Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Unpuzzling the Politics of Growth and Redistribution: What hath growth wrought?

"If there is a future for cosmopolitanism in Europe, it needs a credible politics of growth and redistribution." -- Peter Dorman, "Europe, Where Two Rights Make a Wrong"
Sandwichman wonders how such a politics would differ from the "ostensible socialist" wing of the neoliberal coalition. First, it would help to have a credible definition of what it is that is supposed to be growing. "Growth" sounds good... as long as you don't have to pin it down. But what supposedly grows -- national income and product accounts -- is an incomplete, monetized aggregate of disparate things, some of which are double counted, and "more" of which could mean just about anything or nothing. 

It is wishful thinking to assume that more of "whatever" will inevitably be better than a well-specified less.

Barkley Rosser took Sandwichman to task for suggesting that the mix of empirical information, speculation and wishful thinking about the relationship between economic growth and income inequality has probably worsened since Simon Kuznets 1954 estimate of "5 per cent empirical information and 95 per cent speculation, some of it possibly tainted by wishful thinking":
But the hard fact is that there is lots more data out there on many aspects of economics, including the precise issues that Kuznets was studying when he made his complaint about "speculation."
Barkley is right about there being more data and empirical work out there, although it is unnerving that the example he cited as a sign of the empirical work -- Thomas Piketty's work -- doesn't support the complacent conventional wisdom regarding the unquestionable beneficence of economic growth. I would like to add another source that supports Barkley's claim about empirical work but contradicts the dominant complacency about growth: François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson's widely-cited "Inequality among World Citizens: 1820-1992":
To summarize, this analysis shows that world income inequality worsened dramatically over the past two centuries. ... Changes in inequality within countries were important in some periods, most notably the drop in inequality within European countries and their offshoots in America and in the Pacific during the first half of the 20th century. In the long run, however, the increase in inequality across countries was the leading factor in the evolution of the world distribution of income. ... World inequality seems to have fallen since 1950 as a result of the pronounced drop in international disparities in life expectancy. But now that disparities in life expectancy are back to the levels before the big divergence of the 19th century, this source of convergence has lost its influence.
Bourguignon and Morrisson's empirical analysis -- along with Piketty's -- controverts that initial, tentative summary of long-term trends that puzzled Simon Kuznets:
...a long-term constancy, let alone reduction, of inequality in the secular income structure is a puzzle. For there are at least two groups of forces in the long-term operation of developed countries that make for increasing inequality in the distribution of income before taxes and excluding contributions by governments. ... What is particularly important is that the inequality in distribution of savings is greater than that in the distribution of property incomes, and hence of assets. ... Other conditions being equal, the cumulative effect of such inequality in savings would be the concentration of an increasing proportion of income-yielding assets in the hands of the upper groups -- a basis for larger income shares of these groups and their descendants.
The puzzle is solved because there isn't "a long-term constancy, let alone reduction, of inequality in the secular income structure" after all. This is not to say that the relationship between economic growth and inequality is an uncomplicated one, wholly determined by the disproportion of savings between people in different income groups. But it does fundamentally undermine the conclusions of cross-country regressions, "on the basis of which," as Bourguignon put it, "it would be tempting to conclude that 'growth (of any nature) is good for the poor'."

But what about a politics of economic growth (of any nature?) and redistribution? It might work -- just as a politics of general copulation could reduce the birth rate if combined with effective measures of contraception. Long live the revolution, indeed!

On the other hand, why make redistribution conditional on achieving growth targets in the first place? In bargaining parlance, that is what's known as a fall-back position. You don't present your fall-back position in your opening proposal. That's called "giving away the farm."

A few days ago, Sandwichman promised to expound on why the perpetual fallacy mantra even matters. Here is why. Those FT monkeys (covered in banknotes) would simply prefer to rhetorically prohibit the only opening gambit that could force real concessions from the folks who have champagne and brandy on tap. That effective initial offer would be a demand that doesn't stupidly assume, but actively pursues a "fixed amount of work" with a more equitable distribution. The only "credible politics of growth and distribution" would put distribution first and leave it to the owners of a disproportionate share of income-yielding assets to offer a growth and redistribution compromise in their counter-proposal.

