One of These Things is Not Like the Other Government vs Corporations

Facebook: “We are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here. I hope we find the courage and compassion to bring people together and make this world a better place for everyone.”

Google: $4 million in donations to immigration causes

Airbnb:

Starbucks: Plans to hire 10,000 refugees

Lyft and Uber: After some controversy about eliminating surge pricing around JFK, Uber now plans to spend $3 million on affected drivers. Lyft will donate $1 million to the ACLU

Apple: “Apple is open. Open to everyone, no matter where they come from, which language they speak, who they love or how they worship. Our employees represent the finest talent in the world, and our team hails from every corner of the globe.”

Government:

Thank goodness we have a benevolent government to keep these evil corporations in check.

Why I’m a Libertarian

In a previous post I noted that libertarian ideas seem to be frequently misunderstood, that libertarians are sometimes labeled selfish, materialistic, and uncaring. In this post I hope to show that a libertarian worldview can come from a more virtuous principle: humility. Note that the title of this post is not “why you should be a libertarian.” I doubt it will convince anybody that is not already highly sympathetic to libertarian ideas, but I hope it can show that that (at least some) libertarians have good intentions. That I may be wrong, but I’m not evil.


A widely cited joke about Ayn Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged goes something like this (I believe the original source was John Rogers here):

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

It’s a good joke, but I worry that many outside of libertarian circles take its message a bit too seriously. Libertarians live in a fantasy world where everyone shares our ideals and we never think about real issues, about real people. And it is perhaps unfortunate that Rand’s view, one which believes in an objectively correct morality, that aims to tell you that there is a right way to live and she knows it, has been associated so closely with libertarian thought more broadly.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t believe there’s a correct way to live.

Family is the most important part of my life. Others might place a higher weight on different relationships, with their friends, their students, their coworkers. Some may find their strongest bond comes from a higher being, so they let religion or spirituality take precedence over earthly concerns. Another priority could be helping those they don’t know, simply because they are less fortunate or in need of help. Devotion to their jobs, to their hobbies, to the pursuit of knowledge, to any other activity that they find fulfilling – each can also drive a person’s behavior. And of course, pure material pleasures occupy a place on everybody’s scale of value. All of these considerations play a part in deciding the actions that lead to a life worth living.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t want to tell you what’s most important.

A Harvard educated liberal from Massachusetts wants to convince you to support abortion because a woman has a right to her own body. An evangelical Christian from Texas says that killing a fetus is no different than killing a child. Neither can be proven right or wrong. Each wants to impose their values on the other. Drugs are immoral. Alcohol is immoral. Gay marriage is immoral. I disagree and I’ll try to convince anyone that believes otherwise to join my side. But I’ll respect your right to believe what you want as long as you recognize mine.

A person’s moral worth is determined by how much they produce for society. No, it’s determined by what percentage of their wealth they give to charity. Or maybe it’s how much they do for their family. How devout they are in their prayers. Everyone lives by a different code. How comfortable are you in saying that your code is the right one?

I’m a libertarian because you have as much right to your values as I have to mine.

In the 2012 Republican primary debates, the moderators asked Ron Paul if a libertarian society would let a person without insurance die (for the record, he said no). It seems like an easy question – of course we can’t let them die. Let’s ask a harder question. A cancer patient has six months to live. They can extend their life for an additional 5 years, but the procedure costs $5 million in addition to a significant amount of time from doctors who could be working on helping others. They don’t have insurance. Should they be allowed to die? What if they can only extend their life 6 months? 1 day? Where do we draw the line? And who draws it?

Global warming is real. It’s almost certainly caused by humans. It could very well cause catastrophic changes in the future. Our use of fossil fuels could be the source of substantial problems for future generations. But if we stopped using fossil fuels now, we definitely cause substantial problems for the current generation. How can we determine which is worse? How do we weigh the life of an individual against the lives of their descendants?

I’m a libertarian because everything is a tradeoff and I can’t value the costs and benefits.

We all want equality of opportunity. It’s a nice slogan. What does it mean? Some say it means education should be free for everyone – that it’s a basic human right. How much? What kind? Who pays? Some people excel in a standard classroom setup. They love to learn, they can sit down with a book and study. Others can’t. And that’s ok. To think that we can create equality of opportunity by placing everybody in the exact same environment may be pure in its intention, but it’s incredibly dangerous in its execution. We weren’t all created equal and that’s a great thing. Our differences are not something to be squashed out, but embraced.

I’m a libertarian because everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, because everybody has different needs.

Markets always fail. The conditions of perfect competition laid out in a standard economics textbook never hold in reality. Every firm has some monopoly power. Every good causes some externality. Collective action problems, public goods, asymmetric information – all pervasive issues that throw a wrench into the workings of a perfectly competitive economy. Couldn’t a government fix some of these problems? Doesn’t a planner have the ability to take a big picture approach and do what’s best for society instead of what’s best for each individual? It’s possible, but where does the knowledge come from? Where do we set the prices for the monopolist? How high is the optimal tax to prevent the externality? Can we design a mechanism to improve upon the free market outcome? Even in an economic model where everybody has identical preferences and production technologies are fixed the answers are not always clear. In the real world – good luck.

Someone made you king of the world. You want to make it better. So you call in teams of experts, the best from every field. You build supercomputers capable of running an unimaginable number of calculations every second. A coordinated, planned society led by the brightest minds available – how could the chaotic workings of the free market stand any chance? But soon you realize that even the simplest questions – like how much toilet paper to produce – turn out to be nearly impossible to answer. So you give up on your unified plan and try to just fix a few obvious problems. And yet each leak sealed opens up several more – the experts and their fancy computers do their best to predict people’s behavior, but there is simply too much left unknown. Without an overarching plan the ad hoc solutions continue to multiply and the end result is a convoluted, bureaucratic mess.

