On individual human behaviour

9780199390632“There is a great difference between studying how people actually behave and positing how they should behave. When we wish to know how and why people behave as they do, we turn to behavioral economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, neurobiology, business studies and evolutionary theory. We discover that evolutionary roots, cultural heritages, hierarchical structures, and personal histories all influence our behavior: we are socially constructed beings, within the limits of our evolutionary heritage. There is a large body of evidence which shows that we do not consistently order preferences, we are poor judges of probabilities, we do not address risk in a “rational” manner, we regularly commit a wide variety of reasoning errors, and we generally base our behavior on habits and rules of thumb. In the end, we are not “noble in reason, not infinite in faculty.” On the contrary,  we are “rather weak in apprehension…[and subject to] forces we largely fail to comprehend”. And as any advertiser could tell us, our preferences are easily manipulated, our responses quite predictable.

Despite all of this evidence, neoclassical economics stubbornly insists on portraying individuals as egoistic calculating machines, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and largely immune to outside influences. The introduction of risk, uncertainty and information costs changes the constraints faced but not the basic model of behavior. I will call this the doctrine of “hyper-rationality” so as to distinguish it from a more general notion of “rationality”, which refers to the belief or principle that actions or opinions should be based on reason. The point here is to avoid the neoclassical habit of portraying hyper-rationality as perfect and actual behavior as imperfect. It is a topsy-turvy world indeed when all that is real is deemed irrational.

The question is not whether economic incentives matter, but rather how they matter.”

Anwar Shaikh (2016), Capitalism – Competition, Conflict, Crises, Oxford University Press, p.78-9.

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Why US debt must continue to rise – Michael Pettis

Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.

Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.

On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading

Tax, redistribution and economic performance: the micro and the macro

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to the US Congress, has made headlines recently with her arguments for much greater marginal rates of tax on the highest earners. Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis yesterday posted this helpful piece on some of the economics and politics of such a policy. He is broadly in favour, and makes a good case for it.

Wren-Lewis is something of a New Keynesian, coming from the centre-left of mainstream thinking. The post covers plenty of ground, but tends to only focus on the microeconomics, while neglecting the macroeconomics, of higher taxes and redistribution. Continue reading

What is GDP in China? Thoughts on the slowdown from Michael Pettis

A fascinating piece from Michael Pettis, an economist I regularly reference, on how China is probably growing much more slowly than the official GDP figures make out, alongside a discussion of the nature and measurement of GDP itself.

This would confirm his long-held thesis that China’s ultra-high investment growth model has been unsustainable for some years, and will change of necessity, either through enlightened policy or, more painfully, in the absence of such a policy.

Trade tensions and rising protectionism are combining with the exhaustion of the recent economic upturn to slow growth in many countries.

The slowdown in China could lead to a ‘lost decade’ of relative economic stagnation there, until growth rebalances away from a significant share of unproductive investment and towards a higher share of consumption and a lower but more productive share of investment in overall demand.

Although the country is already economically powerful, its rise to global dominance could be much further away than many ‘China bulls’ have predicted. Even so, given its prominence in global manufacturing value chains, relative stagnation will have a large but uneven impact on global economic activity.

Steve Keen – how economics became a cult

Post-Keynesian economist Steve Keen, of Debunking Economics fame, discusses in the video below his criticisms of mainstream economic thinking and his work constructing a model based on the work of Hyman Minsky, which necessarily incorporates money and finance.

The model can produce periods of economic stability with rising inequality, followed by instability and recession as possible outcomes. These patterns fit very well the experience of many rich countries during the last few decades.

He also touches on the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx, which he studied during his early career.

Keen was one of the heterodox or non-mainstream economists to use a mathematical model to predict a major economic crisis a number of years before the Great Recession of 2008 occurred, by modeling Minsky’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’.

Re-reading Keynes

Economist John Maynard KeynesI recently re-read John Maynard Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (hereafter GT). First published in 1936, this was the great man’s attempt to persuade his fellow economists that changes to their understanding of economic theory and policy were necessary to remedy the mass unemployment which seemed to be a recurring feature of capitalist economies, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It is now a decade since the onset of the Great Recession, when governments across the world ‘rediscovered’ Keynes, or what they thought were Keynesian ideas, for fighting the economic slump. There was a brief revival of activist fiscal policy: taxes were cut, public spending increased and government deficits rose. But once the threat of collapse had been averted, there was a turn to austerity in many countries, amid renewed worries about ‘credibility’ and business confidence. Continue reading