Ha-Joon Chang: facts, even numbers, are in the end not objective

Chang EconomicsUsersGuideThis is the last in the recent series of excerpts taken from Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide. Chang is an economist at Cambridge University (his personal non-academic website can be found here) and specialises in development economics. He has also written a number of popular books, some of which aim to debunk many of the myths of mainstream economic discourse.

The User’s Guide is one such, aimed at the lay reader rather than academics, and engages in a pluralist introductory approach to economics. I have therefore chosen a number of quotes over the past few months which stood out for me and which I felt were worth sharing. Here is Chang on p.453-5:

“Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer (Faust) and scientist (Theory of Colours), once said that ‘everything factual is already a theory’. This is something to bear in mind when looking at economic ‘facts’.

Many would assume that numbers are straightforward and objective, but each of them is constructed on the basis of a theory. I might not go as far as Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, who quipped that ‘there are lies, damned lies, and statistics’, but numbers in economics are invariably the results of attempts to measure concepts whose definitions are often extremely contentious or at least debatable.

This is not just an academic quibble. The way we construct economic indicators has huge consequences for how we organize our economy, what kind of policies we implement and ultimately how we live our lives.

This applies to even the most basic figures that we take for granted, like GDP or the rate of unemployment. The exclusion of household work and unpaid care work from GDP has inevitably led to the undervaluation of those types of work. GDP’s inability to take into account positional goods has directed consumption in the wrong direction and made it an unreliable measure of living standards for rich countries, where those goods are more important. The standard definition of unemployment underestimates the true extent of it by excluding discouraged workers in the rich countries and the under-employed in the developing countries. Naturally, these types of joblessness have been rather neglected by policymakers.

All of this is not to say that numbers in economics are all useless or even necessarily misleading. We need numbers to be able to get the sense of the magnitude of our economic world and monitor how it changes; we just shouldn’t accept them unthinkingly.”

The political economy of the future: AI, Big Tech and humanity

Human-Intelligence-Can-Fix-AI-Shortcomings-1Peering into our technological future may seem a little inappropriate amidst the current global pandemic, but before Covid-19 had emerged, one of the major themes tackled by many scientists, economists and social theorists of both left and right had been the advance of technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular, and its potential impact on the worlds of business, the economy, politics and society.

The prospects of humankind given the inexorable march of technology typically range between a variety of utopias and dystopias. What will AI mean for productivity and living standards? Will it lead to a society of abundance with more leisure time than ever before for the majority? How about the distribution of income and wealth, the implications for democracy, and so on?

Four compelling books from 2019, written by, respectively, a computer scientist, two journalists and a maverick scientist and futurist, address some of these issues, from different perspectives, but with some overlap, particularly in terms of the necessary human response to the advance of AI. Continue reading

The blurred boundaries between the market and politics

Chang EconomicsUsersGuideCambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang frequently makes the case for the priority which should be given to a pluralist social science of political economy rather than a ‘pure’ (neoclassical) economics and its pretensions to be more like a natural science.

Political economy, a branch of the study of man in society, an interdisciplinary social science, incorporating the economic, social, political, ethical and even philosophical, can often provide us with richer insights than are on offer from modern mainstream economics alone.

That is not to say that we should ignore the arguments of neoclassical thinking. Economics, the ‘science of rational choice’, as it is sometimes defined these days, does tell us that individuals respond to incentives: change the incentives and our behaviour may change. But it tends to neglect much that I have just mentioned in its quest to be scientific, and therefore somehow apolitical and asocial. It also tends to lack an awareness of its own methodology and how this has evolved in ways shaped by economic and social history.

Along this vein is another insightful quote from Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide, (p. 393-6), which takes to task economics’ pretension to be apolitical: Continue reading

Neoclassical economics and the severity of the coronavirus crisis. — LARS P. SYLL

This training in economics makes politicians and bureaucrats incapable of understanding a crisis like this. They are, however, very susceptible to the advice of economists. They therefore enacted policies that reduced our capacity to cope with a pandemic, crafted systems of production and distribution that drastically amplified its damaging impact when it did arrive, and […]

via Neoclassical economics and the severity of the coronavirus crisis. — LARS P. SYLL

Ha-Joon Chang: why history matters

ha-joon-chang“History affects the present – not simply because it is what came before the present but also because it (or, rather, what people think they know about it) informs people’s decisions. A lot of policy recommendations are backed up by historical examples because nothing is as effective as spectacular real-life cases – successful or otherwise – in persuading people. For example, those who promote free trade always point out that Britain and then the US became the world’s economic superpowers through free trade. If they realized that their version of history is incorrect, they might not have such conviction in their policy recommendations. They would also find it harder to persuade others.

History also forces us to question some assumptions that are taken for granted. Once you know that lots of things that cannot be bought and sold today – human beings (slaves), child labour, government offices – used to be perfectly marketable, you will stop thinking that the boundary of the ‘free market’ is drawn by some timeless law of science and begin to see that it can be redrawn. When you learn that the advanced capitalist economies grew the fastest in history between the 1950s and the 1970s when there were a lot of regulations and high taxes, you will immediately become sceptical of the view that promoting growth requires cuts in taxes and red tape.

