and the means to take the required risks.

13. Individual degrees of satisfaction (happiness, etc.) are ephemeral, nonquantifiable, and incommensurable. There is no such thing as a social welfare function that a third party (e.g., government) can maximize by taking from A to give to B. If there were such a thing, its value would increase if, for example, A were to punch B in the nose and derive a degree of pleasure that somehow more than offsets the degree of pain incurred by B. (The absurdity of a social-welfare function that allows As to punch Bs in their noses ought to be enough shame inveterate social engineers into quietude — but it won’t. They derive great satisfaction from meddling.) Moreover, one of the primary excuses for meddling is that income (and thus wealth) has a  diminishing marginal utility, so it makes sense to redistribute from those with higher incomes (or more wealth) to those who have less of either. Marginal utility is, however, unknowable (see axioms 4 and 5), and may not always be negative (see axioms 9 and 12).

14. Whenever a third party (government, do-gooders, etc.) intervene in the affairs of others, that third party is merely imposing its preferences on those others. The third party sometimes claims to know what’s best for “society as a whole,” etc., but no third party can know such a thing. (See axiom 13.)

15. It follows from axiom 13 that the welfare of “society as a whole” can’t be aggregated or measured. An estimate of the monetary value of the economic output of a nation’s economy (Gross Domestic Product) is by no means an estimate of the welfare of “society as a whole.” (Again, see axiom 13.)

That may seem like a lot of axioms, which might give you pause about my claim that some aspects of economics are scientific. But economics is inescapably grounded in axioms such as the ones that I propound. This aligns me (mainly) with the Austrian economists, whose leading light was Ludwig von Mises. Gene Callahan writes about him at the website of the Ludwig von Mises Institute:

As I understand [Mises], by categorizing the fundamental principles of economics as a priori truths and not contingent facts open to empirical discovery or refutation, Mises was not claiming that economic law is revealed to us by divine action, like the ten commandments were to Moses. Nor was he proposing that economic principles are hard-wired into our brains by evolution, nor even that we could articulate or comprehend them prior to gaining familiarity with economic behavior through participating in and observing it in our own lives. In fact, it is quite possible for someone to have had a good deal of real experience with economic activity and yet never to have wondered about what basic principles, if any, it exhibits.

Nevertheless, Mises was justified in describing those principles as a priori, because they are logically prior to any empirical study of economic phenomena. Without them it is impossible even to recognize that there is a distinct class of events amenable to economic explanation. It is only by pre-supposing that concepts like intention, purpose, means, ends, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction are characteristic of a certain kind of happening in the world that we can conceive of a subject matter for economics to investigate. Those concepts are the logical prerequisites for distinguishing a domain of economic events from all of the non-economic aspects of our experience, such as the weather, the course of a planet across the night sky, the growth of plants, the breaking of waves on the shore, animal digestion, volcanoes, earthquakes, and so on.

Unless we first postulate that people deliberately undertake previously planned activities with the goal of making their situations, as they subjectively see them, better than they otherwise would be, there would be no grounds for differentiating the exchange that takes place in human society from the exchange of molecules that occurs between two liquids separated by a permeable membrane. And the features which characterize the members of the class of phenomena singled out as the subject matter of a special science must have an axiomatic status for practitioners of that science, for if they reject them then they also reject the rationale for that science’s existence.

Economics is not unique in requiring the adoption of certain assumptions as a pre-condition for using the mode of understanding it offers. Every science is founded on propositions that form the basis rather than the outcome of its investigations. For example, physics takes for granted the reality of the physical world it examines. Any piece of physical evidence it might offer has weight only if it is already assumed that the physical world is real. Nor can physicists demonstrate their assumption that the members of a sequence of similar physical measurements will bear some meaningful and consistent relationship to each other. Any test of a particular type of measurement must pre-suppose the validity of some other way of measuring against which the form under examination is to be judged.

