Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 26 September 2016

The total failure of the centre left

We have already begun to hear laments that Corbyn’s second victory means the end of Labour as a broad church. This is nonsense, unless that church is one where only people from the right and centre of the party are allowed to be its priests. Alison Charlton (@alicharlo) responded to my tweet to that effect by saying “It's the soft left, like me, who shouldn't be priests. We're rubbish at it.”

That I think captured my thoughts this last weekend. As Steve Richards writes “The so-called shadow cabinet rebels must be the most strategically inept political group in the history of British politics.” And although they were never the tightly knit group of coup plotters that some Corbyn supporters imagined, their collective thinking was completely flawed. It was self-indulgent folly by the minority group that I call the anti-Corbynistas to constantly spin against Corbyn from the start: as I predicted, it was totally counterproductive. But it was equally naive of centre-left MPs who nominated Owen Smith to believe that all they needed to do was adopt the leadership’s economics policies.

Forget all you read about Smith not being experienced enough, or about how he made gaffes (journalists just love gaffes), how he could have run a better campaign and so on. This is stuff and nonsense. Just as with Sanders in the US, Corbyn’s support is the result of a financial crisis the after effects of which we are still suffering from and where the perpetrators have got away largely unscathed. The crisis came as a complete surprise to the political centre, and only those on the left had warned about growing financialisation. Yet these warnings went unheeded by the Labour party, in part because the left had become marginalised. That is why politicians like Sanders and Corbyn can talk about the financial crisis with a conviction that others cannot match, and their supporters see that. The constant UK refrain about entryism is, frankly, pathetic.

In those circumstances Owen Smith had a mountain to climb. I wrote on 1st August a list of things he needed to do to win. Crucially he failed to back reducing the number of MPs required to nominate a candidate for leader, which in practice excluded any successor to Corbyn from the left being able to run. I wrote “If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show that he also trusts them in the future.” I also suggested he should now offer John McDonnell the job of shadow chancellor to show he meant to unify the party. How naive I was, some retorted: didn’t I know McDonnell was hated by much of the PLP. Of course I knew, which was partly why it was a good idea: at least I was trying to show some imagination that seemed absent from the PLP. Team Smith even seemed unable to acknowledge McDonnell’s positive achievements, like the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and the fiscal credibility rule. No wonder he lost.

There is no getting away from the fact that the vote of no confidence is going to be fatal to Labour’s chances at the General Election. Of course Corbyn’s performance had been extremely poor, and he ran a deeply flawed Brexit campaign. But the no confidence vote was a do or die act, and the chances of it succeeding were always minimal. That is political ineptitude: sacrificing your party’s election chances for slender odds. All MPs can do now is help minimise the scale of that defeat, and if some feel that given all that they have said about the leadership that is best done from the backbenches Corbyn supporters should respect that. They should use the spare time to think about how to revitalise the centre left, but keep these and other thoughts out of the public eye. Talk of sacrificing being part of the single market so we can end freedom of movement is not a good start. As Chris Dillow argues, they are not even worthy of the label Blairite.

What Corbyn needs to do is clearly set out by Owen Jones here. To say he has a mountain to climb is an understatement. He carries the weight of the no confidence vote. Even if the PLP now unites behind him, much of the media will act as if it does not. He risks being outflanked in the traditional heartlands by UKIP: if voters think their problems really would be reduced with less immigration (and which politicians are telling them otherwise?), they will vote for the party that talks about little else. In the new heartlands of London and other cities, anti-Brexit feeling may well find LibDem clarity on the issue attractive. (Corbyn’s margin of victory in London was small.) Corbyn's ridiculing of warnings about the economic cost of Brexit (despite the advice of his EAC) does not set him up well to capitalise on any bad economic news.

In short, if he manages to defeat the Conservatives in 2020 it will be one of the most remarkable achievements in UK political history. Even to come close would be a great success. For what it is worth I hope he does, if only because it would force the centre-left to finally recognise their failure since the financial crisis.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

What is so bad about the RBC model?