I’m a libertarian because knowledge is dispersed and I can’t think of a better way of collecting it than through the market process.

Liberty is not magic. It’s not a solution to any of the problems I’ve touched on above. But that’s exactly the point. When the questions facing society are this challenging it would be incredibly arrogant to assume that any one mind or group of minds could divine an appropriate solution. A society of liberty sidesteps these questions entirely. It allows individuals – with their unique perspectives and values, with their knowledge of their own specific time and place – to attempt to find solutions for their own much smaller problems. Most of these attempts fail, but a free market rewards those that work, letting the best rise to the top, creating a better world for all.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe individuals making decisions for themselves results in outcomes that are worse for everybody. Maybe governments are better at weighing the total costs and benefits to society than individuals acting on their own. Maybe a coordinated plan can figure out better answers to the questions facing our society than the spontaneous order of a free market. Maybe. And I’m happy to have those debates. But never say that I haven’t thought about these issues. Never say that I’m not worried about poverty, or the environment, or the thousands of other important problems that affect this world every day. Never question my intentions.

And never say that I’m a libertarian because I don’t care.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t know.

 

Study Finds That Nobody Changes Their Mind After Reading Fake News

You'll Never Believe What Trump Said About It

The title, in case you didn’t already guess, is fake news. There was no study. But think about your reaction when you read it. Raise your hand if you said “wait a minute, I always thought fake news was a huge deal but I guess this study proved me wrong. I’ll just change my mind without thinking about it at all.” Anyone? Yeah I didn’t think so. And if you aren’t convinced by a headline on a reputable publication such as this one (OK maybe not so much), are you really buying the fake headlines that the Pope backed Trump or that Hillary actually didn’t win the popular vote?

Recently there has been an uproar surrounding these fake headlines. Germany wants Facebook to pay $500,000 for every fake news story that shows up. California (of course) wants to pass a law that will make sure every high school teaches its students how to spot fake news stories. I wish those stories were themselves fake news, but they appear to be all too real.

Now there probably are some people who do read these fake headlines and don’t do their research. Maybe they’ll store it somewhere in the back of their mind and use it as evidence to support their positions in debates with their friends. But I suspect that the only people who believe a fake headline are ones who were already inclined to believe it before they read it. No study has been done, but I’ll make the claim anyway: Nobody changes their mind because of fake news.

(One qualification to the above point is that it may break down if real news were censored. Here I am thinking about a case where the government restricts the media so that propaganda becomes the only source of information. Obviously that would be a major problem)

Perhaps more concerning is that people also don’t seem to change their mind because of real news either. They don’t let the facts guide their positions, but instead seek out the facts that support the positions they already held. Is believing a fake news story any worse than only believing the stories that confirm your preconceived inclinations?

In other words, the problem is not fake news. The problem is confirmation bias. Everyone’s guilty of it. I certainly am. How could you not be? With the internet at your fingertips, evidence supporting nearly any argument is freely available. And I don’t just mean op-eds or random blog posts. Even finding academic research to support almost anything has become incredibly easy.

Let’s say you want to take a stand on whether the government should provide stimulus to get out of a recession. Is government spending an effective way to restore growth? You want to let the facts guide you so you turn to the empirical literature. Maybe you start by looking at the work of Robert Barro, a Harvard scholar who has dedicated a significant portion of his research to the size of the fiscal multiplier. Based on his findings, he has argued that using government spending to combat a recession is “voodoo economics.” But then you see that Christina Romer, an equally respected economist, is much more optimistic about the effects of government spending. And then you realize that you could pick just about any number for the spending multiplier and find some paper that supports it.

So you’re left with two options. You can either spend a lifetime digging into these dense academic papers, learning the methods they use, weighing the pros and cons of each of their empirical strategies, and coming to a well-reasoned conclusion about which seems the most likely to be accurate. Or you can fall back on ideology. If you’re conservative, you share Barro’s findings all over your Facebook feed. Your conservative friends see the headline and think “I knew it all along, those Obama deficits were no good,” while the liberals come along and say, “You believe Barro? His findings have been debunked. The stimulus saved the economy.” And your noble fact finding mission ends in people digging in their heels even further.

That’s just one small topic in one field. There’s simply no way to have a qualified, fact-driven opinion on every topic. To take a position, you need to have a frame to view the world through. You need to be biased. And this reality means that it takes very little to convince us of things that we already want to believe. Changing your mind, even in the face of what could be considered contradictory evidence, becomes incredibly hard.

I don’t have a solution, but I do have a suggestion. Stop pretending to be so smart. On every issue, no matter what you believe, you’re very likely to either be on the wrong side or have a bad argument for being on the right side. What do the facts say, you ask? It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that they can show pretty much anything you want. I’ve spent most of my time the last 5 or so years trying to learn economics. Above all else, I’ve learned two things in that time. The first is that I’m pretty confident I have no idea how the economy works. The second is something I am even more confident about: you don’t know how it works either.

Please Don’t Audit the Fed

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rand Paul, following in his father’s footsteps, has re-introduced a plan to audit the Fed. Trump supports the plan and even Bernie Sanders voted for it the last time the bill was put up before congress. I have no idea why. There might be an argument for ending the Fed entirely. Larry White gives a good summary of the argument in this video. I’ve written about the American Free Banking System, which worked reasonably well in the absence of a central bank (although the evidence is mixed). And maybe ending the Fed is the ultimate goal of Fed audit supporters and this bill is just a symbolic victory. But it really does essentially nothing useful and could potentially have detrimental effects.