Why do we accept that when we place a yardstick alongside one object, finding that the object stretches across half the length of the yardstick, and then place it alongside another object, which only stretches to a quarter its length, that this means the first object is longer than the second? Certainly not by empirical testing, for any such tests would be meaningless unless we already grant the principle in question. In mathematics we don’t come to know that 2 + 2 always equals 4 by repeatedly grouping two items with two others and counting the resulting collection. That would only show that our answer was correct in the instances we examined — given the assumption that counting works! — but we believe it is universally true. [And it is universally true by the conventions of mathematics. If what we call “5” were instead called “4,” 2 + 2 would always equal 5. — TEA] Biology pre-supposes that there is a significant difference between living things and inert matter, and if it denied that difference it would also be denying its own validity as a special science. . . .

The great fecundity from such analysis in economics is due to the fact that, as acting humans ourselves, we have a direct understanding of human action, something we lack in pondering the behavior of electrons or stars. The contemplative mode of theorizing is made even more important in economics because the creative nature of human choice inherently fails to exhibit the quantitative, empirical regularities, the discovery of which characterizes the modern, physical sciences. (Biology presents us with an interesting intermediate case, as many of its findings are qualitative.) . . .

[A] person can be presented with scores of experiments supporting a particular scientific theory is sound, but no possible experiment ever can demonstrate to him that experimentation is a reasonable means by which to evaluate a scientific theory. Only his intuitive grasp of its plausibility can bring him to accept that proposition. (Unless, of course, he simply adopts it on the authority of others.) He can be led through hundreds of rigorous proofs for various mathematical theorems and be taught the criteria by which they are judged to be sound, but there can be no such proof for the validity of the method itself. (Kurt Gödel famously demonstrated that a formal system of mathematical deduction that is complex enough to model even so basic a topic as arithmetic might avoid either incompleteness or inconsistency, but always must suffer at least one of those flaws.) . . .

This ultimate, inescapable reliance on judgment is illustrated by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass. He has Alice tell Humpty Dumpty that 365 minus one is 364. Humpty is skeptical, and asks to see the problem done on paper. Alice dutifully writes down:

365 – 1 = 364

Humpty Dumpty studies her work for a moment before declaring that it seems to be right. The serious moral of Carroll’s comic vignette is that formal tools of thinking are useless in convincing someone of their conclusions if he hasn’t already intuitively grasped the basic principles on which they are built.

All of our knowledge ultimately is grounded on our intuitive recognition of the truth when we see it. There is nothing magical or mysterious about the a priori foundations of economics, or at least nothing any more magical or mysterious than there is about our ability to comprehend any other aspect of reality.

(Callahan has more to say here. For a technical discussion of the science of human action, or praxeology, read this. Some glosses on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem are here.)

I omitted an important passage from the preceding quotation, in order to single it out. Callahan says also that

Mises’s protégé F.A. Hayek, while agreeing with his mentor on the a priori nature of the “logic of action” and its foundational status in economics, still came to regard investigating the empirical issues that the logic of action leaves open as a more important undertaking than further examination of that logic itself.

I agree with Hayek. It’s one thing to know axiomatically that the speed of light is constant; it is quite another (and useful) thing to know experimentally that the speed of light (in empty space) is about 671 million miles an hour. Similarly, it is one thing to deduce from the axioms of economics that demand curves generally slope downward; it is quite another (and useful) thing to estimate specific demand functions.

But one must always be mindful of the limitations of quantitative methods in economics. As James Sheehan writes at the website of the Mises Institute,

economists are prone to error when they ascribe excessive precision to advanced statistical techniques. They assume, falsely, that a voluminous amount of historical observations (sample data) can help them to make inferences about the future. They presume that probability distributions follow a bell-shaped pattern. They make no provision for the possibility that past correlations between economic variables and data were coincidences.

Nor do they account for the possibility, as economist Robert Lucas demonstrated, that people will incorporate predictable patterns into their expectations, thus canceling out the predictive value of such patterns. . . .

As [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb points out [in Fooled by Randomness], the popular Monte Carlo simulation “is more a way of thinking than a computational method.” Employing this way of thinking can enhance one’s understanding only if its weaknesses are properly understood and accounted for. . . .

Taleb’s critique of econometrics is quite compatible with Austrian economics, which holds that dynamic human actions are too subjective and variegated to be accurately modeled and predicted.