This post has its genesis in a short twitter exchange storified by Brad DeLong

DSGE models, the models that mainstream macroeconomists use to model the business cycle, are built on the foundations of the Real Business Cycle (RBC) model. We (almost) all know that the RBC project failed. So how can anything built on these foundations be acceptable? As Donald Trump might say, what is going on here?

The basic RBC model contains a production function relating output to capital (owned by individuals) and labour plus a stochastic element representing technical progress, an identity relating investment and capital, a national income identity giving output as the sum of consumption and investment, marginal productivity conditions (from profit maximisation by perfectly competitive representative firms) giving the real wage and real interest rate, and the representative consumer’s optimisation problem for consumption, labour supply and capital. (See here, for example.)

What is the really big problem with this model? Not problems along the lines of ‘I would want to add this’, but more problems like I would not even start from here. Let’s ignore capital, because in the bare bones New Keynesian model capital does not appear. If you were to say giving primacy to shocks to technical progress I would agree that is a big problem: all the behavioural equations should contain stochastic elements which can also shock this economy, but New Keynesian models do this to varying degrees. If you were to say the assumption of labour market clearing I would also agree that is a big problem.

However none of the above is the biggest problem in my view. The biggest problem is the assumption of continuous goods market clearing aka fully flexible prices. That is the assumption that tells you monetary policy has no impact on real variables. Now an RBC modeller might say in response how do you know that? Surely it makes sense to see whether a model that does assume price flexibility could generate something like business cycles?

The answer to that question is no, it does not. It does not because we know it cannot for a simple reason: unemployment in recessions is involuntary, and this model cannot generate involuntary unemployment, but only voluntary variations in labour supply as a result of short term movements in the real wage. Once you accept that higher unemployment in recessions is involuntary (and the evidence for that is very strong), the RBC project was never going to work.

So how did RBC models ever get off the ground? Because the New Classical revolution said everything we knew before that revolution should be discounted because it did not use the right methodology. And also because the right methodology - the microfoundations methodology - allowed the researcher to select what evidence (micro or macro) was admissible. That, in turn, is why the microfoundations methodology has to be central to any critique of modern macro. Why RBC modellers chose to dismiss the evidence on involuntary unemployment I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

The New Keynesian (NK) model, although it may have just added one equation to the RBC model, did something which corrected its central failure: the failure to acknowledge the pre-revolution wisdom about what causes business cycles and what you had to do to combat them. In that sense its break from its RBC heritage was profound. Is New Keynesian analysis still hampered by its RBC parentage? The answer is complex (see here), but can be summarised as no and yes. But once again, I would argue that what holds back modern macro much more is its reliance on its particular methodology.

One final point. Many people outside mainstream macro feel happy to describe DSGE modelling as a degenerative research strategy. I think that is a very difficult claim to substantiate, and is hardly going to convince mainstream macroeconomists. The claim I want to make is much weaker, and that is that there is no good reason why microfoundations modelling should be the only research strategy employed by academic economists. I challenge anyone to argue against my claim.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Inequality under the Labour government

In the last few months I have sometimes been told that the last Labour government did nothing to reverse the rise of inequality seen under the previous Conservative administration. It is a serious charge, given the harm that inequality creates. But it is also incorrect, and here is a nice chart that shows why.

The Gini coefficient measures inequality. The black line looks at incomes, but the grey line looks at full time earnings. It shows that inequality in earnings was rising throughout the period, including when Labour was in power. Inequality of incomes was flatter while Labour was in power.

The chart is taken from a paper by Mike Brewer and Liam Wren-Lewis (short summary here). The authors use microdata to explain these divergent trends in the 1990s and 2000s. They find four factors at work.
“First, inequality between those with different employment statuses has fallen, primarily due to a fall in the number of unemployed. Second, employment taxes have played a larger role since 1991 in mitigating the increase in inequality of gross employment income than they did before 1991. Third, investment income has contributed less to total income inequality since 1991, largely due to the decline in its importance as an income source. Finally, a rise in the relative incomes of pensioners and households with children under five – both groups that benefited from reforms to welfare benefits and tax credits during the 1990s and (especially) 2000s – has pulled inequality down. Overall, since 1991 these four factors have almost entirely offset the impact on income inequality of the inequality-increasing changes in the distribution of earnings and self-employment income.”