In the press release linked above, Thomas Massie says “Behind closed doors, the Fed crafts monetary policy that will continue to devalue our currency, slow economic growth, and make life harder for the poor and middle class. It is time to force the Federal Reserve to operate by the same standards of transparency and accountability to the taxpayers that we should demand of all government agencies.” Even besides the fact that there is no serious economic analysis I know of that says the Fed makes life harder for the poor and middle class, this statement is complete nonsense.

Does the Fed need to be more transparent? I have a hard time seeing how it possibly could be. The Fed already posts on its website more information than anyone other than an academic economist could possibly want to know. Transcripts from their meetings, their economic forecasts, justifications for interest rate changes – it’s all there in broad daylight for anybody to read. As David Wessel points out in an excellent Q&A on auditing the Fed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) already knows everything important about most of the assets held by the Fed.

The only possible change that could come as a result of auditing the Fed is more influence by congress over Federal Reserve decisions. That’s terrifying. Whatever your opinion of the Fed, it’s impossible to deny that it’s run by incredibly smart people who have dedicated their lives to understanding monetary policy. That doesn’t make them infallible. I’m all for taking power away from experts, for decentralizing and allowing markets to control money. But if we’re going to allow a group of individuals to decide the policy, at least let them be people who have some idea what they’re talking about. You might not love Janet Yellen, or Ben Bernanke, or Alan Greenspan, but I can’t imagine anyone would prefer monetary policy to be run by congress. Think about the arguments over raising the debt ceiling. Do we want that every time the Fed tries to make a decision? I certainly don’t.

I can absolutely criticize monetary policy. The Fed has come in below its 2% inflation target consistently for about 10 years now even though unemployment had been far from the natural rate. Maybe an NGDP target would be an improvement over the current dual mandate. And maybe we don’t need a central bank at all. I’m not opposed to monetary reform. But I can’t get behind a bill that only appears to make conducting monetary policy more political.

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 10 All Models are Wrong, Except When We Pretend They Are Right

Part 10 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. This post deals with a common defense of macroeconomic models that “all models are wrong.” In particular, I argue that attempts to match the model to the data contradict this principle.


In my discussion of rational expectations I talked about Milton Friedman’s defense of some of the more dubious assumptions of economic models. His argument was that even though real people probably don’t really think the way the agents in our economic models do, that doesn’t mean the model is a bad explanation of their behavior.

Friedman’s argument ties into a broader point about the realism of an economic model. We don’t necessarily want our model to perfectly match every feature that we see in reality. Modeling the complexity we see in real economies is a titanic task. In order to understand, we need to simplify.

Early DSGE models embraced this sentiment. Kydland and Prescott give a summary of their preferred procedure for doing macroeconomic economic research in a 1991 paper, “The Econometrics of the General Equilibrium Approach to Business Cycles.” They outline five steps. First, a clearly defined research question must be chosen. Given this question, the economist chooses a model economy that is well suited to answering it. Next, the parameters of the model are calibrated to fit based on some criteria (more on this below). Using the model, the researcher can conduct quantitative experiments. Finally, results are reported and discussed.

Throughout their discussion of this procedure, Kydland and Prescott are careful to emphasize that the true model will always remain out of reach, that “all model economies are abstractions and are by definition false.” And if all models are wrong, there is no reason we would expect any model to be able to match all features of the data. An implication of this fact is that we shouldn’t necessarily choose parameters of the model that give us the closest match between model and data. The alternative, which they offered alongside their introduction to the RBC framework, is calibration.

What is calibration? Unfortunately a precise definition doesn’t appear to exist and its use in academic papers has become somewhat slippery (and many times ends up meaning I chose these parameters because another paper used the same ones). But in reading Kydland and Prescott’s explanation, the essential idea is to find values for your parameters from data that is not directly related to the question at hand. In their words, “searching within some parametric class of economies for the one that best fits some set of aggregate time series makes little sense.” Instead, they attempt to choose parameters based on other data. They offer the example of the elasticity of substitution between labor and capital, or between labor and leisure. Both of these parameters can be obtained by looking at studies of human behavior. By measuring how individuals and firms respond to changes in real wages, we can get estimates for these values before looking at the results of the model.

The spirit of the calibration exercise is, I think, generally correct. I agree that economic models can never hope to capture the intricacies of a real economy and therefore if we don’t see some discrepancy between model and data we should be highly suspicious. Unfortunately, I also don’t see how calibration helps us to solve this problem. Two prominent econometricians, Lars Hansen and James Heckman, take issue with calibration. They argue

It is only under very special circumstances that a micro parameter such as the intertemporal elasticity of substitution or even a marginal propensity to consume out of income can be “plugged into” a representative consumer model to produce an empirically concordant aggregate model…microeconomic technologies can look quite different from their aggregate counterparts.
Hansen and Heckman (1996) – The Empirical Foundations of Calibration

Although Kydland and Prescott and other proponents of the calibration approach wish to draw parameters from sources outside the model, it is impossible to entirely divorce the values from the model itself. The estimation of elasticity of substitution or labor’s share of income or any other parameter of the model is going to depend in large part on the lens through which these parameters are viewed and each model provides a different lens. To think that we can take an estimate from one environment and plug it into another would appear to be too strong an assumption.

There is also another more fundamental problem with calibration. Even if for some reason we believe we have the “correct” parameterization of our model, how can we judge its success? Thomas Sargent, in a 2005 interview, says that “after about five years of doing likelihood ratio tests on rational expectations models, I recall Bob Lucas and Ed Prescott both telling me that those tests were rejecting too many good models.” Most people, when confronted with the realization that their model doesn’t match reality would conclude that their model was wrong. But of course we already knew that. Calibration was the solution, but what does it solve? If we don’t have a good way to test our theories, how can we separate the good from the bad? How can we ever trust the quantitative results of a model in which parameters are likely poorly estimated and which offers no criterion for which it can be rejected? Calibration seems only to claim to be an acceptable response to the idea that “all models are wrong” without actually providing a consistent framework for quantification.

