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John Stuart Mill vs. the European Central Bank - Grasping Reality with Both Hands

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Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong: Fair, Balanced, RealityBased, and Even-Handed Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720-3880; 925 708 0467; delong@econ.berkeley.edu.

Economics 210a Weblog Archives DeLong Hot on Google DeLong Hot on Google Blogsearch July 30, 2010

John Stuart Mill vs. the European Central Bank We are live at Project Syndicate: John Stuart Mill vs. the European Central Bank: One of the dirty secrets of economics is that there is no such thing as “economic theory.” There is simply no set of bedrock principles on which one can base calculations that illuminate real-world economic outcomes. We should bear in mind this constraint on economic knowledge as the global drive for fiscal austerity shifts into top gear. Unlike economists, biologists, for example, know that every cell functions according to instructions for protein synthesis encoded in its DNA. Chemists begin with what the Heisenberg and Pauli principles, plus the three-dimensionality of space, tell us about stable electron configurations. Physicists start with the four fundamental forces of nature. Economists have none of that. The “economic principles” underpinning their theories are a fraud – not fundamental truths but mere knobs that are twiddled and tuned so that the “right” conclusions come out of the analysis. The “right” conclusions depend on which of two types of economist you are. One type chooses, for non-economic and non-scientific reasons, a political stance and a set of political allies, and twiddles and tunes his or her assumptions until they yield conclusions that fit their stance and please their allies. The other type takes the carcass of history, throws it into the pot, turns up the heat, and boils it down, hoping that the bones will yield lessons and suggest principles to guide our civilization’s voters, bureaucrats, and politicians as they slouch toward utopia. Not surprisingly, I believe that only the second kind of economist has anything useful to say. So what lessons does history have to teach us about our current global economic predicament? http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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In 1829, John Stuart Mill made the key intellectual leap in figuring out how to fight what he called “general gluts.” Mill saw that excess demand for some particular set of assets in financial markets was mirrored by excess supply of goods and services in product markets, which in turn generated excess supply of workers in labor markets. The implication of this was clear. If you relieved the excess demand for financial assets, you also cured the excess supply of goods and services (the shortfall of aggregate demand) and the excess supply of labor (mass unemployment). Now, there are many ways to relieve excess demand for financial assets. When the excess demand is for liquid assets used as means of payment – for “money” – the natural response is to have the central bank buy government bonds for cash, thus increasing the money stock and bringing supply back into balance with demand. We call this "monetary policy." When the excess demand is for longer-term assets – bonds to serve as vehicles for savings that move purchasing power from the present into the future – the natural response is twofold: induce businesses to borrow more and build more capacity, and encourage the government to borrow and spend, thus bringing the supply of bonds back into balance with demand. We call the first of these “restoring confidence,” and the second “fiscal policy.” When excess demand is for high-quality assets – places where you can park your wealth and be assured that it will still be there when you come back – the natural response is to have credit-worthy governments guarantee some private assets and buy up others, swapping them out for their own liabilities and thus diminishing the supply of risky assets and increasing the supply of safe assets. We call this “banking policy.” Of course, no real-world policy falls cleanly into any one of these ideal types. Right now, the European Central Bank worries that continued expansionary fiscal policy will backfire. Yes, it argues, having governments spend more money and continue to run large deficits will increase the supply of bonds, and thus relieve excess demand for longer-term assets. But if a government’s debt emissions exceed its debt capacity, all of that government’s debt will become risky. It will have relieved a shortage of longerterm assets by creating a shortage of high-quality assets, and so be in a worse position than it was before. The ECB contends that the core economies of the global North – Germany, France, Britain, the United States, and Japan – are now at the point where they need rapid fiscal retrenchment and austerity, because financial markets’ confidence in the quality of their debt is shaken, and may collapse at any moment. And policymakers are falling into line: in late July, Peter Orszag, Director of the US Office of Management and Budget said that the coming fiscal consolidation in the US over the next three years will be the country’s deepest retrenchment in 60 years. Yet, as I look at the world economy, I see a very different picture – one in which markets’ trust in the quality of government liabilities of the global North’s core economies most certainly is not on the brink of collapse. I see production 10% below capacity, and I see unemployment rates approaching 10%. More importantly for nearterm economic policy, I see a world in which investors have enormous confidence in core economies’ government debt – for many, the only safe port in this storm. Brad DeLong on July 30, 2010 at 02:23 AM in Economics, Economics: History, Economics: Macro | Permalink

