Sunday, August 4, 2019

Yet another deadly global externality

Many people are quite rightly worked up these days about what Nicholas Stern called the biggest market failure ever – namely the human decisions that are leading to climate change. Not nearly as many people are worked up about the human decisions that are contributing to another global externality – namely the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. I am putting a section about this in the chapter on Externalities in the second edition of the Anti-Textbook.

There is a very nice article on the subject in today's New York Times. It's a case study of the difficulty of dealing with this problem because, at its root, is the usual suspect: profit maximization combined with the hamstringing of governmental regulation by corporate power, in this case the power of the livestock and poultry industries. Yes, I know, relative to the size of the economy as a whole they are a drop in the bucket, and yet (to mix metaphors) the tail wags the dog.

The Times has produced an excellent video that tells the story in just a few minutes. Have a look:

Friday, July 26, 2019

A conversation with Samuel Bowles

The University of California Berkeley has a long-standing series of conversations with interesting and important thinkers. Right now, the most recent one is with economist Samuel Bowles, the author most recently of The Moral Economy.  If you are interested, here is a link to a review of the book: 
It's a wide-ranging conversation that covers his intellectual development as an economist, particularly his growing disillusionment with it as a graduate student and a young academic in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He makes the case that economics has changed a lot since that time and for the better.

Unfortunately, the teaching of introductory economics has not reflected these developments in the discipline. He has an article with Wendy Carlin that will be published in the near future in the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled "What students learn in Economics 101: Time for a change"; the manuscript for this is available on the web.

Bowles has been a key force behind the Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics (CORE) project that has developed a new textbook that is trying to be a force for change in the right direction.

Here is the link to the interview. Well worth listening to!

Friday, June 28, 2019

A textbook on the supposed cause of the 2008 recession

While surveying the textbooks to see how much content they devote to behavioural economics, I was surprised by a claim in the new text by William Baumol, Allan Blinder and John Solow – Microeconomics: Principles and Policy (2020). Like most texts, this one has a brief discussion (pages 91-93) of behavioural economics. Its importance for microeconomic behaviour is dismissed, but they do claim that irrational behaviour in stock markets can have a large effect on the overall economy. The example they give is truly bizarre:

"… irrational behavior can have an enormous effect on the economy. Returning to our stock market example, when investors rush to sell their stocks simply because they see that others are selling, the result may be an abrupt and prolonged decline in stock market prices. This irrational selling behavior can trigger the process that drives the economy into recession. The Great Recession of 2007–2009 is only one of many historical examples of recessions that have been triggered by stock market investors who irrationally followed the behavior of other investors (i.e., herd behavior)." (P. 93, my emphasis).

Apparently the bursting of the housing bubble in the United States and the cascading effect that it had on financial institutions, culminating in the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 was no cause for alarm. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

The textbooks on workplace health and safety

While working on the new edition of the Anti-Textbook, I am reviewing the contents of 10 textbooks: nine long-established American ones and a Canadian one, Microeconomics by Chris Ragan, the successor to the classic textbook by Richard Lipsey, which I read as a first year student.

An asbestos mine, Quebec, Canada, now finally closed. Asbestos is killing 107,000 people a year according to the World Health Organization and is responsible for half of occupational–related cancers.
While thinking about whether workers are adequately compensated for risks on the job, I recently reviewed what the textbooks had to say about the dangers of the workplace and its regulation. As far as I could tell, by using keyword searches, there was not much said.

By far the most extensive discussion was in the text by Robert Frank and co-authors. It explicitly sets out that there is no place for regulation of workplace health and safety in the standard textbook model. Everyone has perfect information about the risks and wages reflect appropriate "compensating differentials". The idea is at least as old as Adam Smith.

Ignoring the obvious issues, such as employer power and incomplete information, the Frank text tells an idiosyncratic story about how workers will take on too much risk because they are chasing high income jobs (and therefore riskier once) each of them in the hope of increasing his or her relative income. The result is a kind of arms race where no one ends up with higher relative incomes, but people end up bearing too much risk. At least this account does help to drive home the importance to people of relative incomes.

To my surprise, by far the worst treatment was the Canadian text. As far as I can tell, the entire discussion of workplace safety takes place in the context of the costs of government "intervention".

To my surprise, by far the worst treatment was the Canadian text. As far as I can tell, the entire discussion of workplace safety takes place in the context of the costs of government "intervention".