But what is the alternative? Many macroeconomic papers now employ a mix of calibrated parameters and estimated parameters. A common strategy is to use econometric methods to search over all possible parameter values in order to find those that are most likely given the data. But in order to put any significance on the meaning of these parameters, we need to take our model as the truth or as close to the truth. If we estimate the parameters to match the data, we implicitly reject the “all models are wrong” philosophy, which I’m not sure is the right way forward.

And it gets worse. Since estimating a highly nonlinear macroeconomic system is almost always impossible given our current computational constraints, most macroeconomic papers instead linearize the model around a steady state. So even if the model is perfectly specified, we also need the additional assumption that we always stay close enough to this steady state that the linear approximation provides a decent representation of the true model. That assumption often fails. Christopher Carroll shows that a log linearized version of a simple model gives a misleading picture of consumer behavior when compared to the true nonlinear model and that even a second order approximation offers little improvement. This issue is especially pressing in a world where we know a clear nonlinearity is present in the form of the zero lower bound for nominal interest rates and once again we get “unpleasant properties” when we apply linear methods.

Anyone trying to do quantitative macroeconomics faces a rather unappealing choice. In order to make any statement about the magnitudes of economic shocks or policies, we need a method to discipline the numerical behavior of the model. If our ultimate goal is to explain the real world, it makes sense to want to use data to provide this discipline. And yet we know our model is wrong. We know that the data we see was not generated by anything close to the simple models that enable analytic (or numeric) tractability. We want to take the model seriously, but not too seriously. We want to use the data to discipline our model, but we don’t want to reject a model because it doesn’t fit all features of the data. How do we determine the right balance? I’m not sure there is a good answer.

Free Will, Morality, and Libertarianism How can you be held responsible for something that wasn't your fault?

An astute reader sees an apparent contradiction between my last post and my post on free will, asking “how can a libertarian reconcile no real choice with the importance of being free to choose?”

It’s a great question. If free will doesn’t exist, if every single action is pre-determined, can we even have a consistent concept of morality? I made a distinction between actions made freely and those forced by the state, but isn’t that distinction meaningless in a deterministic world? When all actions are at some level outside an individual’s control, is there any difference between the direct coercion of government and more indirect factors influencing the decision (like genetics, education, religion, etc.) that are also completely removed from the realm of free choice? The answers to these questions are far from obvious and I certainly don’t pretend to have a perfect response, but I hope this post will clarify the way I think about the issue. My ideas here are heavily influenced by (who else) Hayek’s discussion of similar topics in chapter 5 of The Constitution of Liberty.

First, it is important to understand my earlier defense of determinism. The key point is that every action can be traced to a chain of previous events. Going back far enough in each person’s chain, some link will be the result of an event that is outside of their direct control. And if I know all of the links in this causal chain, if I know everything that has ever influenced an individual, I can predict with absolute certainty their next move. Their “choice” was determined long before they are required to make it.

If we accept this argument, then at the moment of a decision nothing can be done. There is no way that a given individual would have made any decision different than the one they made. We could replay the same history a million times and get the same result in every single trial.

But here’s the problem. Go back to the example I gave in the last post. A person is trying to decide whether to give money to the poor (let’s call him Bob). Note that I will consider giving to the poor to be a good thing. If for some reason you disagree with that assessment, replace “giving to the poor” with any action you consider moral and the argument should still go through.

Now assume Bob exists in two universes (A and B). In each universe, Bob has had almost the exact same experience. He has the same parents, the same teachers, read all the same books. As a result, in each universe he has developed a system of values which teaches him to care for his fellow human beings. Now introduce one difference between the two universes. Universe A has a government which forces Bob to give to the poor through taxation. In Universe B, Bob is free to do as he pleases. Of course, we know  that Bob is not really free to choose. If he chooses to give to the poor, it is only because he grew up in a society that taught him that that was the right thing to do, and only because of his upbringing that he has any desire to do the right thing at all. Universe B Bob doesn’t choose to give to the poor any more than Universe A Bob does. Both only give due to the influence of others. How can we say one is more moral?

Consider George. George also exists in both universes, but he has had a different experience than Bob. Where Bob was taught to live a life of compassion, George only cares about his own material well being. Help the poor? How does that help George? In Universe A, George still has to give to the poor. The government forces him to give against his wishes. And it makes him angry. He works hard to earn his money, why should he give to those who don’t? He sees Bob gives to the poor as well, but he believes it is only because the government forces him to do so.

In Universe B, George doesn’t give to the poor. His values tell him that you get exactly what you deserve in life and he acts on those values. There is no government to force him to do otherwise. And yet he sees Bob give to the poor anyway. Maybe he just dismisses Bob as too stupid to realize that his money won’t help them, that the poor need to help themselves. But maybe Bob’s actions give him pause. Maybe they form a new link in George’s causal chain. Maybe he questions his decision, and even though he could never have changed his choice at that moment, he might think about the situation differently next time. Maybe his system of values begins to change.

Phrased in this way, we begin to see a real distinction between the decision to give in each universe. It is true that in both universes Bob would have given to the poor. Our reason for calling Bob’s actions moral cannot be that he himself could have made another choice at the moment of his decision – without free will, he really couldn’t have. But we can compare Bob’s choices to those of another individual. If we replace Bob with George in Universe A, the result is the same – both give to the poor, and we can’t judge morality because nobody could have acted differently. In Universe B, however, Bob and George are allowed to act differently in the same situation. Their decision tree has two branches. Neither will choose any branch other than the one already pre-determined by their life experiences, but the existence of the branches matters because somebody else could have.