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John Stuart Mill vs. the European Central Bank - Grasping Reality with Both Hands

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Comments vtcodger said... ***Chemists begin with what the Heisenberg and Pauli principles, plus the threedimensionality of space, tell us about stable electron configurations.*** No, I'm pretty sure they don't. Moreover, they developed the Periodic Table of Elements around 1870 -- roughly 30 years before Pauli and Heisenberg were even born. Understanding of why the Periodic Table works took another 80-100 years. They did not even mention Pauli and Heisenberg in 1961 when I got my BS in Chemistry at UCLA. That's important, because it is one of many demonstrations that you can do useful science and successful prediction without understanding exactly why things work. Darwin and Wallace didn't know about genetics but still managed to work out evolution. They didn't do a half bad job. Gregor Mendel did know quite a lot about genetics by the time he died in 1884, but he did not know anything about DNA. (Neither would the knowledge have helped him much if it were somehow revealed to him). If anything this supports your argument. You don't have to know how economics works to know that fiscal austerity during downturns and fiscal profligacy during booms are both bad ideas. Reply July 30, 2010 at 03:30 AM Hopefully Anonymous said... I have a tricky (for me) question. I get generally that your point is that right now the financial product for which there is excess demand is longer term assets (core north countries govt. debt), and that the danger some claim to fear (although you and some other experts don't) is lack of confidence in core north countrry government debt, and for that reason they advocate the govt. focus on paying down debt rather than selling more debt to finance spending by core north countries. My question is, how much should we be spending, and what should we be spending http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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on? I also get as a follow-up point that some argue that the focus now should be on heavy spending without the inefficiency of determining best projects. I'm skeptical of that line, but I'm not sure it's wrong -it just seems convenient to me for factions that want to manage resources for the status (and maybe some other things I can't articulate now) it conveys, but aren't great resource managers. Perhaps I'm analogizing poorly from my own micropsychology to macroeconomic realities, but "let's spend a lot now, quickly" stylistically feels like bad management to me, and the technocratic arguments for spending a lot don't seem to match well to me yet with technocratic proposals of how to manage the money (it really does feel to me like the quick rush into Iraq, and the narratives of resource waste that ensued -looted museums, ethnic civil wars instead of technocratic maintenance, etc.) Reply July 30, 2010 at 03:50 AM Hopefully Anonymous said... vtcodger, I think you terribly (although apparently with no ill will) misread Professor DeLong's very clear prose. I think his point is that there are sciences with theoretical 1st principles and subsequently layered principles (not in sequential historical time -your error- but in levels of complexity or at least that match human intuitions of levels of phenomenon) that have run a gauntlet of empirical verification by some of the best minds on the planet for generations, and that touted macroeconomic principles have not yet run that gauntlet. The good news for the prospect of a better macroeconomic is we're probably (quite literally on either side of this parenthetical comment) in a simulation -and thus macroeconomic experiments should be possible to run, although the bad news for you, me, and our host is that if it's simulating anything economic, it's probably Prof. Krugman's theory of interstellar trade or some such thing, rather than how to create a fantastic utopia for the people living at the time of this blog comment. Reply July 30, 2010 at 03:59 AM SomeCallMeTim said in reply to Hopefully Anonymous... Hear, hear. Isn't one of the criticisms of Japan's response to it's collapse that it spent a huge amount on infrastructure projects, but did so incoherently, or at least without a strategy that looked much beyond the amount spent? {apologies for any oversimplification of J's response...} Reply July 30, 2010 at 10:05 AM Confabulator said... Or to use an analogy, filling a big hole that you have been digging yourself into for eight years or so can be accomplished quickly if your satisfied with simply back filling it with a bunch of dirt. But to use that hole to construct a foundation capable of supporting an edifice that is enduring takes much more time and thought. Do we have the time? Do we have the correct thinking? Reply July 30, 2010 at 04:10 PM vtcodger said in reply to Hopefully Anonymous... ***I think his point is that there are sciences with theoretical 1st principles and subsequently layered principles (not in sequential historical time -your error- but in levels of complexity or at least that match human intuitions of levels of phenomenon) http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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that have run a gauntlet of empirical verification by some of the best minds on the planet for generations, and that touted macroeconomic principles have not yet run that gauntlet.