But, alas, those FT monkeys' strategy seems to be working. They think about nothing but screwing growing their income-yielding assets and we are the ones who get screwed yielded.


Artist Statement (from "The Interventions of Kathryn Walter" by Bill Jeffries, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 1990):
"The strategy behind 'Unlimited Growth...' is direct. It is directed at those who operate our free-market economy in their own interests, while excluding those interests that would be 'responsive to the needs of the community'. The subtext to 'Unlimited Growth...' relates to several aspects of public art including the need to address the use of site-specific work as a way of intervening in local issues, and in this instance, acting as a marker of resistance by the economically marginalized, as represented by a parallel gallery and a hotel providing affordable housing. Walter raises questions related to the
systems underlying the transactions and power-plays that constitute normal business in the world of real estate development. In Walter's art the museum without walls is also a museum OF walls, walls new and old, as well as those walls that perpetuate economic class distinctions. Her text on the façade of the Del-Mar Hotel will stand as a witness to the various power-plays, including the threat to move B.C. Hydro's head office to the suburb of Burnaby, that led to the development surrounding 553-555 Hamilton Street." 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

FT monkeys' false fallacy eruption

The Sandwichman has been out of town since last Wednesday and the Financial Times (those FT monkeys) has seized the opportunity to publish not one but two articles foisting the farcical lump of labour fallacy fable on an unsuspecting public. This is evidence of a complete lack of journalistic ethics. A simple fact check would reveal that the fallacy claim is bogus.

Some time later this week I expounded on why this even matters.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trade, Bribes and Yardsticks

In the conclusion to their 1941 article "Protection and Real Wages," Wolfgang Stolper and Paul Samuelson wrote: has been shown that the harm which free trade inflicts upon- one factor of production is necessarily less than the gain to the other. Hence, it is always possible to bribe the suffering factor by subsidy or other redistributive devices so as to leave all factors better off as a result of trade.
This is an instance of the infamous Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion, which David Ellerman has shown to be a "same yardstick" fallacy. Ironically, Ellerman took the same yardstick analogy from another paper by Samuelson and elsewhere Samuelson is dismissive of the Kaldor-Hicks criterion.

Ian Little described the K-H criterion as unacceptable nonsense. But, hey, let's fast-track the TPP and maybe one of those winners will toss us a bribe!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Gnash Equilibrium

Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams
The mathematical price of demonstrating that every game had a fixed value was the unloading of all analytical ambiguity onto the very definition of the game. Far from being daunted at a game without determinate bounds, Nash was already quite prepared to relinquish any fetters upon the a priori specification of the structure of the game, given that the entire action was already confined within the consciousness of the isolated strategic thinker. The game becomes whatever you think it is. He dispensed with dummies, exiled the automata, and rendered the opponent superfluous. This was solipsism with a vengeance.
Yanis Varoufakis, "The Dance of the Meta-Axioms":
In game theory itself, questions were raised about the plausibility of presuming that rational agents must always select behaviour consistent with Nash’s (1951) equilibrium. In the context of static games it became apparent that disequilibrium behaviour could be fully rationalised and rendered consistent with infinite order common knowledge rationality. Similarly, it transpired that out-of-equilibrium behaviour could be just as rational in finite dynamic games as the equilibrium path proposed by Nash and his disciples.  As for indefinite horizon games, the devastating force of indeterminacy was felt in the form of the so-called Folk Theorem which shows that, in interactions that last for an unspecified period, anything goes. And yet, all applications of game theory, from theories of Central Bank behaviour to industrial organisation, labour economics and voting models, ignore these challenges, assuming that behaviour will remain on the equilibrium path.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


"These and many other mathematical statements don't remotely correspond to observable reality, nor do they have any evidence in support of them." -- Noah Smith,  How 'Mathiness' Made Me Jaded About Economics
Will anything change in the wake of the big mathiness dustup of 2015? Of course not. This is, after all, only a "technical discussion on cavalry tactics at the Battle of Austerlitz" not a searching inquiry into the identity and fundamental commitments of the economics political economy.