So now we can give an answer to the original question. If nobody can truly make choices of their own volition, why does choice matter for morality?

Because if a choice is available, even if each individual will always make the same choice, another might have acted differently.

But even if you buy the argument above, a question still remains. We might agree that Bob made a moral decision in the example above even though it wasn’t truly his choice, but does that mean that George is responsible for his actions? Can we blame George for not giving to the poor? After all, it’s not his fault that he didn’t have Bob’s life. Here I defer to Hayek:

Strictly speaking, it is nonsense to say, as is so often said, that “it is not a man’s fault that he is as he is,” for the aim of assigning responsibility is to make him different from what he is or might be. If we say that a person is responsible for the consequences of an action, this is not a statement of fact or an assertion about causation. The statement would, of course, not be justifiable if nothing he “might” have done or omitted could have altered the result. But when we use words like “might” or “could” in this connection, we do not mean that at the moment of his decision something in him acted otherwise than was the necessary effect of causal laws in the given circumstances. Rather, the statement that a person is responsible for what he does aims at making his actions different from what they would be if he did not believe it to be true.

We assign responsibility to a man, not in order to say that as he was he might have acted differently, but in order to make him different.The Constitution of Liberty, p. 137-138

What do we want from our society? Do we want to move from Universe B to Universe A, from a world where people are free to make their own value judgements to one where they are not given any choice, where we claim to know what is best for them? Or do we want to convert people from Georges to Bobs, to convince them to buy into the system, convince them that the ideals we aim for are ones worth striving to achieve? In my view, a free society gives us the best chance of achieving the latter goal. Only a free society allows us a choice, and even if our choice is set long before we make it, knowing that other individuals could have made another choice remains important.

Social Cooperation Is the free market argument in need of rebranding?

The standard free market analysis places the individual at its center. As Adam Smith famously noted in 1776, although they act in their own self interest, an individual in a free market is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” And it is generally argued that competition is the driving force behind the benefits of the market process. Entrepreneurs constantly search for new opportunities to make profit, and as a result they find more efficient ways to provide goods to consumers.

Phrased in this way, the free market argument tends to evoke images of Social Darwinism – the best rise to the top, and the weak are left behind. Competition implies a constant struggle between market participants to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. This vision often leads critics to argue that the free market ideal generates an uncaring society. If everybody acts only in their own self interest, there is no room for cooperative behavior that is essential for human interaction. Morality, emotion, personal connections – none of it matters. The free market places “profit over people.”

This critique stems from a wildly incorrect reading of the free market argument.

Go back to Adam Smith. At the center of his work is the idea of division of labor. A market economy thrives not because individuals work in isolation. Instead, it depends entirely on the relationships between individuals, focusing each person’s talents on an activity where they possess a comparative advantage.

Perhaps the best illustration of the role of cooperation in a market economy is Leonard Read’s famous essay I, Pencil (there is also an excellent video inspired by the essay). Read points out that no individual on their own knows how to make even something as simple as a pencil. The production process requires dozens of firms and hundreds of workers each performing specialized tasks with little knowledge of the final product. There is no planner describing how to make a pencil and yet through the actions of individuals as well as the interactions between individuals, the production process arises spontaneously. An individual acting alone would quickly fail in a market economy.

Ludwig von Mises’s famous treatise Human Action, a comprehensive analysis of the working of the free market system, was almost given a different titleSocial Cooperation. Although Mises dropped this alternate title, the theme that markets depend as much on cooperation between individuals as they do on individual action itself runs throughout the book. Mises notes:

Within the frame of social cooperation there can emerge between members of society feelings of sympathy and friendship and a sense of belonging together. These feelings are the source of man’s most delightful and most sublime experiences. They are the most precious adornment of life; they lift the animal species man to the heights of a really human existence.
Human Action p. 144

A free market, in Mises’s view, doesn’t destroy relationships between individuals, but instead fosters these feelings. Even if we take the idea of “Social Darwinism” seriously, even if we admit that all individuals are driven by the desire to fight for their own survival, that doesn’t lead us to a world of selfishness (in a narrow sense) because “the most adequate means of improving his  condition is social cooperation and the division of labor” (Human Action, p. 176).

But the argument that markets and morals are inconsistent faces an even deeper flaw. In a market economy we have a choice. Of course we can choose to think only of ourselves, to put money over family, to value material goods over relationships. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the free market itself. Nothing in the market argument says that I should only care about wealth. If you want to put other priorities first, nobody in a free market has any right to stop you (the catch is that you also don’t have any right to make other people pay you).

A free market doesn’t place any moral judgement on the actions of individuals. It is perfectly consistent with both a savage society where everybody fights for their narrow self interest and ignores others as well as a responsible one where we care for our fellow humans. It is up to each of us as individuals to choose to live our lives morally (but of course, this choice is only an illusion).

What is the alternative? The only clear alternative I can see is to use the state to try to impose your morals on others. By enacting laws that force people to behave morally, maybe we can create a more caring society.

Such a system seems doomed to have the opposite effect. Let’s say you believe that redistribution of wealth is important. Poor people aren’t poor because they didn’t work hard. They just had bad luck. It’s the responsibility of the rich to help these people out. I am sympathetic to this reasoning. However, by forcing people to give up their wealth through taxation, we change the equation from one of responsibility to one of coercion. Rather than giving to the poor out of some sense of moral duty, I give because I don’t want to go to jail. Is attempting to legislate morality in this way more likely to generate a caring society or a resentful one? Respect between classes, or class warfare?