*** I didn't misread it. I'm pointing out that those sciences generally didn't develop from first principles. They developed by observation. The principles -- which aren't actually all that relevant to most day to day work -- came decades (or centuries) after the sciences in question knew pretty much how things worked ... if not why they worked. Reply July 30, 2010 at 05:25 PM Sam Costanzo said... The latest GDP report clearly shows that US demand is powering the growth of the world economy. Since the US accounts for 24% of global GDP, the 5.1% growth in US demand provides a powerful stimulus to the global economy. Final sales of all products to US residents (including imports and excluding inventory change) lag behind but are accelerating. Final sales of US products to everyone (including exports and excluding inventory change) are only inching ahead. .............................................Q3......Q4......Q1.......Q2 US purchases from all sources............. +3.0% +3.0% +3.9% +5.1% Final sales to US residents incl imports.. +1.8% +0.2% +1.3% +4.1% Final sales of US products incl exports... +0.4% +2.1% +1.1% +1.3% It seems from the table above that our biggest problem is not so much lack of stimulus but that too much of the growth of demand is leaking out to pay for imports... i.e., the problem of global imbalances, energy policy and the atrophied US manufacturing base. We need an industrial policy, energy policy and capital exports to creditworthy developing countries like India that have enormous needs for infrastructure. A $200 billion 30 yr credit to India tied to the supply of US designed turnkey projects for roads, power plants, airports, water treatment, broadband, etc, etc, with the bulk of the equipment and materials tied to US exports would be a good start. Reply July 30, 2010 at 05:43 PM Min said in reply to Confabulator... "Or to use an analogy, filling a big hole that you have been digging yourself into for eight years or so can be accomplished quickly if your satisfied with simply back filling it with a bunch of dirt." Filling in a big hole that you have dug for yourself is a nice analogy. :) So now we have filled in about half the hole, and a lot of people are saying, we better stop piling up dirt, it was piling up dirt that got us into this hole. :( Reply July 30, 2010 at 06:25 PM Cranky Observer said... > Moreover, they developed the Periodic Table of Elements around 1870 -- roughly > 30 years before Pauli and Heisenberg were even born. Understanding of why the > Periodic Table works took another 80-100 years. They did not even mention Pauli > and Heisenberg in 1961 when I got my BS in Chemistry at UCLA. > > That's important, because it is one of many demonstrations that you can do useful > science and successful prediction without understanding exactly why things work. > Darwin and Wallace didn't know about genetics but still managed to work out evolution. http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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The chemists of the 1700s and 1800s were doing useful work, and their theories were for the most part getting closer and closer to reality over time. Heck, even the alchemists of the 1600s were doing useful work. The vast majority of economists are not doing anything useful (except to the ruling class), do much damaging counteproductive stuff, and their work is often at crashing variance with reality and seems to have gotten much _worse_ in many respects since 1980. That seems to me to be a bit of a difference. Cranky Reply July 30, 2010 at 06:28 PM John Emerson said... I've been saying this all along, but apparently economists have always known this and just refused to tell their clients. Reply July 30, 2010 at 07:51 PM hartal said... Correction on the title--it should be William Blake vs. the ECB “The classical doctrine that government spending was only a transfer of spending, rather than net increment, was challenged by William Blake in 1823. He argued that sometimes liquid funds which were unavailable for private investment at the going rate of return were nevertheless available for the purchase of government bonds at the same rate of return, since the lenders ‘prefer the security of government to that of private borrowers,’ so that deficit spending represented a net increment of money demand, rather than a simple transfer…Later the younger Mill appropriated without credit Blake’s assumption of idle capital and idle liquid hoards…” Thomas Sowell Classical Economics Reconsidered, p. 71; he is quoting from William Blake Observations on the Effects Produced by Expenditure of Government During the Restriction of Cash Payments,(1823) p. 62 Blake’s text is on line http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/blake/ExpenditureGovernment.pdf Blake is quite circumspect about such a policy but he underlines that it would have stimulative effects at certain periods, and he reads better than the short quote from Sowell would indicate. Marx took over the same assumption from Blake in regards to a period juxtapositionof idle liquid hoards and idle capital and cited neither Mill nor Blake (I believe) in the third volume of Capital. This is obviously not the Blake of fearful symmetry. Reply July 30, 2010 at 10:16 PM d4winds said in reply to vtcodger... I whole-heartedly agree. Copernicus & Kepler preceded Newton, who admitted that he "stood on the shoulders of giants." Coulomb preceded Gauss, etc., who preceded Maxwell. Michelson-Morley preceded Einstein's special theory, etc, etc. Typically the underlying principles were established only after the basic facts were well known. Even seemingly purely conjectural theories validated by subsequent experiments (Einstein's General Theory is probably the most famously spectacular instance)were first developed under rigid requirements of conformity to known facts & of demonstrated logical non-inconsistency at the observational level with the implications of other theories accepted for their observational utility. Reply July 31, 2010 at 03:17 AM Sam Costanzo said in reply to Hopefully Anonymous... http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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Sure, Brazil and Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Chile, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey just for starters. Countries that are on the path to development but need huge injections of capital and project knowhow to build the supporting infrastructure. Reply July 31, 2010 at 06:35 AM hartal said... Sowell's quick discussion of William Blake--along with the criticism of him for suggesting that fiscal policy could become a lever for permanent growth--can be found here