In his 1872 review of Thomas Brassey's Work and Wages, Frederic Harrison denounced political economy as a "magazine of untruth," specifying, "Political economy professes to be a science based on observation. But the bitter pedantry which often usurps that name usually assumes its facts, after it has rounded off dogmas to suit its clients."

Today's growth economics assumes the same facts and rounds off the same dogmas as did its magazine-of-untruth counterpart 143 years ago. Up until the 1870s, that dogma was called the wages-fund doctrine. Since the 1950s, it has borne the alias of economic growth. Same difference. The affiliated "fact" is that all blessings flow from the expansion of trade, therefore any impediment to that expansion is anathema.

The rest is rounding off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Napoleon Solow and the Phantom Mechanism

I would like to say why I think that the Doomsday Models are bad science and therefore bad guides to public policy. ... The basic assumption is that stocks of things like the world’s natural resources and the waste-disposal capacity of the environment are finite, that the world economy tends to consume the stock at an increasing rate (through the mining of minerals and the production of goods), and that there are no built-in mechanisms by which approaching exhaustion tends to turn off consumption gradually and in advance. You hardly need a giant computer to tell you that a system with those behavior rules is going to bounce off its ceiling and collapse to a low level. -- Robert M. Solow, 1973
Sandwichman is agnostic on the built-in mechanism fable.

On the one hand, Solow's "built-in mechanism" is a metaphor -- a depiction -- and of course there is no "mechanism" strictly speaking, just as God is not an old man with a long, white beard. There are instead more or less spontaneous reflexes of economic actors that in the aggregate have observable effects. Such reflexes, however, are multitude. The probability of all these reflexes co-ordinating themselves spontaneously and independently -- without help from a Maxwellian demon, Walrasian auctioneer or Invisible Hand -- to produce a conjectured effect far in the future is infinitesimal.
Suppose someone sits down where you are sitting right now and announces to me that he is Napoleon Bonaparte. The last thing I want to do with him is to get involved in a technical discussion on cavalry tactics at the Battle of Austerlitz. If I do that, I’m getting tacitly drawn into the game that he is Napoleon Bonaparte. -- Robert M. Solow
Aside from the multiplicity of so-called mechanisms, there is the slight inconvenience that a homeostatic regulator itself consumes energy to do its work (also known as 'transaction costs'). The more vast and complex the organism being regulated, the more energy the regulator will need to consume. When what is being regulated is the consumption of energy, a contradiction emerges: progressively more energy needs to be consumed to reduce the consumption of energy. There is thus a ceiling on vastness and complexity and a floor on reducing consumption.

It is not the finiteness of resource stocks, but the fragility of self organized natural cycles that we have to fear. Unfortunately, the services provided by these cycles are part of the global commons. They are priceless, yet ‘free’. Markets play no role in the allocation of these resources. There is no built-in mechanism to ensure that supply will grow to meet demand. Indeed, there is every chance that the supply of environmental services will dwindle in the coming decades as the demand, generated by population growth and economic growth, grows exponentially. -- Robert U. Ayres, 1998
Ayres highlighted another fly in the built-in mechanism ointment. To be fair, Solow did acknowledge the externality flaw in the price system. Fixing the flaw, he assured, would be simple and virtually painless:
The flaw can be corrected, either by the simple expedient of regulating the discharge of wastes to the environment by direct control or by the slightly more complicated device of charging special prices — user taxes — to those who dispose of wastes in air or water.  
What stands between us and a decent environment is not the curse of industrialization, not an unbearable burden of cost, but just the need to organize ourselves consciously to do some simple and knowable things.
Now that we know how that organizing ourselves consciously business has worked out, couldn't we please have a built-in mechanism to do that task too? What if there is a built-in mechanism in the price and profit system that militates against the social capacity "to organize ourselves consciously to do some simple and knowable things"?