History is useful in highlighting the limits of economic theory. Life is often stranger than fiction, and history provides many successful economic experiences (at all levels – nations, companies, individuals) that cannot be tidily explained by any single economic theory. For example, if you only read things like The Economist or the Wall Street Journal, you would only hear about Singapore’s free trade policy and its welcoming attitudes towards foreign investment. This may make you conclude that Singapore’s economic success proves that free trade and the free market are the best for economic development – until you also learn that almost all the land in Singapore is owned by the government, 85 per cent of housing is supplied by the government-owned housing agency (the Housing Development Board) and 22 per cent of national output is produced by state-owned enterprises (the international average is about 10 per cent). There is no single type of economic theory – Neoclassical, Marxist, Keynesian, you name it – that can explain the success of this combination of free market and socialism. Examples like this should make you both more sceptical about the power of economic theory and more cautious in drawing policy conclusions from it.

Last but not least, we need to look at history because we have the moral duty to avoid ‘live experiments’ with people as much as possible. From the central planning in the former socialist bloc (and their ‘Big Bang’ transition back to capitalism), through to the disasters of ‘austerity’ policies in most European countries following the Great Depression, down to the failures of ‘trickle-down economics’ in the US and the UK during the 1980s and 1990s, history is littered with radical policy experiments that have destroyed the lives of millions, or even tens of millions, of people. Studying history won’t allow us to completely avoid mistakes in the present, but we should do our best to extract lessons from history before we formulate a policy that will affect lives.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Penguin books, p.48-50.

Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle? — Developing Economics

Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo once likened the work of economists to that of plumbers – tinkering and adjusting as necessary as they engage with the details of economic policy-making. The implication in this comparison is that economists generally understand economic systems and behaviour – how the pipes come together – and that the main work […]

via Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle? — Developing Economics

Reflections on industrial policy – France and ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’

Les30Glorieuses‘The Glorious Thirty’ was originally coined by the French demographer Jean Fourastié in 1979 to describe his country’s unprecedented economic boom between 1945 and 1975. Lasting from the end of World War Two to the first oil shock of the 1970s,  it saw growth in output, productivity, wages and consumption faster than before or since, and significant structural change, as resources moved from the agricultural sector and luxury artisan products towards industry.

France rapidly closed the gap in living standards with the US over the period, more or less matched West Germany’s performance, and overtook the UK. It managed an average growth rate of 5.1% throughout the 1960s.

This was in many ways the heyday of state intervention in the major capitalist economies, and the use of various forms of industrial policy was widespread. Post-war France, as elsewhere in Europe, required a major rebuilding of infrastructure and industrial capacity after the damage wrought by conflict. These included transport, the utilities, capital goods and heavy industry.

Beyond this, the government felt that a high standard of living and strong national defence to preserve relative independence required industrialisation. It was decided that this could not be wholly left to the uncertain outcomes associated with market forces. After the experiences of economic planning in many countries during the war, state intervention was felt to be both necessary and effective for the purposes of accelerating recovery while preserving freedom, democratic institutions and private property as far as possible. Continue reading

Heterodoxy on central bank independence and monetary policy

In the wake of Donald Trump’s call for lower US interest rates in the midst of solid economic growth and low unemployment, The Economist magazine ran a couple of articles on the threat of populist leaders to central bank independence (CBI) and low inflation.

It is more than 40 years since the publication of the intellectual justification for CBI of Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott, propounding the idea of time inconsistency. Based on the concept of the natural rate of unemployment (NRU), political control of interest rates will give rise to the temptation for politicians to boost aggregate demand and lower unemployment in the short run, below the NRU. This will prove unsustainable over the longer run, merely producing higher inflation, with inevitable costs to economic efficiency and growth.

This was apparently what caused the stagflation of the 1970s, when unemployment and inflation rose together, undermining the putatively Keynesian Phillips curve. The upshot is that politicians and voters are better off with CBI, with the central bank given a fixed mandate of low inflation and autonomy in how it achieves this.

But what is the reality of CBI and monetary policy? Here are some quotes from heterodox economists critiquing the mainstream consensus. Continue reading

“America First”, Fiscal Policy and Financial Stability: a report on the US economy

What does the future hold for the US economy, given its current trajectory and recent changes in government policy?

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, of which distinguished former associates include post-Keynesians Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, has just published its Strategic Analysis report on the medium-term prospects for the US.

Godley is recognised as having predicted a severe recession in the US some years before it began in 2008, due to the unsustainable build-up in private sector debt, particularly among households.

Minsky is also well known for his ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and its implication that ‘stability is destabilising’ in the financial sector of capitalist economies: periods of stable economic growth can create fragile balance sheets in the private sector, which often lead to stagnation or crisis. Continue reading