Models and Morals

This has been a busy term so I’m behind on my reading, but have recently finished a fine biography, Jan Tinbergen and the Rise of Economic Expertise by Erwin Dekker. I knew little about Tinbergen so was bound to learn a lot from any biography, and this one is genuinely interesting. It has some personal detail but is much more an intellectual history, locating Tinbergen in his historical context. That was not a happy one: the Depression and the Second World War occurred in his early adulthood. The intellectual currents were, of course, fascinating. I had never realised how much Tinbergen was engaged in policy throughout his career. As well as being the founding director of the CPB (which gave me as a thank you gift for a talk a fine bronze bust of Tinbergen earlier this year now in prominent position on my shelves),  he had previously worked at the League of Nations, and continued throughout his career to be heavily engaged in policy. This followed a youth involved in idealistic progressive political movements.

To the extent economists now know anything about Tinbergen, we think of the econometric models for which his Nobel Prize was awarded. The book prompted me to read the Prize Lecture, which is very interesting: “Models constitute a framework or a skeleton and the flesh and blood will have to be added by a lot of common sense and knowledge of details.” He went on to suggest using models to compare different social orderings – communism and capitalism – on a scientific basis; it seems a forlorn hope now but evidently not in 1969. And think about the literary illustration of the equivalance of perfect markets and perfect planning in Francis Spufford’s wonderful book Red Plenty.

Dekker comments that Tinbergen found it irritating that this work from the 1930s was remembered rather than his later thinking about the institutional framework within which economies operate – the ‘Ordnung’ (the book uses the German word). I found particularly interesting a chapter titled ‘The Expert in the Model, the Economist outside the Model’, portraying Tinbergen’s effort to reconcile the fact that he had put policymakers inside his model of the how the economy operates with his simultaneous view that economists could nevertheless analyse from above  – ‘the view from nowhere’ – how the system then changes and can be controlled. The chapter uses the Lucas critique to analyse this in a macro context. It’s one of the themes of my Cogs & Monsters.

I also greatly enjoyed the chapter ‘Measuring the Unmeasurable: Welfare and Justice’. Dekker writes: “Tinbergen was mostly silent on philosophical matters. …. One of the very few exceptions are his reflections on ‘measurement in the human sciences.” He saw measurements as a vector for changing behaviour, and in addition saw the purpose of economic measurement as measurement of economic welfare. His was not a positivist view, but rather a moral one: economic policy had a deep societal purpose.

The book is quite long but the 400 pages zipped by. Tinbergen was clearly a fascinating person and deserves to be better appreciated by the Anglophone dominated economics profession. This biography serves him well.

71HVzOHsdBL._AC_UY436_QL65_

Share

Discord and David Hume

October has been whizzing past, with travel to conferences (hooray), the start of term, and a new grandson. I’ve been reading a lot of non-economics books on trains and planes, including Ai Weiwei’s compelling memoir 1000 Days of Joys and Sorrows, Red Dust by Ma Jian, and also a chunky hardback, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, Nights of Plague.

Another chunky hardback has been Paul Tucker’s latest, wide-ranging and erudite, book, Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order. I must admit it took me some time to get into it, perhaps due to my general October distraction, but I’m with the programme: his aim is to bring a mash-up of David Hume and Bernard Williams to the current fraught state of geopolitics and global crises. The book uses the Humean dual of incentives and norms to think about international economic institutions in place of more traditional International Relations perspectives (realism, constructivism…). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’m a big Hume fan (although confess to not having read Bernard WIlliams since my student days).

The motivating question is whether a legitimate international order can exist in a world transitioning out of the European/Atlantic order and facing complex existential challenges. Specifically, what international economic arrangements can co-exist with current geopolitics and shifts in power? The book starts with a historical overview of how the current arrangements and structures developed and why the growing power of China has challenged them. The second section looks at what form institutions for international co-operation can take and when/whether they can be stable and self-enforcing – Humean norms and conventions as a lens on international relations feature strongly here. Part three focuses on current tensions within and between China and the US – neither seeming particularly stable internally at the moment, never mind in terms of their mutual relations.

Part four is really the heart of the book: what does the Hume-Williams framework – what will be stable and self-enforcing in its norms, and what will be normatively right – imply for how democracies can legitimately delegate to international organisations, and how such organisations can legitimately constrain individual countries and governments? What are the principles for participation and delegation? How can practical problem solving encourage and sustain norms of behaviour (Hume)? What is its moral basis and hence legitimacy particularly in our still liberal(ish) democracies (Williams)?