The free market argument should not marry itself to the individual. It is true that all actions must at their core come from individual decisions, but the market only works through the relationships between individuals. Human Action is only half of the story. Social Cooperation is equally important. By obscuring this fact, defenders of markets concede too much. Emphasizing efficiency and the incredible material progress society has made since adopting a market system is fine, but we can’t ignore the moral argument. Morality can’t be imposed. It has to be a choice. And only a free society offers that choice. “Liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is so only when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong” (Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 142).

What’s Wrong With Modern Macro? Part 9 Carrying on the Torch of the Market Socialists

Part 9 in a series of posts on modern macroeconomics. This post lays out a more philosophical critique of common macroeconomic models by drawing a parallel between the standard neoclassical model and the idea of “market socialism” developed in the early 20th century. 


If an economist had access to all of the data in the economy, macroeconomics would be easy. Given an exact knowledge of every individual’s preferences, every resource available in the economy, and every available technology that could ever be invented to turn those resources into goods, the largest problem that would remain for macroeconomics is waiting for a fast enough computer to plug all of this information into. As Hayek pointed out so brilliantly 60 years ago, the reason we need markets at all is precisely because so much of this information is unknown.

Read any macroeconomics paper written in the last 30 years, and you’d be lucky to find any acknowledgement of this crucial problem. Take, for example, Kydland and Prescott’s 1982 paper that is widely seen as the beginning of the DSGE framework. The headings in the model section are Technology, Preferences, Information Structure, and Equilibrium. Since then, almost every paper has followed a similar structure. Define the exact environment that defines a market, and then equilibrium prices and allocations simply pop out as a result.

What’s wrong with this method of doing economics? To understand the issue, we need to take a step back to an earlier debate.

Mises’s Critique of Socialism

In 1922, Ludwig von Mises published a book called Socialism that remains one of the most comprehensive and effective critiques of socialism ever written. In it, he developed his famous “calculation” argument. Importantly, Mises’s argument did not depend on morality, as he freely admitted that “all rights derive from violence” (42). Neither did his argument depend on the incentives of social planners. “Even angels,” claims Mises, “could not form a socialist community” (451). Instead, Mises makes a far more powerful argument: socialism is practically impossible.

I can’t explain the argument any better than Mises himself, so here is a quote that makes his main point

Let us try to imagine the position of a socialist community. There will be hundreds and thousands of establishments in which work is going on. A minority of these will produce goods ready for use. The majority will produce capital goods and semi-manufactures. All these establishments will be closely connected. Each commodity produced will pass through a whole series of such establishments before it is ready for consumption. Yet in the incessant press of all these processes the economic administration will have no real sense of direction. It will have no means of ascertaining whether a given piece of work is really necessary, whether labour and material are not being wasted in completing it. How would it discover which of two processes was the more satisfactory? At best, it could compare the quantity of ultimate products. But only rarely could it compare the expenditure incurred in their production. It would know exactly—or it would imagine it knew—what it wanted to produce. It ought therefore to set about obtaining the desired results with the smallest possible expenditure. But to do this it would have to be able to make calculations. And such calculations must be calculations of value. They could not be merely “technical,” they could not be calculations of the objective use-value of goods and services; this is so obvious that it needs no further demonstration
Mises (1922) – Socialism p. 120

Prices are what allow calculation in a market economy. In a socialist economy, market prices cannot exist. Socialism therefore is doomed to fail regardless of the intentions or morality of the planners. Even if they want what is best for society, they will never be able to achieve it.

The Response to Mises: Market Socialism

Although Mises argument was effective, the socialists weren’t prepared to give up so easily. Instead, a new idea was offered that attempted to provide a method of implementing socialist planning without falling into the problems of calculation outlined by Mises. Led by Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner among others, the seemingly contradictory idea of “market socialism” was born.

Lange’s argument begins by conceding that Mises was right. Calculation is impossible without prices. However, he argues there is no reason why those prices have to come from a market. Economic theory has already demonstrated the process through which efficient markets work. In particular, prices are set equal to marginal cost. In a market, this condition arises naturally from competition. In a market socialist society, it would be imposed by a planner. In Lange’s view, not only would such a rule match a market economy in terms of efficiency, but it could even offer improvements by dealing with problems like monopoly where competition is unable to drive down prices.

We are left with one final problem, which is the pricing of higher order capital goods. Lange admits that these goods pose a more difficult problem, but insists that the problem could be solved in the same way the market solves it: trial and error. In other words, just as entrepreneurs adjust prices in response to supply and demand, so could social planners. When demand is greater than supply, increase prices and when supply is greater than demand, reduce them. At worst, Lange argues, this system is at least as good as a free market and at best it is far better since “the Central Planning Board has a much wider knowledge of what is going on in the whole economic system than any private entrepreneur can ever have” (Lange (1936) – On the Economic Theory of Socialism, Part One p. 67)

The Market Socialist Misunderstanding: Why do Markets Work?

Lange’s argument should be appealing to anybody that takes standard economic theory seriously. A Walrasian General Equilibrium gives us specific conditions under which an economy operates most efficiently. We talk about whether decentralized competition can lead to these conditions, but why do we even need to bother? We know the solution, why not just jump there directly?

But by taking the model seriously, we lose sight of the process that it is trying to represent. For example, in the model the task of a firm is simple. Perfect competition has already driven prices down to their efficient level and any deviation from this price will immediately fail. As Mises emphasized, however, the market forces that bring about this price have to come from the constant searching of an entrepreneur for new profit opportunities. He concedes that “it is quite easy to postulate a socialist economic order under stationary conditions (Socialism, 163).” Conversely, the real world is characterized by constantly shifting equilibrium conditions. The market socialist answer assumes that we know the equations that characterize a market. Mises argues that these equations can only come through the market process.