In some parts of Fooled by Randomness, Taleb almost sounds Austrian in his criticisms of economists who worship “the efficient market religion.” Such economists are misguided, he argues, because they begin with the flawed hypothesis that human beings act rationally and do what is mathematically “optimal.” . . .

As opposed to a Utopian Vision, in which human beings are rational and perfectible (by state action), Taleb adopts what he calls a Tragic Vision: “We are faulty and there is no need to bother trying to correct our flaws.” It is refreshing to see a highly successful practitioner of statistics and finance adopt a contrarian viewpoint towards economics.

Yet, as Arnold Kling explains, many (perhaps most) economists have lost sight of the axioms of economics in their misplaced zeal to emulate the methods of the physical sciences:

The most distinctive trend in economic research over the past hundred years has been the increased use of mathematics. In the wake of Paul Samuelson’s (Nobel 1970) Ph.D dissertation, published in 1948, calculus became a requirement for anyone wishing to obtain an economics degree. By 1980, every serious graduate student was expected to be able to understand the work of Kenneth Arrow (Nobel 1972) and Gerard Debreu (Nobel 1983), which required mathematics several semesters beyond first-year calculus.

Today, the “theory sequence” at most top-tier graduate schools in economics is controlled by math bigots. As a result, it is impossible to survive as an economics graduate student with a math background that is less than that of an undergraduate math major. In fact, I have heard that at this year’s American Economic Association meetings, at a seminar on graduate education one professor quite proudly said that he ignored prospective students’ grades in economics courses, because their math proficiency was the key predictor of their ability to pass the coursework required to obtain an advanced degree.

The raising of the mathematical bar in graduate schools over the past several decades has driven many intelligent men and women (perhaps women especially) to pursue other fields. The graduate training process filters out students who might contribute from a perspective of anthropology, biology, psychology, history, or even intense curiosity about economic issues. Instead, the top graduate schools behave as if their goal were to produce a sort of idiot-savant, capable of appreciating and adding to the mathematical contributions of other idiot-savants, but not necessarily possessed of any interest in or ability to comprehend the world to which an economist ought to pay attention.

. . . The basic question of What Causes Prosperity? is not a question of how trading opportunities play out among a given array of goods. Instead, it is a question of how innovation takes place or does not take place in the context of institutional factors that are still poorly understood.

Mathematics, as I have said, is a tool of science, it’s not science in itself. Dressing hypothetical relationships in the garb of mathematics doesn’t validate them.

Where, then, is the science in economics? And where is the nonsense? I’ve given you some hints (and more than hints). There’s more to come.

The Essence of Economics

This is the first entry in what I expect to be a series of loosely connected posts on economics.

Market-based voluntary exchange is an important if not dominant method of satisfying wants. To grasp that point, think of your day: You sleep and awaken in a house or apartment that you didn’t build yourself, but which is “yours” by dint of payments that you make from income you earn by doing things of value to other persons.* During your days at home, in a workplace, or in a vacation spot you spend many hours using products and services that you buy from others — everything from toilet paper, soap, and shampoo to clothing, food, transportation, entertainment, internet access, etc.

It is not that the things that you do for yourself and in direct cooperation with others are unimportant or valueless. Economists acknowledge the psychic value of self-sufficiency and the economic value of non-market cooperation, but they can’t measure the value of those things. Economists typically focus on market-based exchange because it involves transactions with measurable monetary values.

Another thing that economists can’t deal with, because it’s beyond the ken of economics, is the essence of life itself: one’s total sense of well-being, especially as it is influenced by the things done for oneself, solitary joys (reading, listening to music), and the happiness (or sadness) shared with friends and loved ones.

In sum, despite the pervasiveness of voluntary exchange, economics really treats only the marginalia of life — the rate at which a person would exchange a unit of X for a unit of Y, not how X or Y stacks up in the grand scheme of living.

That is the essence of economics, as a discipline. There is much more to it than that, of course; for example, how supply meets demand, how exogenous factors affect economic behavior, how activity at the level of the person or firm sends ripples across the economy, and why those ripples can’t be aggregated meaningfully.

More to come.
__________
* Obviously, a lot of people derive their income from transfer payments (Social Security, food stamps, etc.), which I’ll address in future posts.