The final part moves on to how to apply the framework in the current context, in terms of different more and less opti/pessi-mistic scenarios:lingering status quo, superpower struggle,  new Cold War, reshaped world order. Chapters consider different organisations – the IMF, WTO, BIS etc – getting in to how these might evolve. And the book ends with a vote for cautious optimism. (I find it hard to share that view as Brexit continues to destroy British democracy and prosperity, courtesy of the Conservative Party, I must say.)

The breadth of the research (and length of bibliography) across different disciplines is impressive. The book isn’t a light read, but worth while – and there are actually plenty of online events where Paul Tucker himself will give a better summary than I can here. For any day’s news headlines make it clear there could hardly be a more important set of questions to be resolved.

71nRnuSGKUL._AC_UY436_QL65_

Share

Ethics, culture and economics

It was thought-provoking reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Beyond Positivism, Behaviorism and Neoinstitutionalism in Economics right after Jamie Susskind’s Digital Republic. They’re about different subjects of course, but also have contrasting philosophies. The Susskind book points to more government action, much more, in shaping digital markets, and I agreed with some – althoug not all – of his suggestions. McCloskey is concerned to make the case against the frequently-heard kind of analysis that market failure X requires government action Y to fix it. And I sort of agree with her too. Am I just hopelessly inconsistent?

To take a step back, this book has three messages. One is that it’s incorrect and misleading of economists to claim – as so many of us always do – that the positive and the normative can be separated, and all we’re doing is the objective, evidence-based analysis. In this section the book targets a 2017 paper by Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen that I haven’t read but sounds philosophically naive. For a little reflection – really only a little – shows this to be false: if we’re recommending an action for its good outcomes, ‘good’ is an inherently normative, evaluative criterion. I wholeheartedly agree with McCloskey on this point and wish I’d been able to read this book before writing those sections of Cogs and Monsters.

McCloskey’s second point is to argue for a broader, multi-dimensional, humanities-inflected approach to economic analysis. She takes particular aim at ‘neoinstitutionalists’ from Douglass North to Daron Acemoglu for their reductionist view that economic institutions are wholly described by incentives and utility-maximising outcomes, arguing that standard economic models alone are insufficient for explaining modern economic growth. Her own view – set out in her major Bourgeois virtues trilogy – is that a change in culture toward liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) ideas are needed to explain the scale of change between 1800 and now. Changes in incentives bring small (Harberger-triangle sized) gains, not increases in incomes by many multiples. I’m on board with this too, while still thinking the economic max-U approach brings interesting and useful insights.

Her third aim, though, is to argue for a more libertarian public philosophy: governments mess up economies more than they fix problems, and policies had little to contribute to the massive growth of the past 200 years. Here is where I diverge. For sure there have been many government failures too. Indeed, markets and governments tend to fail in the same contexts and for the same reasons (natural monopoly, externalities, incomplete markets etc). But I disagree with her implied counterfactual that there would have been an even more massive improvement in living standards in the era of modern growth without government. Collective action problems need collective action even if the location of the need shifts over time with technology, or with the complexity of high fixed-cost markets characterised by technological or other uncertainties, or with social expectations. So yes, there are a lot of simple-minded government-can-fix-it proposals – on this point McCloskey takes aim at Mariana Mazzucato‘s claim that the government in effect brought us the smartphone, albeit caricaturing it somewhat. But I’d contend we’ve of late had too little market-shaping policy rather than too much – including in digital domains.

Some of the terrain will be familiar to McCloskey’s readers – the importance of ethics in economics, of culture in growth, the misleading cult of statistical significance. I enjoyed reading this book nevertheless – her style is a bit of an acquired taste and I like it although I know others don’t. And it’s a compact discussion of some crucial issues economists should be contermplating. Even where I disagreed, it made me think.

51ZcDCxXv5L._AC_UY436_QL65_

 

Share

Profit and time

Avner Offer’s new, shortish book Understanding the Private-Public Divide: Markets, Governments and Time Horizons is superb. It sets out a persuasive argument for locating the boundary between private and public production in terms of the payback period for investment. The book starts: “In economics… the present is all there is. Past costs are sunk and can be ignored. The future is only what we make of it today.” What if we take seriously the need to invest for the future? As he points out, government accounts for 30-40% of GDP in most rich countries, and when you add in non-profit and household production well under half of economic welfare is produced on a for-profit basis – and that couldn’t happen without government-provided infrastructure or other support such as franchises or patents.