Hayek also made an essential contribution to the market socialism debate through his work on the role of the price system in coordinating market activity. For Hayek, prices are a tool used to gather pieces of knowledge dispersed among millions of individuals. An entrepreneur does not need to know the relative scarcities of various goods when they attempt to choose the most efficient production process. They only need to observe the price. In this way, Lange’s pricing strategy cannot hope to replicate the process of a dynamic economy. When prices are no longer set by market participants looking to achieve the best allocation of resources they lose almost all of their information content.

The final piece missing from Lange’s analysis is perhaps also the most important: profit and loss. In Lange’s depiction of a market economy, he seems to imagine one that is already close to an equilibrium. In particular, he assumes that the production structures in place are already the most efficient. Without this assumption, there is no way to determine the marginal cost and no way to use trial and error pricing effectively. Mises and Hayek instead view an economy as constantly moving towards an equilibrium but never reaching it. Entrepreneurs constantly search for both new products to sell and new methods to produce existing products more efficiently. Good ideas are rewarded with profits and bad ones driven out by losses. Without this mechanism, what incentive is there for anybody to challenge the existing economic structure? Lange never provides an answer.

For a longer discussion on the socialism debate, see a paper I wrote here.

Repeating the Same Mistakes

So what does any of this have to do with modern macroeconomics? Look back to the example I gave at the beginning of this post of Kydland and Prescott’s famous paper. Like the market socialists, their paper begins from the premise that we know all of the relevant information about the economic environment. We know the technologies available, we know people’s preferences, and we assume that the agents in the model know these features as well. The parallels between the arguments of Lange and modern macroeconomics are perhaps most clear when we consider the discussion of the “social planner” in many macroeconomic papers. A common exercise performed in many of these studies is to compare the solution of a “planner’s problem” to that of the outcome of a decentralized competitive market. And in these setups, the planner can always do at least as good as the market and usually better, so the door is opened for policy to improve market outcomes.

But because most macro models outline the economic environment so explicitly, competition in the sense described by Mises and Hayek has once again disappeared. The economy in a neoclassical model finds itself perpetually at its equilibrium state. Prices are found such that the market clears. Profits are eliminated by competition. Everybody’s plans are fulfilled (except for some exogenous shocks). No thought is given to process that led to that state.

Is there a problem with ignoring this process? It depends on the question we want to answer. If we believe that economies are quick to adjust to a new environment, then the process of adjusting to a new equilibrium becomes trivial and we need only compare results in different equilibria. If, however, we believe that the economic environment is constantly changing, then the adjustment process becomes the primary economic problem that we want to explain. Modern macro has heavily invested in answering the former question. The latter appears to me to be far more interesting and far more relevant. The current macroeconomic toolbox offers little room to allow us to explore these dynamics.

 

 

Three More Reactions to Trump

This post will be the last on Trump for the foreseeable future, but I just wanted to highlight three excellent reactions to Trump’s victory.

First: An interview with Jon Stewart, who makes the current crop of late night political comedians look like amateurs. Two nice quotes:

I don’t believe we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago. The same country with all its grace, and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength and resilience, exists today as existed two weeks ago.

I thought Donald Trump disqualified himself at numerous points, but there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric.

Second: A beautiful piece by Lyman Stone. Please read the whole thing, but here are a few highlights:

You did this. I did this. We showed politicians that vitriol and hatred were effective. In our Facebook rants, in our un-friending, in our mob-shaming, in our boycotting, in our isolation, in our chanting, in our occupying, in our insulting, in our violence and our counter-violence, in our preference for the shouted epithet over the whispered encouragement, in our love of charisma and wrath over decorum and respect: we did this.

The next time your activist friend tells you they’re renewing their passport because Trump is going to institute fascism, respond, “Oh, come on friend, you don’t know that. That’s just fear and paranoia speaking.”

When your friend angrily shares on Facebook about how Clinton is going to steal our guns, don’t click “Like.” Click the crying one, and leave a comment, “I worry about 2nd Amendment rights too: but dude, this is just fear and paranoia speaking. The President and Congress don’t even close to have enough legal power to take our guns even if they wanted to.”

every time I’ve successfully persuaded someone else of something meaningful, it’s because I took the time to listen, to communicate empathy, to assure them that I thought they were a valuable person.

And in the long run, it is only mutual sympathy and compassion that can save us from violent tyranny.

And finally: An essay (short book?) by Scott Alexander. As always with his essays, it’s long but worth it. A slice:

All this stuff about how he’s “the candidate of the KKK” and “the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement” is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump

So our different ways of defining “open white supremacist”, even for definitions of “open” so vague they include admitting it on anonymous surveys, suggest maybe 1-2%, 1-2%, 4-7%, 3-11%, and 1-3%.

But doesn’t this still mean there are some white supremacists? Isn’t this still really important?

I mean, kind of. But remember that 4% of Americans believe that lizardmen control all major governments. And 5% of Obama voters believe that Obama is the Antichrist. The white supremacist vote is about the same as the lizardmen-control-everything vote, or the Obama-is-the-Antichrist-but-I-support-him-anyway vote.

Politifact says that Hillary and Obama wanted a 700 mile fence but Trump wants a 1000 mile wall, so these are totally different. But really? Support a 700 mile fence, and you’re the champion of diversity and all that is right in the world; support a 1000 mile wall and there’s no possible explanation besides white nationalism?