Ragan writes: “Government intervention uses scarce resources.… When government inspectors visited plants to monitor compliance with federally imposed standards of health, industrial safety, or environmental protection, they are imposing costs on the public in the form of their salaries and expenses. ... Regulations dealing with occupational safety and environmental control have all increased the size of non-production payrolls.” (pp.398-399, my emphasis)

He sums up the cost of "government intervention" in the economy this way:

“The direct costs of government intervention are fairly easy to identify, as they almost always involve well-documented expenditures. In 2017, the total expenditures by all levels of government in Canada were $864 billion, just over 40 percent of total national income.”

This is the typical textbook view of government. It is something outside the natural market economy which "intervenes" at a cost "imposed" on the public. No textbook will ever be found saying that "the direct cost of private sector intervention in the economy is 60 percent of national income", although that would make about as much sense as what he has written.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Brief Review of James Kwak's Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (Pantheon: 2017)

What is 'economism'? James Kwak describes it as "the belief that a few isolated Economics 101 lessons accurately describe the real world". What he has in mind are the pernicious effects of the perfectly competitive model, illustrated by the supply and demand curves familiar to every introductory economics student.

He writes, "This elegant reduction of complex social phenomena to supply and demand curves can have a real impact on impressionable students, who sometimes believe that they are seeing the world clearly for the first time." (I remember it had such an effect on me.)

The simple model that is at the heart of the textbooks portrays an economy in which resources are allocated efficiently. Firms produce products at the lowest possible cost; consumers maximize utility. There are no free lunches: no one can be made better off without making at least one other person worse off. All well-meaning attempts to improve the outcome with taxes or regulations produce 'deadweight losses' and inefficiencies.

Any proper introductory text contains lots of material which, if read carefully, contradicts this simplistic story. But, as we argue in our Anti-Textbook, it is still all too easy to come away from an introductory course a believer in economism (although we didn't use that word).

Most of the population is untainted by exposure to introductory microeconomics courses, but the arguments of economism are everywhere. They are "generated by politically motivated think tanks, amplified by the media, repeated by lobbyists, and adopted by politicians".

The primary targets of this propaganda are likely the relatively well-off and politically active part of the population. In the case of the United States, the central policy prescriptions of economism do not seem to be accepted by the majority of the population. For example, Page et al. (2013) show that there are systematic differences in opinions about public policy between those in top income groups and the general population. In turn, actual policy reflects the preferences of those with high incomes, not the preferences of the general population (Gilens and Page, 2014). So there can be overwhelming popular support for a living minimum wage and a solid majority for publicly provided universal healthcare, for example, but such policies are not enacted.

After describing the simple supply and demand model on which economism depends, Kwak shows how it was seized upon by interest groups – namely many wealthy individuals and the business community – in their project to roll back the size and reach of government. Economism provides pseudoscientific arguments for 'free markets', and against redistributive taxation and the regulation of business.

This right-wing project had important academic collaborators who helped to spread the gospel to the general public. Kwak singles out the Austrians, von Mieses and Hayek, and Milton Friedman and some of his University of Chicago colleagues. He should have included James Buchanan, the subject of Nancy Maclean's brilliant new book Democracy in Chains (2017), but (in his defence) he is not attempting a full intellectual history of the spread of economism.

Wealthy industrialists established and funded right-wing 'think tanks', many of which adopted the rhetoric of economism. Universities are complicit in allowing themselves to be used as bases for 'research institutes' that churn out free market 'studies' . Law schools were a particular target for penetration. Meanwhile, the general public has been propagandized by people and organizations Kwak labels 'promoters', whose views are found in magazines, the opinion pages of newspapers, and in the school system.

Most of the book is devoted to showing the defects of economism's simplistic application to complex public policy questions. Separate chapters deal with aspects of taxation, health care, labour market policy, financial market regulation, and international trade policy.

In short, a great book, unmasking an important aspect of the systematic propaganda that pollutes public discourse in many countries.


Gilens, Martin and Benjamin I. Page (2014) "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens", Perspectives on Politics, 12 (3 ) September, 564-581.

MacLean, Nancy (2017) Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. New York: Viking.

Page, Benjamin I., Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright (2013) "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans", Perspectives on Politics, 11 (1) March, 51-73.