Monday, 20 February 2017

Some thoughts on the role of firms and government interference in the market

This is from the third instalment in (oddly named - seems more pro-state than anything) ProMarket's new interview series on the economic theory of the firm. In this instalment, they ask Chicago Booth’s Steven Kaplan how the existing theory should be modified. Kaplan is the Neubauer Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Q: The neoclassical theory of the firm does not consider political engagement by corporations. How big an omission do you think this is?

I am a bit confused. Hasn’t the idea of regulatory capture and, implicitly, political engagement, been a subject of economic study since George Stigler’s “Theory of Economic Regulation” in 1971? In other words, it would be a big omission if, in fact, it were omitted. In reality, economists have paid attention to political engagement for a long time.

Q: To what extent is political engagement by corporations responsible for the current populist discontent?

Very little. The biggest source of populist discontent is the dislocation caused by technological change and globalization. That dislocation has made the global economy much better off overall. The global poverty rate has declined substantially. Billions of people now earn a living rather than starving. It is a huge success. As Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton wrote, “Life is better now than at almost any time in history. More people are richer and fewer people live in dire poverty. Lives are longer and parents no longer routinely watch a quarter of their children die.” At the same time, this success has challenged the less skilled in developed countries—particularly the U.S. and Western Europe.

The second biggest source of discontent comes from the policies implemented in those countries that make it more expensive to hire less skilled workers. Raising the minimum wage, licensing rules, and other employment mandates increase the costs of hiring less skilled workers. At the same time, technology and globalization reduce the costs of substitutes. The net effect is fewer jobs. France is the best example. Germany is one of the few countries that moved in the opposite direction and has had less of an employment problem. Immigration policies also have fueled discontent.

Political engagement by corporations would be far down the list of important forces.
The basic issue being discussed is that the standard (economic) theory of the firm is silent on the role firms can play in shaping the rules of the game under which they operate. It is argued that in reality, many firms lobby politicians and try to capture regulators in order to modify the rules of the game in their favour.

What I do find strange is 1) Its not clear what exactly they mean by the "standard economic theory of the firm". At times they seem to talk about the neoclassical theory of the firm as if it is in fact a theory of the firm but has Coase pointed out many years ago it's not. If they are not talking about the neoclassical model then what are they talking about? As I have written,
While the post-1970 theory of the firm literature has began the task of developing a genuine understanding of the firm, and closely related issues, it has yet to coalesce around one model or even one group of models. Even within the contemporary mainstream there are a number of competing models, to say nothing of those we could add into the mix if we were to consider the heterodox literature.
2) I’m not sure what they are talking about is a problem with the theory of the firm, they seem to be talking more about a theory of government or regulation or pressure groups or some such thing. Yes firms can influence government policies but so can churches, trade unions, environmental groups etc as well. So I’m not sure their issue is one to do with the theory of the firm as such. 3) As Kaplan points out economists have been thinking about these issues for a long time, even if not as part of the theory of the firm. But as I say in 2) its not clear to me that it is part of the theory of the firm. It's a wider issue than to do with just firms.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A brief prehistory of the theory of the firm

A first draft of a new working paper on the (pre)history of the theory of the firm/theory of production.
The mainstream theory of the firm didn't exist until around 1970. Before then what we had was the `prehistory' of the theory of the firm. For more than two thousand years tools were available that could have given rise to a theory of the firm or, at least, a theory of micro level production, but none appeared. During this time the best that occurred were discussions of macro level or aggregate production. Given the long empirical history of and the importance to the economy of firms one may assume that economists have long been developing a detailed and sophisticated theoretical understanding of the firm but it turns out this is not the case. Up until the 1970s the development of the theory of the firm was a story of neglect and disinterest.

Seasonality and the invention of agriculture

Why was agriculture invented in one of the big questions in economic history. In a new working paper, The Ant and the Grasshopper: Seasonality and the Invention of Agriculture, Andrea Matranga argues that there is a link between seasonality and agriculture.
During the Neolithic Revolution, seven populations independently invented agriculture. In this paper, I argue that this innovation was a response to a large increase in climatic seasonality. Hunter-gatherers in the most affected regions became sedentary in order to store food and smooth their consumption. I present a model capturing the key incentives for adopting agriculture, and I test the resulting predictions against a global panel dataset of climate conditions and Neolithic adoption dates. I find that invention and adoption were both systematically more likely in places with higher seasonality. The findings of this paper imply that seasonality patterns 10,000 years ago were amongst the major determinants of the present day global distribution of crop productivities, ethnic groups, cultural traditions, and political institutions.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Tyler Cowen on Trumponomics

I still think Trumponomics won’t work. It is too divisive; it will be applied politically, targeting favorites and enemies, rather than in accord with the dictates of efficiency; it may destroy rather than create jobs on net; and most of all it badly damages the U.S.’s global reach by cooperating less on issues of trade and migration. I think of the program as a whole as cashing in on the capital asset of America’s foreign reputation and redistributing some of those rents to Trump-supporting regions. That is a form of shortsightedness, and a sign of the decay of our republic.
That's from Cowen's column, The Left Underestimates Trump's Economic Plan, at Bloomberg. While Trumponomics may very well damage the US economy we also have to keep in mind what damage it will do to the world economy. Trumps moves on trade could spark a trade war which could damage the world trading system. The last thing we need is a repeat of the Smoot-Hawley episode. No one wins a trade war.