http://books.google.com/books? id=eYrEeWQWBFcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=thomas+sowell+classical+economics+reconsidered&source=bl&ots=9FlI4hSyh&sig=Q7oY28hej0zklLTOkzN9CtnZ0gM&hl=en&ei=LTFUTKqPFYfGsAOIuJTbAg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CC Reply July 31, 2010 at 07:25 AM Old Ari said... My favorite alchemist was "Mary the Jewess"?4C. One of her ideas still being used! Reply July 31, 2010 at 08:40 AM Bob Powell said in reply to Sam Costanzo... " our biggest problem is not so much lack of stimulus but that too much of the growth of demand is leaking out to pay for imports... i.e., the problem of global imbalances, energy policy and the atrophied US manufacturing base." Exactly. A major drag on GDP and employment is the continuing offshoring of jobs as evidenced by the again increasing trade deficit. From 2000 through May 2010 the cumulative trade deficit (trade debt) has been $5.8 trillion; that's how much GDP has been reduced by insane "free trade" policy. Since 1980 it's $7.7 trillion of debt to other nations. There's no possible amount of stimulus that can make up for this drain on GDP. Here's a hint based on the advanced mathematical tool called arithmetic: When more money is going out of an economy than is coming in ... it FAILS. Reply July 31, 2010 at 10:48 AM Bob Athay said in reply to vtcodger... You're right, but Brad's reference was quite consistent with my 1st year chemistry course (1969-70), which introduced concepts from quantum mechanics to provide an intuitively appealing framework for understanding the periodic table and why different elements behave the way they do (and also how insightful those early chemists were). The fact that this foundation exists has an implication: a chemist from U. Chicago and a chemist from Princeton shouldn't have fundamental disagreements about why hydrogen burns and helium does not. Economists, on the other hand, *do* seem to disagree on some basic definitions and axioms. Which means that two competent economists can take the same set of historical data and derive diametrically opposite conclusions. Reply July 31, 2010 at 02:08 PM Jeffrey Davis said... Macro-Economics is politics with charts. Micro-Economics is bookkeeping. Reply July 31, 2010 at 04:52 PM Lee A. Arnold said... Brad, you really should get many of your posts collected in a book. Include all the http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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Malthus-Say-Mill stuff, for example. You are providing, among other things, permanent economic education of a very high quality for the general reading public. Reply July 31, 2010 at 07:22 PM Tax Lawyer said... I North America, and Northern European debt is now somehow suspect, then where is an investor to turn? Japan? With a debt-to-GDP ratio and extremely low yields, I don't see how this could be profitable. Argentina anyone? The history doesn't look promising. What we are seeing is a bunch of really rich people whining that they can't find a safe investment anywhere. So? Welcome to the real world. Mattresses still work, if you have a really secure lock on the room. I have asked Professor DeLong for help on one matter before, but he has been too swamped to deal with my question which is: "What happens to a net public and private sector debtor in a trade war? We have seen the effect of this during Smoot-Hawley for a net private/public sector creditor, but is it a zero sum game where net importers win and exporters lose. The invisible bond vigilantes just want to find the safest place to park their money and hope to generate some return on it. Bottom line: there is no safe place to park money except for in the red-headed, professionally discredited, dismissed step-child called precious metals or other commodities. Reply August 01, 2010 at 11:47 AM John Emerson said... **The “right� conclusions depend on which of two types of economist you are. One type chooses, for non-economic and non-scientific reasons, a political stance and a set of political allies, and twiddles and tunes his or her assumptions until they yield conclusions that fit their stance and please their allies. The other type takes the carcass of history, throws it into the pot, turns up the heat, and boils it down, hoping that the bones will yield lessons and suggest principles to guide our civilization’s voters, bureaucrats, and politicians as they slouch toward utopia.** All economists should and must have a political stance. Economics is an applied policy science like medicine, except that medicine is generally united on its goals -- long life and health. Economists differ, for example, on whether the welfare of the propertyless class is an important consideration, and on the degree to which it's permissible to deliberately make the propertyless miserable in order to increase economic growth. Beyond the weakness of economic theory, you have to doubt the possibility of a purely scientific economics not influenced by political goals. Reply August 01, 2010 at 11:49 AM pjcamp said... Economists should also bear that in mind when they tread into noneconomic realms. Your techniques aren't well suited for disciplines in which there are fundamental laws. Also, I think you're referring to physicists, not chemists. Chemists are the economists of physics. Reply August 01, 2010 at 12:07 PM RickD said in reply to Hopefully Anonymous... Well, I'm a day late, but I share your frustration. vrcodger reads like somebody who feels the need to inject "historical context" into every argument. DeLong's talking about