The Wages of Simplistic Economics

If this Wikipedia article accurately reflects what passes for microeconomics these days, the field hasn’t advanced since I took my first micro course almost 60 years ago. And my first micro course was based on Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics, first published in 1890.

What’s wrong with micro as it’s taught today, and as it has been taught for the better part of 126 years? It’s not the principles themselves, which are eminently sensible and empirically valid: Supply curves slope upward, demand curves slope downward, competition yields lower prices, etc. What’s wrong is the heavy reliance on two-dimensional graphical representations of the key variables and their interactions; for example, how utility functions (which are gross abstractions) generate demand curves, and how cost functions generate supply curves.

The cautionary words of Marshall and his many successors about the transitory nature of such variables is no match for the vivid, and static, images imprinted in the memories of the millions of students who took introductory microeconomics as undergraduates. Most of them took no additional courses in micro, and probably just an introductory course in macroeconomics — equally misleading.

Micro, as it is taught now, seems to purvey the same fallacy as it did when Marshall’s text was au courant. The fallacy, which is embedded in the easy-to-understand-and remember graphs of supply and demand under various competitive conditions, is the apparent rigidity of those conditions. Professional economists (or some of them, at least) understand that economic conditions are fluid, especially in the absence of government regulation. But the typical student will remember the graph that depicts the dire results of a monopolistic market and take it as a writ for government intervention; for example:

Power that controls the economy should be in the hands of elected representatives of the people, not in the hands of an industrial oligarchy.

William O. Douglas
(dissent in U.S. v. Columbia Steel Co.)

Quite the opposite is true, as I argue at length in this post. Douglas, unfortunately, served on the Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975. He majored in English and economics, and presumably had more than one course in economics. But he was an undergraduate in the waning days of the anti-business, pro-regulation Progressive Era. So he probably never got past the simplistic idea of “monopoly bad, trust-busting good.”

If only the Supreme Court (and government generally) had been blessed with men like Maxwell Anderson, who wrote this:

When a gov­ernment takes over a people’s eco­nomic life, it becomes absolute, and when it has become absolute, it destroys the arts, the minds, the liberties, and the meaning of the people it governs. It is not an ac­cident that Germany, the first paternalistic state of modern Eu­rope, was seized by an uncontrol­lable dictator who brought on the second world war; not an accident that Russia, adopting a centrally administered economy for human­itarian reasons, has arrived at a tyranny bloodier and more abso­lute than that of the Czars. And if England does not turn back soon, she will go this same way. Men who are fed by their govern­ment will soon be driven down to the status of slaves or cattle.

The Guaranteed Life” (preface to
Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938, revised 1950)

And it’s happening here, too.

From Each According to His Ability…

…to each according to his need. So goes Marx’s vision of pure communism — when capitalism is no more. Unfettered labor will then produce economic goods in such great abundance that there is no question of some taking from others. All will feed at an ever-filling and overflowing public trough.

There are many holes in the Marxian argument. Here’s the bottom line: It’s an impossible dream that flouts human nature.

Capital accrues and markets arise spontaneously (where not distorted and suppressed by lawlessness, government, and lawless government) because they foster mutually beneficial exchanges of economic goods (e.g., labor for manufactured items)

Communism has failed to catch on, as a sustained and widespread phenomenon, because it rejects capitalism and assumes the inexorability of economic progress in the absence of incentives (e.g., the possibility of great rewards for taking great risks and the investment of time and resources). It is telling that “to each his own need” (or an approximation of it) has been achieved on a broad scale only by force, and only by penalizing success and slowing economic progress.

If the state were to wither to nightwatchman status, the result would be the greatest outpouring of economic goods in human history. Everyone would be better off — rich and (relatively) poor alike. Only the envious and economic ignoramuses would be miserable, and then only in their own minds.

If Marx and his intellectual predecessors and successors were capable of thinking straight, they would have come up with the winning formula:

From each according to his ability and effort,
to each according to the market value of his output,
plus whatever voluntary contributions may come his way.

Where We Are, Economically

UPDATED (10/26/12)

The advance estimate of GDP for the third quarter of 2012 has been released. Real growth continues to slog along at about 2 percent. I have updated the graph, but the text needs no revision.