"Silent Revolution" by The Benevolent Dictators

"Silent Revolution" by The Benevolent Dictators. The first song from the upcoming album about Adam Smith. Inspired by Book 3, Chapters 2-4 of "An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

How old is behavioural economics?

I came across an interesting paper the other day that suggests behavioural economics is older than most people think. The paper "The Relations of Recent Psychological Developments to Economic Theory" by Z. Clark Dickinson in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 33, No. 3: 377-421 dates from May 1919!

The summary of the paper reads,
The purely objective factors in economics, 377. - Psychological principles necessarily used in addition, 381. Social assumptions, 385. - Psychical factors are human motives, 387; their analysis needed for most social problems, 389. - Adequacy of psychology assumed in economic theory in dispute, 390. - Analysis of arguments pro and con, 392. - Hedonistic foundation, 394. - Costless production, 401. - Industrial peace, 404. - Sums of utility, 406. - Social demand, 407. - Institutional economics, 409. - Most accurate psychology needed, of producers' motives, 415; of consumers' demands, 419.
Dickinson concludes,
And so our tentative conclusion is that an accurate knowledge of the psychology involved in economic behavior is needed in economic theory, not so much for static as for dynamic purposes. It is needed for static theory if we want to be assured that our static theory is as complete and fundamental an explanation as the existing state of knowledge permits. But it is vital for dynamic theory, which looks beyond the existing conditions of wants, social structures and industrial devices, and prophesies what would be the result of various supposed innovations, if they were made. In this same fashion we have long predicted the probable results of hypothetical taxes and tariffs on production, distribution, etc. If we can set up hypotheses as to ways of changing consumers' demands, or producers' springs to action, which psychological science shows to be plausible, and trace their effect on economic life, we shall be adding to the purely scientific theorems which the legislator or reformer may find helpful. And aside from the possible applications to pure economic theory, such knowledge of motives is bound to be useful in the practice of social art.
So suggesting the use of psychological ideas in economics is older than I guess most economists would think.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The populist parallels of Sanders and Trump

From the Cato Institute comes this Cato Daily Podcast in which Caleb O. Brown talks to John Samples about the parallels between Sanders and Trump.
President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders have some strong parallels in their populism.

32% off the greatest book ever written

Right now the Book Depository has 32% off The Theory of the Firm: An overview of the economic mainstream with their price being NZ$159. Actually given the publisher price is 95.00 pounds that isn't a bad price.

Those of you with a Kindle, Amazon has it at US$49.68.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Protection and job losses

At the Cafe Hayek blog Don Boudreaux makes the point that protection does not stop job losses.
You are correct that under a regime of free trade some people, through no fault of their own, lose jobs. You are also correct that such experiences are unpleasant. But protectionism does not stop job losses from occurring. Even if Uncle Sam were to completely shut the American economy off from global markets, job losses would still occur. American consumers would still change their spending patterns such that goods and services that were in high demand yesterday would be in lower demand today. Entrepreneurs would still experiment with new products and with new, labor-saving methods of production and distribution. Economic churn would still happen, complete with its unavoidable job losses.

The difference would be that, being denied access to the creative insights and productive efforts of 95 percent of the world’s population as well as to the bulk of the world’s resources, we’d all be much poorer.
What changes in trade policy do is change who has jobs, not the total number of jobs. Change trade policy and you just move jobs around the economy without having much effect on the total number of those jobs. As Paul Krugman has written,
It should be possible to emphasize [...] that the level of employment is a macroeconomic issue, depending in the short run on aggregate demand and depending in the long run on the natural rate of unemployment, with microeconomic policies like tariffs having little net effect. Trade policy should be debated in terms of its impact on efficiency, not in terms of phony numbers about jobs created or lost.
But the other point made by Boudreaux is also important, protection makes us poorer. The more we protect, the more we have to do things we are (relatively) bad at doing and the less time we spend on doing things we are good at doing. In the process we make ourselves worse off. It is better for us to concentrate on what we are good at producing and trading that for the things we are bad at producing with people who are good at producing it. As Krugman notes efficiency is what matter and by doing things we are bad at we become less efficient, not more.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Interesting graph on the relationship between US growth and the trade balance.

This graph is from the Econofact website:

You have to be very careful about causation. Does a trade deficient affect growth or does growth affect the trade balance or do third factors affect both?
It is true that when a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is calculated, a trade deficit counts as a negative. But this is a matter of accounting.
By definition, GDP measures the value of the goods and services produced within a country's borders. To tally GDP we take the sum of what households consume, investment by firms and government spending and account for trade by adding what is produced in the nation but consumed abroad (exports) and deducting the value of imports. The (faulty) idea of a “trade deficit drag” comes from this accounting identity – if the difference between exports and imports is large, then a larger number is subtracted from what households, firms and the government consume and the resulting GDP number must be smaller as well.
But this does not mean that a trade deficit causes GDP to be smaller.
The flaw in this logic is that both the trade deficit and GDP are outcomes of other, underlying factors. For this reason, there is no simple, straightforward link between the size of the trade deficit and the level of overall economic activity as measured by GDP. Consider a case where the United States has a spurt of growth due to, say, an increase in infrastructure spending. This spending will raise incomes and, therefore, consumption – including consumption of imported goods. This would be a situation where faster growth is associated with an increase in the trade deficit. Alternatively, the trade deficit could very well decline when there is a recession that reduces consumption of all goods, including imports.