Some of these factors may not have owed much to government policy, but others clearly did. The bottom line is that the last Labour government did quite a lot to reduce inequality. Only once you recognise that can you be realistic about what it would take to do more. Here are some ideas from Tony Atkinson, and I personally would be even more radical in one particular area. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Explaining macroeconomics to the Swabian housewife

Matthew Bishop has a nice simple post at SPERI suggesting how the ‘economy is like a household’ idea can be tackled. He is correct that this analogy has tremendous power, to the extent that I doubt we would have seen so much UK austerity without it. He uses an exchange between Yanis Varoufakis and a member of the Question Time audience to suggest that attempts to simply explain the economics are ineffective. He suggests that the “problem, as Jonathan Hopkin and Ben Rosamond have suggested (here and here), is that you cannot fight ‘political bullshit’ with facts”.

I want to make some observations, in ascending order of importance.
  1. I think he is right that economists can usefully point out that households do not always balance their budgets. But all the examples he gives help explain why it may make sense for the government to borrow to invest. Indeed he could have added comparisons between governments and firms in this respect. That is why it is easy for economists to now argue that governments should be borrowing more to invest. I’m sure most economists would use exactly these analogies: after all most do try to teach this stuff.

  2. However these analogies do little for the issue the audience member thought we were dealing with. He thought the analogy was exactly the case of spending too much on excessive drinking, and needing to sober up financially. While the examples Matthew quotes get you over the simplistic idea that governments should never borrow, they do not explain why (a) it is OK in principle to keep the ratio of government debt to GDP constant (governments live forever), and (b) why it makes sense for governments to borrow a lot more in a recession (the automatic stabilisers), or even (c) why the government should go out of its way to borrow even more in a recession when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound. We can try and get these ideas across as simply as we can, as I have tried many times (and suggestions on how to do it better are always welcome), but it is very difficult to do so in a minute or two on Question Time. It is sufficiently difficult that before the General Theory it was not understood by most economists.

  3. I think the suggestion that economists are too busy trying to be correct and therefore too scornful of simple analogies is a little unfair. Only a little: in a live public appearance there is always the concern about what your colleagues in the department will say afterwards. Economists are also aware, as Chris Dillow points out, that partial analogies used in one context can easily backfire in others. However I doubt very much that most economists do the equivalent of mocking “every grammatical error made by friends practising their holiday Spanish”.

  4. The big difference between economists and scientists at CERN is not that economists are less respectful of lay people’s mistakes. It is (a) they have politicians repeating false analogies about their subject as if they were facts, and (b) large sections of the print media doing the same, and (c) most of the rest of the media too clueless to challenge these falsehoods.

  5. This is why, for an evidence based discipline like economics, the response ‘economists know that the economy is not like a household in important respects and here is why’ is not at the end of the day arrogant or dismissive. If Brian Cox was asked on Question Time ‘what is all this about the Earth moving: it is obvious that everything moves around the Earth’ we would not blink an eyelid if he replied ‘No, scientists know that is not true and it only seems that way to you because..’.

  6. What austerity tells us, just as the climate change denial tells us, is that in today’s world respect for science is fragile. In the US public opinion about climate change is sharply divided along political lines, despite the near unanimity among scientists. It is this that should really worry us, and not how climate change scientists can better communicate with the public, desirable though that might be in itself. A world where the scientist has to compete on equal terms with the ignorant polemicist is not a healthy world.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Treasury and Brexit

I pointed out two days ago that the real costs of Brexit are long term, which unfortunately means that those who argued for Brexit will never be held responsible in political terms for the damage it will do. As John Springford argues, that also strengthens the hand of those arguing for a hard Brexit (aka maximum damage). So who will speak for the 48%+ who want to limit the damage?