The central point is that for-profit investment needs to pay off in a relatively short period: “The higher the rate, the shorter the wait.” The prevailing interest rate defines a unique break-even period. Private markets can produce efficiently if the pay-off period is shorter. Otherwise, government has to act as the “commitment agent for society.” When it steps back from this, delegating to private agents, corruption is often the result, or else the enrichment of managers and shareholders at the expense of workers and consumers. There are no grounds for expecting efficiency gains – quite the contrary.

Offer writes: “There is no warrant for extending market norms to the rest of social activity, to the family, government, infrastructure, education, healthcare, science and arts, social insurance, old age, defence, protecting the environment and climate. Together, these are the source of most economic welfare.” He adds, for good measure, that much financial sector activity serves no social purpose.

Stirring stuff. The chapters set out the basic economic argument about credit time horizons, and then discuss the ethical and political consequences of governments delegating long-term activities to the private sector. Subsequent chapters discuss specific issues – housing and climate change.

When you add to the mix the well-known Herbert Simon point (in his 1991 Journal of Economic Perspectives article Organizations and Markets: “The economies of modern industrialized society can more appropriately be labeled organizational economies than market economies.”) about the limited scope of the market within private enterprises, it seems hard to understand how we’ve been through the past 40 years of markets-first political philosophy and practice.

Avner Offer has delivered a bracing counterblast to this. His main omission is non-market, non-government economic activity, civil society and the household (hence my book was Markets, State and People). But that would have been a different book. Highly recommended.

Screenshot 2022-07-09 at 11.36.53

Share

Co-operation vs sovereignty in an unequal world order

Global governance is understandably something of a preoccupation as economic globalisation seems to be in retreat at the same time that the scale and intensity of global challenges – climate change, the AI race, actual or simmering conflict, organised crime – is increasing. The Bretton Woods institutions – IMF and World Bank – established in the wake of World War Two remain important and powerful, and will have a lot on their plates in the next year or two, including the possibility of a new debt crisis alongside a surge in poverty and hunger. This context raises two questions. One is what is their guiding philosophy in terms of economic analysis and policy recommendations going to be now the old Washington Consensus version of conditionality has been more or less ditched? The other is whether they can help address the new kinds of challenges, or whether instead new institutions are needed?

They were forged out of a crisis of course, but in The Meddlers: Sovereignty, Empire and the Birth of Global Economic Governance Jamie Martin traces their forbears in the international economic institutions established near the beginning of the 20th century. The key issue he highlights is on the one hand the delicate balance between mutually beneficial co-ordination and voluntary loss of sovereignty among peer countries, and on the other the exercise of power by some countries over others (Imperial powers over colonies or later the US over its debtors) at the expense of the latters’ sovereignty. Co-ordination and co-operation require ceding some decision-making ground but when there is a parity of power this expands the opportunities or benefits each party experiences. However, the international institutions also embed inequalities of power – symbolised by the Asian crisis image of an IMF bureaucrat (Michel Camdessus) leaning over a local politician (Indonesia’s President Suharto) signing up to loan conditions.

Some technocratic institutions governing for example international post or shipping have lasted throughought the century plus, while the BIS (established in 1929/30) is an interesting example of an organisation with a broader mandate yet lasting throughout the 20th century and beyond, despite its missteps during the 1939-45 conflict. Other pre-WW2 international bodies such as the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations fell with the implosion of the international order at the outbreak of war. The book argues that the context of post WW1 reparations, the tensions in the European empires, the growth of US economic power and the pressures of the gold standard and the tariff wars of the 1930s all contributed to their downfall. International co-ordination was both essential and impossible.

The lesson for the 21st century, it concludes, is that today’s context of shifting economic power and economic crisis pose similar challenges for the Bretton Woods institutions. The history of earlier institutions suggests that it is fundamentally hard to resolve the core dilemma of a need for co-operation with the desire for sovereignty in a world of unequal power: “Tweaks to existing international institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, may be insufficient to produce a more stable reconciliation of global governance and democratic politics.” But what form should new institutions take? This very interesting book leaves the question hanging.

41TWDGc1FdL._AC_UY436_QL65_

Share