*  *   *

It occurred to me that the trend line in the second graph of “The Economy Slogs Along” is misleading. It is linear, when it should be curvilinear. Here is a better version:


Derived from the October 26, 2012 release of GDP estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Contrary to the position of the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was no recession in 2000-2001. For my definition of a recession, see “Economic Growth Since World War II.”)

The more descriptive regression line underscores the moral of “Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective,” which is this:

The claims by Obama and his retinue about O’s supposed “rescue” of the economy from the abyss of depression are ludicrous. (See, for example, “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty,” “Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate,” “Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession,” The Real Multiplier,” “The Real Multiplier (II),”The Economy Slogs Along,” and “The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment.”) Nevertheless our flannel-mouthed president his sycophants insist that he has done great things for the country, though the only great thing that he could do is to leave it alone.

Obama is not to blame for the Great Recession, but the sluggish recovery is due to his anti-business rhetoric and policies (including Obamacare, among others). All that Obama can rightly take “credit” for is an acceleration of the downward trend of economic growth.

Related posts:
Are We Mortgaging Our Children’s Future?
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rationing and Health Care
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Understanding Hayek
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective

Undermining the Free Society

Apropos my earlier post about “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare,” I note this review by Gerald J. Russello of Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. As he summarizes Minogue, Russello writes:

The push for equality and ever more rights—two of [democracy’s] basic principles—requires a ruling class to govern competing claims; thus the rise of the undemocratic judiciary as the arbiter of many aspects of public life, and of bureaucracies that issue rules far removed from the democratic process. Should this trend continue, Minogue foresees widespread servility replacing the tradition of free government.

This new servility will be based not on oppression, but on the conviction that experts have eliminated any need for citizens to develop habits of self-control, self-government, or what used to be called the virtues.

How has democracy led to “servility,” which is really a kind of oppression? Here is my diagnosis.

It is well understood that voters, by and large, vote irrationally, that is, emotionally, on the basis of “buzz” instead of facts, and inconsistently. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Voters are prone to vote against their own long-run interests because they do not understand the consequences of the sound-bite policies advocated by politicians. American democracy, by indiscriminately granting the franchise — as opposed to limiting it to, say, married property owners over the age of 30 who have children — empowers the run-of-the-mill politician who seeks office (for the sake of prestige, power, and perks) by pandering to the standard, irrational voter.

Rationality is the application of sound reasoning and pertinent facts to the pursuit of a realistic objective (one that does not contradict the laws of nature or human nature). I daresay that most voters are guilty of voting irrationally because they believe in such claptrap as peace through diplomacy, “social justice” through high marginal tax rates, or better health care through government regulation.

To be perfectly clear, the irrationality lies not in favoring peace, “social justice” (whatever that is), health care, and the like. The irrationality lies in uninformed beliefs in such contradictions as peace through unpreparedness for war, “social justice” through soak-the-rich schemes, better health care through greater government control of medicine, etc., etc., etc. Voters whose objectives incorporate such beliefs simply haven’t taken the relatively little time it requires to process what they may already know or have experienced about history, human nature, and social and economic realities.

Why is voters’ irrationality important? Does voting really matter? Well, it’s easy to say that an individual’s vote makes very little difference. But individual votes add up. Every vote cast for a winning political candidate enhances his supposed mandate, which usually is (in his mind) some scheme (or a lot of them) to regulated our lives more than they are already regulated.

That is to say, voters (not to mention those who profess to understand voters) overlook the slippery slope effects of voting for those who promise to “deliver” certain benefits. It is true that the benefits, if delivered, would temporarily increase the well-being of certain voters. But if one group of voters reaps benefits, then another group of voters wants to reap benefits as well. Why? Because votes are not won, nor offices held, by placating a particular class of voter; many other classes of them must also be placated.

The “benefits” sought by voters (and delivered by politicians) are regulatory as well as monetary. Many voters (especially wealthy, paternalistic ones) are more interested in controlling others than they are in reaping government handouts (though they don’t object to that either). And if one group of voters reaps certain regulatory benefits, it follows (as night from day) that other groups also will seek (and reap) regulatory benefits. (Must one be a trained economist to understand this? Obviously not, because most trained economists don’t seem to understand it.)