Potentially the majority of MPs do. We have united opposition from the SNP and LibDems. The great majority of Labour MPs also oppose Brexit. Polly Toynbee suggests this should become their unifying cause whatever the leadership does. And of course around half of Conservative MPs probably voted, in a personal capacity, to Remain. That has to be a worry for Theresa May, which is why she has made it clear that MPs will have no effective say in the Brexit negotiations.

So is this just going to amount to a lot of despairing and angry complaints as the Brexiters do their worst. Not quite. There is one source of opposition left standing (in the sense of having some power): Philip Hammond and H.M.Treasury. The Treasury has always been the job Hammond wanted, and not because he wanted to radically change that institution. It should also not be forgotten that it was Treasury economists who wrote the analysis suggesting the long run impact of Brexit on the UK economy could be very large, and the larger the further away from the single market we ended up being. Some will think this was a stitch-up job to please Osborne, but I think that is extremely unlikely. After all the Treasury analysis was pretty close to other estimates, and it was overseen by Charlie Bean who is excellent at judging what is academically kosher.

It is for this reason that we are already seeing headlines talking about Hammond blocking Brexit ‘progress’. How much power he has to do this will depend on the Prime Minister. If Theresa May sides with her Brexit ministers against Hammond, as it seems increasingly likely (see Martin Wolf here), this will mark the end of a long period where the Treasury has dominated economic policy in the UK.

That dominance started after a meeting in an Islington restaurant, where Gordon Brown extracted the maximum price for standing aside in favour of Tony Blair. The Treasury under Brown not only stopped Tony Blair from adopting the Euro, but also exerted a control over the economic aspects of other departments that had not been seen before. Under the Coalition government Osborne and Cameron worked very closely together, and the austerity strategy - supported by key Treasury civil servants - dominated the domestic agenda. If May sidelines Hammond over Brexit, the Treasury will have moved from dominance to playing second fiddle very quickly indeed.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Paul Romer on macroeconomics

It is a great irony that the microfoundations project, which was meant to make macro just another application of microeconomics, has left macroeconomics with very few friends among other economists. The latest broadside comes from Paul Romer. Yes it is unfair, and yes it is wide of the mark in places, but it will not be ignored by those outside mainstream macro. This is partly because he discusses issues on which modern macro is extremely vulnerable.

The first is its treatment of data. Paul’s discussion of identification illustrates how macroeconomics needs to use all the hard information it can get to parameterise its models. Yet microfounded models, the only models deemed acceptable in top journals for both theoretical and empirical analysis, are normally rather selective about the data they focus on. Both micro and macro evidence is either ignored because it is inconvenient, or put on a to do list for further research. This is an inevitable result of making internal consistency an admissibility criteria for publishable work.

The second vulnerability is a conservatism which also arises from this methodology. The microfoundations criteria taken in its strict form makes it intractable to model some processes: for example modelling sticky prices where actual menu costs are a deep parameter. Instead DSGE modelling uses tricks, like Calvo contracts. But who decides whether these tricks amount to acceptable microfoundations or are instead ad hoc or implausible? The answer depends a lot on conventions among macroeconomists, and like all conventions these move slowly. Again this is a problem generated by the microfoundations methodology.

Paul’s discussion of real effects from monetary policy, and the insistence on productivity shocks as business cycle drivers, is pretty dated. (And, as a result, it completely misleads Paul Mason here.) Yet it took a long time for RBC models to be replaced by New Keynesian models, and you will still see RBC models around. Elements of the New Classical counter revolution of the 1980s still persist in some places. It was only a few years ago that I listened to a seminar paper where the financial crisis was modelled as a large negative productivity shock.

Only in a discipline which has deemed microfoundations as the only acceptable way of modelling can practitioners still feel embarrassed about including sticky prices because their microfoundations (the tricks mentioned above) are problematic . Only in that discipline can respected macroeconomists argue that because of these problematic microfoundations it is best to ignore something like sticky prices when doing policy work: and argument that would be laughed out of court in any other science. In no other discipline could you have a debate about whether it was better to model what you can microfound rather than model what you can see. Other economists understand this, but many macroeconomists still think this is all quite normal.   