Not all built-in mechanisms are equal

Finally, even if there was a built-in self-stabilizing market mechanism, it's interaction with natural systems may not lead to the gradual, advance adjustment that Solow conjectured:
We identify and prove that the interaction between a stable natural system and a self-stabilizing market mechanism can lead to cyclical or even chaotic behaviour. A built-in self-stabilizing market mechanism will not always serve the function of stabilization. Under certain conditions, it may increase the amplitude of fluctuations and have the effect of destabilization, as demonstrated in this paper. Therefore, by incorporating a self-stabilizing market mechanism, this model yields a result that contradicts Solow's (1973) conjecture that the market mechanism will have the effect of smoothing the time path of the world economy. -- Hans Gottinger, 1998

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mathiness, Growth and Increasing Returns

The following was originally posted on Ecological Headstand in October, 2012 under the title, Endogenous Growth Theory and Ecological Unequal Exchange: linkage, displacement and deflection of 'diminishing returns'. Paul Romer's rant on mathiness has provoked a response from Lars Syll regarding the issue of increasing returns to scale, which I discussed in this post.

What the late Stephen G. Bunker wrote bears repeating:
The crucial difference between production and extraction is that the dynamics of scale in extractive economies function inversely to the dynamics of scale in the productive economies to which world trade connects them.
Rather than repeat what Bunker wrote, though, I'm going to cite, later, a longer piece by Nicholas Kaldor from his 1985 Hicks Lecture that makes a somewhat similar point. But first, I want to present some background on an old debate and a 'new' theory.

In December 1926, The Economic Journal published an article by Piero Sraffa dealing with "that difficult branch of economic theory" -- the theory of increasing returns. Over the next five years it published responses from Cecil Pigou, G. F. Shove, Lionel Robbins and Allyn Young and, in March 1930, a symposium on the topic by D. H. Robertson, Sraffa and Shrove.

Almost exactly 60 years later, in October 1986, The Journal of Political Economy, published Paul D. Romer's "Increasing Returns and Long-Run Growth," an important contribution to so-called New Growth Theory. Romer took his cue explicitly from Young's 1928 paper, "Increasing Returns and Economic Progress" and although he mentioned the precedents of Adam Smith's pin factory and Alfred Marshall's distinction between internal and external economies, he skipped over the rest of the debate in which Young's contribution had appeared.

Critics have argued that Romer's usage of increasing returns and external economies is not faithful to Young's formulation, in that it "overlooked Young's emphasis on the reciprocal relations between the division of labor and the feed-back into aggregate demand as a requirement for growth," "neglected Young's categorical rejection of the usefulness of Walrasian general equilibrium models" and wrested "Marshall's microeconomic concepts of internal and external economies out of his theory of value and price to serve as a basis for amending constant return production functions to exhibit increasing returns for the macroeconomy" (Rima 2004, 181-182).

My concern here is with a more conspicuous omission in Romer's analysis -- the distinction between increasing returns as characteristic of manufacturing and diminishing returns as dominant in agriculture and extractive industries (Young 1928, 528-529). The words "agriculture," "land" and "rent" do not appear in Romer's 1986 article. When Romer mentions diminishing returns, it is only in the context of research activity or the limiting assumptions of classical conventional growth models. But diminishing returns is a specific limitation, not a generality that can be indiscriminately "offset" by increasing returns. In a lecture given at Harvard in 1974, "What is Wrong with Economic Theory," Kaldor explained that "it is the income of the agricultural sector, (given the "terms of trade") that really determines the level and the rate of growth of industrial production, according to the formula:"
Or, in prose, economic growth depends on either a relative reduction in the income of agriculture or increased demand from agriculture for industrial products. And, of course, increased demand from agriculture implies increased agricultural production, which at some point confronts the problem of diminishing returns. In his 1985 Hicks Lecture, Kaldor explained the inverse dynamics of scale between industrial and agricultural areas, parenthetically, in terms of the "differing manner of operation of perfect and imperfect competition":
The basic requirement of continued economic growth is that the various complementary sectors expand in due relationship with each other -- that is to say that general expansion is not held up by "bottlenecks" in key sectors. However, in the course of time, under the influence of technical progress, both of the natural-resource saving and labour-saving kind, the requirements of expansion may become considerably modified. In the manufacturing sector which becomes more important as real incomes rise, there are considerable economies of scale, as a result of which manufacturing activities are subject to a "polarization process" -- they are likely to develop in a few successful centres, and their success has an inhibiting effect on similar developments in other areas. The realisation of these economies of scale normally requires also that numerous processes of production which are related to each other are carried out in close geographical proximity.