Listen. Trump is going to be approximately as racist as every other American president. Maybe I’m wrong and he’ll be a bit more. Maybe he’ll surprise us and be a bit less. But most likely he’ll be about as racist as Ronald Reagan, who employed Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan as a senior advisor. Or about as racist as George Bush with his famous Willie Horton ad. Or about as racist as Bill “superpredator” Clinton, who took a photo op in front of a group of chained black men in the birthplace of the KKK. Or about as racist as Bush “doesn’t care about black people!” 43. He’ll have some scandals, people who want to see them as racist will see them as racist, people who don’t will dismiss them as meaningless, and nobody will end up in death camps.

Stop making people suicidal. Stop telling people they’re going to be killed. Stop terrifying children. Stop giving racism free advertising. Stop trying to convince Americans that all the other Americans hate them. Stop. Stop. Stop.

How Trump Won a Divided America It's About Discrimination, But Not the Kind You Expect

Required Reading: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup by Scott Alexander (It’s long but it’s well worth it – way more important than anything I have to say)

In this election, as in every election I can remember in my lifetime, I was faced with two unappealing choices. President Clinton represented a continuation of many of the trends – more regulation, more spending, bigger government – that in my view have been slowly eroding the features that make this country great. President Trump, who explicitly promises to make America great again, plans on doing so through policies that will almost certainly have the opposite effect. So my choice was easy: none of the above (AKA Gary Johnson). I could have probably justified a Hillary vote on the presumption that she would be less risky than Trump, but, being in a state where the result was already decided, I saw no reason to compromise my values and vote for the (slightly) lesser of two evils.

And yet when I got to the voting booth and looked over the ballot, my hand hovered momentarily over Trump’s name. I have no desire to see Donald Trump as president of the United States. His policies are bad and his personality is worse. Still, for a split second my body and mind were in conflict. Despite everything I know about him, despite his economic illiteracy, despite his remarks about women, about Mexicans, something inside me wanted to forget all of that and vote for him anyway. At first I didn’t understand why. Now I do. And It has nothing to do with Donald Trump.

I grew up in Massachusetts and currently live in California. Throughout my life I’ve been surrounded by what Scott Alexander refers to as “the blue tribe” in the essay above. Most of my friends lean liberal politically. My professors even more so. And there’s always been some awkwardness when they find out I don’t. I’ve seen the look many times: equal parts bewilderment and disdain, something between how could you think that? and are you sure you know what you’re saying? Of course, the ones who know me well (usually) realize that in the end I’m on their side, that we both have the same goals despite differences in opinion on how to get there. But they can’t help that initial response.

I align most closely with Alexander’s gray tribe (if you didn’t do the required reading, the gray tribe essentially encompasses libertarians). I’ve become pretty good at emphasizing points of agreement with the blue tribe and downplaying differences (usually the first sentence after I tell people I’m not a Democrat is a quick “but don’t worry I’m not a Republican either”). I imagine “the look” for a true member of the red tribe is much worse.

What’s the image that comes to mind when you think of a Trump supporter? Maybe you think that they’re not America’s best. They’re people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing prejudice. They’re bringing hate. They’re racists. And some, you assume, are good people (In case you didn’t catch the reference). Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark for the way many people view Trump supporters. Is your vision of a Trump voter a thoughtful, respectful citizen? Or is it closer to that “basket of deplorables” that Clinton referred to?

What is discrimination? A simple definition is ascribing qualities to an individual based on assumptions about a group they belong to. We tend to apply the term mostly to race, or gender, or religion, but it’s broader than that. Democrats claim to be the party of tolerance, and in many ways they are. Blacks? Great. Mexicans? Welcome home. Gay marriage? Why not?

But how do they feel about Republicans? Social conservatives? Trump voters? Are Democrats still feeling so tolerant when it comes to the Red Tribe? Racial diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity. All important. Ideological diversity might trump them all. And yet ideological discrimination has never been more severe.

Some call it the “smugness of the press” or of liberalism in general. Ross Douthat calls it the “Samantha Bee Problem.” Chris Arnade talks of the dominance of the “front row kids” over the “back row kids.” Jonathan Haidt warns of “The Righteous Mind.” They all come back to the same idea. We’ve developed a society based on bubbles. People live in the world they want to live in, they hear the ideas they want to hear, and they block out the rest. Recently, many people have sensed a shift in power in these bubbles, as liberals have seemingly taken control over much of the country. Watch the news or a Hollywood movie, visit a university or a major city. Based on these experiences, one might wonder why our elections are even close. Whether this shift in the balance of power is real or imagined, Trump was the response. Once again, I can’t explain it any better than Scott Alexander:

“It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.”

Look at the exit polls. Obviously, most people that agree with Trump on the issues voted for him. At least 40% of the country was always going to vote Republican regardless of the candidate. Where Trump did surprisingly well was in capturing voters who didn’t like him all that much.  60% of voters said Trump is not qualified to serve as president. 18% of these people voted for him anyway. 70% of voters said Trump’s treatment of women bothered them “a lot” or “some.” He got 11% and 75% of voters in these categories respectively. Just looking across the issues, a majority of voters align more closely with Clinton on almost every one. Trump won anyway.

How did he do it? Probably the most revealing category showed that 39% of voters said the primary reason they voted was because their candidate “can bring change.” Trump won 83% of them.

This wasn’t a positive vote, but a negative one. Not a vote for Trump so much as one against Clinton. Not for deportation or tariffs or any specific policy, but against the status quo. Against the arrogance, the paternalism, the elitism. Against the look. And I think it’s misplaced. I don’t think Trump will bring the kinds of change that so many desire. But I can understand the impulse. Because for a brief moment standing at the voting booth on November 8, 2016, I felt it too.