And then there is the “peaceat-any-priceone-worldcrowd, which is hard to distinguish from the crowd that demands (and delivers) monetary and regulatory “benefits.”

So, here we are:

  • Many particular benefits are bestowed and many regulations are imposed, to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs, innovators, inventors, and people who simply are willing to work hard to advance themselves. And it is they who are responsible for the economic growth that bestows (or would bestow) more jobs and higher incomes on everyone, from the poorest to the richest.
  • A generation from now, the average American will “enjoy” about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state about a century ago.

Americans have, since 1932, voted heavily against their own economic and security interests, and the economic and security interests of their progeny. But what else can you expect when — for those same 78 years — voters have been manipulated into voting against their own interests by politicians, media, “educators,” and “intelligentsia”? What else can you expect when the courts have all too often ratified the malfeasance of those same politicians?

If this is democracy, give me monarchy.

The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability

For reasons I outlined in “The Price of Government,” the post-Civil War boom of 1866-1907 finally gave way to the onslaught of Progressivism. Real GDP grew at the rate of 4.3 percent annually during the post-Civil War boom; it has since grown at an annual rate of 3.3 percent. The difference between the two rates of growth, compounded over a century, is the difference between $13 trillion (2009’s GDP in 2005 dollars) and $41 trillion (2009’s potential GDP in 2005 dollars).

As I said in “The Price of Government,” this disparity

may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time.

The main reason for the disparity is the intervention of the federal government in the economic affairs of Americans and their businesses. I put it this way in “The Price of Government”:

What we are seeing [in the present recession and government’s response to it] is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

One of the ostensible reasons for governmental intervention is to foster economic stability. That was an important rationale for the creation of the Federal Reserve System; it was an implicit rationale for Social Security, which moves income to those who are more likely to spend it; and it remains a key rationale for so-called counter-cyclical spending (i.e., “fiscal policy”) and the onerous regulation of financial institutions.

Has the quest for stability succeeded? If you disregard the Great Depression, and several deep recessions (including the present one), it has. But the price has been high. The green line in the following graph traces real GDP as it would have been had economic growth after 1907 followed the same path as it did in 1866-1907, with all of the ups and down in that era of relatively unregulated “instability.” The red line, which diverges from the green one after 1907, traces real GDP as it has been since government took over the task of ensuring stable prosperity.

Only by overlooking the elephant in the room — the Great Depression — can one assert that government has made the economy more stable. Only because we cannot see the exorbitant price of government can we believe that it has had something to do with our “prosperity.”

What about those fairly sharp downturns along the green line? If it really is important for government to shield us from economic shocks, there are much better ways of getting the job done that they ways now employed. There was no federal income tax during the post-Civil War boom (one of the reasons for the boom). Suppose that in the early 1900s the federal government had been allowed to impose a small, constitutionally limited income tax of, say, 0.5 percent on gross personal incomes over a certain level, measured in constant dollars (with an explicit ban on exemptions, deductions, and other adjustments, to keep it simple and keep interest groups from enriching themselves at the expense of others). Suppose, further, that the proceeds from the tax had a constitutionally limited use: the payment of unemployment benefits for a constitutionally limited time whenever real GDP declined from quarter to quarter.

Perhaps that’s too much clutter for devotees of constitutional simplicity. But wouldn’t the results have been worth the clutter? The primary result would have been growth at a rate close to that of 1866-1907, but with some of the wrinkles ironed out. The secondary result — and an equally important one — would have been the diminution (if not the elimination) of the “need” for governmental intervention in our affairs.

Related posts:
Basic Economics
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government

More about Paternalism

To complement my earlier post, “Beware of Libertarian Paternalists,” I offer the following links:

Pitfalls of Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

Hayek on the Use of Superior Expert Knowledge as a Justification for Paternalism (Ilya Somin, The Volokh Conspiracy)

The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

Little Brother Is Watching You: The New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes (Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets)

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part I (Glen Whitman, Agoraphilia)

Be sure to read the posts and articles linked therein.