Monday, 19 September 2016

In the long run ... our children are adults

One of the annoying aspects of the Brexit debate is that every piece of macroeconomic news, every survey or data point, is interpreted as evidence one way or another about the economic costs of Brexit. The problem with this is partly that Brexit has not happened yet, but more fundamentally the important costs of Brexit were always long term. The Treasury’s analysis of the permanent costs of Brexit looked 15 years ahead, because that is the kind of time period over which the full impacts will be felt.

That has another annoying implication, which is that it will be very difficult to ever know what the actual costs of Brexit will have been. GDP being 6% lower after 15 years (the Treasury’s central estimate based on a bilateral trade agreement) will have a noticeable impact on economic growth, but who knows what the counterfactual is? As I have noted many times, the trend growth in UK GDP per capita was a remarkably steady 2.25% until the financial crisis, but since then productivity growth has collapsed, so who knows what it might have been without Brexit.

It is true that with rational expectations the future will have an impact on the present. That is why the exchange rate fell sharply on news of the vote. As I keep pointing out, unless those in the markets change their minds, that depreciation makes every UK resident poorer, perhaps forever. Equally if everyone anticipated that their future income will be lower they should reduce consumption now. But one reason the vote went the way it did is that many people did not believe that Brexit will have a long run negative impact on their standard of living.

We can make the same point in a more concrete way by thinking about the problem facing the OBR as it makes its forecast before the Autumn Statement in November. Those expecting to see something dramatic in these forecasts may be disappointed, partly because Brexit is likely to actually occur in the middle of the OBR’s 5 year forecasting period. Where the OBR will have to come clean about their view on the long term impact of Brexit will not be until next summer, when it does its 50 year ahead projections.

While these long term costs were always what really mattered, I have the impression (see also Paul Krugman) that the campaign spent much more time talking about short run impacts. As I have argued, these could be significant but are much more uncertain because they are more complicated. (How much will the depreciation boost net exports, for example?) So why was there so much focus on the short term in the campaign, and why did some (mainly politicians) start talking about Brexit creating a short term crisis?

I suspect (and this is just a guess) that one reason is that talk about long run costs had little impact in the media and on voters. (This is what the polls suggest: voters seemed more prepared to agree that there might be short run costs to Brexit.) To an economist that seems odd, because the economics behind the long term impact is much more solid than what might happen in the short run. Of course Keynes had a famous phrase about all being dead in the long run, but as Simon Taylor points out he made that comment to counteract a tendency for some to dismiss problems like unemployment caused by recessions as unimportant because it will disappear in the long run.

One suggestion I have seen links the lack of traction over long run costs to the fact that Leave voters tended to be older, and therefore that they did not care too much about the long run. I think this is unfair: most of those older voters also have children who they care about.

I suspect the problem came from a basic misunderstanding that was deliberately encouraged by the Leave campaign, which is to see all economic analysis as an unconditional macroeconomic forecast. The retort ‘who knows what will happen in 15 years time’ resonates if that is what you are familiar with. Too many people who should have known better, or perhaps chose not to know better, failed to make the distinction between conditional and unconditional forecasts. We had the ridiculous charge that the Chancellor should not have said people will be worse off in 15 years time, because with normal growth in absolute terms they probably will not be.

To see how nonsensical this framing is, think about the advice any doctor will give you that by smoking you will be worse off. Society does not collectively shrug that off by saying who knows what will happen in 10 or more years time. Except of course some teenagers do say this and come to regret it. Nor, by the way, do people tell medics that they failed for decades to predict that smoking would kill people so why should we take any notice now. We are completely familiar with doctors giving us conditional forecasts, but for some reason some in the media kept trying to view any analysis of long term Brexit costs as another unconditional macroeconomic forecast. [1]

One implication of this is that the consequences of Brexit may never become obvious, particularly to those who voted to Leave. Of course economists will do the best they can with the data, but I doubt very much that their analysis will get through to most people. One of the many sad aspects of the Brexit decision is that those who helped make it possible will never be held responsible for their actions.

[1] Note also that these long term Brexit costs essentially came from empirical studies with fairly common sense theoretical content well grounded in evidence.