As a result different regions experience unequal rates of growth of output and of population. The industrial areas experience a growing demand for labour which may involve immigration from other areas once their own surplus labour is exhausted. Technological development in primary production on the other hand, tends to be more labour-saving than land-saving, so that the growth of output may go hand in hand with a falling demand for labour; and though output per head may grow fast in real terms, the level of wages will tend to remain low (and may even be falling) as a result of a growing surplus population. Since labour cost per unit of output is the most important factor in determining selling prices (at any rate under competitive conditions) the low wages prevailing, in terms of industrial products, will mean that the terms of trade will move unfavourably to primary producers, which may be the main factor, along with the low coefficient of labour utilisation, for their state of "under-development" characterised by low standards of living. The important contrast -- which I regard as a major factor in the growing inequality of incomes between rich and poor countries -- resides in the fact that the benefit of labour saving technical progress in the primary sector tends to get passed on to the consumers in the secondary sector in lower prices, whereas in the industrial sector its benefits are retained within the sector through higher wages and profits. (The main reason for this difference lies in the differing manner of operation of perfect and imperfect competition.)
Kaldor's parenthetical explanation suggests more than it reveals. Sraffa's 1926 discussion is the key to unpacking why Kaldor specifies perfect competition as characteristic of primary production and associates imperfect competition with manufacturing industry. The key determinants, in that view, are the shapes of the firms' supply curves (increasing or diminishing returns) and the nature of external economies.

Externality and Ecological Overshoot

Marshall's notion of "external economies" has gone through a series of modifications to become today's "externalities." Pigou extended the concept beyond Marshall's industrial agglomerations and distinguished between “incidental uncharged disservices” and "incidental uncompensated services." The former became known as negative externalities and the latter as positive externalities, although typically it is the negative environmental externalities that are referred to simply as externalities. There is a seeming but misleading symmetry to the two terms and a similarly illusory quality of reciprocity within each of them. When a disservice is uncharged or a service is uncompensated there is a presumption that there might otherwise have been a "whom" to charge or to compensate and that the missing invoice could have been denominated in currency. In other words, the charging and compensating would appear to be a financial transaction between two parties, both of whom must be assumed to be legal persons. In reality, the services or disservices performed may (or may not!) be extremely indirect and the parties affected incredibly diffuse, both in space and time. Mundane examples of factory soot and laundry hanging out to dry may be more mystification than illumination.

In the case of the external economies of increasing returns and diminishing returns, respectively, although they function inversely to one another it is a double inversion that ultimately produces parallel incentives to firms in manufacturing and agricultural or extractive industries. In other words, while firms in the manufacturing center are routinely considered to be the beneficiaries of external economies that generate increasing returns in the sense that they receive uncompensated services, firms in the extractive periphery may also benefit from the externalization of diminishing returns in that they are able to avoid being charged for the environmental disservices they inflict. In effect, the cost of diminishing returns is first displaced to poor regions where it is then deflected onto society and the environment. Unequal exchange thus takes place, that is to say, in the global external economies, "behind the back", so to speak, of formal monetary transactions.