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how there exist fundamental concepts underlying the physical sciences that are agreed upon by all working scientists, but there is no similar set of core knowledge in economics. vrcodger simply ignores the core idea and sails off into an orgy of contextualism. My personal background is in mathematics. Yes, I know that math has been studied for millenia. And still, modern mathematics has organized itself around the basic concepts of set theory. Yes, Newton, Gauss, Euler, Cauchy, etc., all did incredible work without 20th century set theory. That's not the point. Modern mathematics is organized around set theory. And modern economics appears to be organized around...whatever rich people want to hear. We have a generation of economists driving the world's economy off a cliff and all they can do is collectively mock Keynes and praise Ayn Rand. It's quite frustrating. Reply August 01, 2010 at 10:00 PM markbenson143 said... The latest GDP report clearly shows that US demand is powering the growth of the world economy. Since the US accounts for 24% of the global GDP, the 5.1% growth in US demand provides a powerful stimulus to the global economy. Best life insurance provider Reply August 02, 2010 at 12:06 AM Nylund said... As pointed out, this is not true. "Unlike economists, biologists, for example, know that every cell functions according to instructions for protein synthesis encoded in its DNA. Chemists begin with what the Heisenberg and Pauli principles, plus the three-dimensionality of space, tell us about stable electron configurations. Physicists start with the four fundamental forces of nature." In each of those fields, it took them a very long time to get to these starting points. Sometimes centuries. Economics is hard to date. Where do you want to start? 18th century? Adam Smith? Then after him? A litle Say, Ricardo, Malthus, etc., but things don't really take off until roughtly a century ago, and some may argue that true "macro" is only about 70+ years old. And heck, DSGE models are very recent. The benchmark international model (two countries instead of one!) is from the early 1990's and it had problems and "puzzles" from day one. As one professor put it, "yes, we're not nearly as good as physicists, biologists, or chemists, but they got got a few hundred years head start." He went on to say that considered doctors bled people for centuries, we're really not doing that bad considering how young we are at it. Everyone else has the distinct advantage of being able to conduct experiments. If only the Fed could split the US in two and use half the country as a control group! Reply August 02, 2010 at 06:49 AM John Emerson said... Nylund, what's your point? Actually existing economics is not as successful as biology, chemistry, or physics, in part because it hasn't been successfully theorized. Maybe someday it will be, but right now it just plain isn't. And as a result, it can't give unique, reliable answers to a many important questions. Some economists will tell you this, but most won't, some are willing to deceive you, http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/john-stuart-mill-vs-the-european-central-bank.html

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and some of them probably don't even know. Mathematical economics is difficult by lay standards, and that makes them seem like scientists, but people who understand the math are less impressed than laymen are. Economics isn't worthless. Brad says its a historical science rather than a formal science. I agree, but it's also so wired into major, controversial policy questions that it should be regarded as a kind of skilled advocacy, like law. No one says that lawyers don't know anything, bu they're not scientists. There plenty of times that you need an economist or a lawyer, and if you can afford one, you should get one. An odd fact about the last 10 years or so is that both Presidents have seemed ignorant of economics, while at the same time the Federal Reserve has been under the control of a now-discredited economic orthodoxy (compounded of course with Ayn Rand's pulp-fiction ideology). Reply August 02, 2010 at 07:04 AM Comments on this post are closed.

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The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong: Fair, Balanced, Reality- Based, and Even-Handed Department of Economics, U.C. Berkel...

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