So, just what is this economics stuff good for?

Mark Wadsworth asks us an interesting question:

Reading this and this got me thinking.

If we think that we know all this stuff, the temptation - on the part of prodnoses – is to use it to interfere.

Alternatively we could think of economics as a discipline that tells us why we need to tell those prodnoses to bugger off.?  That is its best purpose.  Telling people why they should NOT do stuff.

Is economics best use as a negative or positive thing?

Discuss and inform me.

The answer comes from Ben Bernanke:

Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much. However, careful economic analysis does have one important benefit, which is that it can help kill ideas that are completely logically inconsistent or wildly at variance with the data. This insight covers at least 90 percent of proposed economic policies.

Yes, sometimes we can propose sensible things as a result of having consulted the economic runes. But the real value is that 90% of the time we can tell damn fools that their damn fool plans are damned foolish.

Nationalisation, rent controls, price controls of all kinds, trade barriers, infant industry protection….there’s a long list of things that people propose again and again, even if vanquished they’ll pop up a generation later. The value of economics is that not only can we point out that they’re damned foolish but even why they’re damned foolish.

Economists are morally superior beings, scientifically proven that is

A lovely paper discovered by Paul Walker over in the land where Kiwis live standing on their heads:

Does an economics education affect an individual’s behavior? It is unclear whether differences in behavior are due to the education or whether those who choose to study economics are different. This issue is addressed using experimental evidence from the Trust Game where trusting and reciprocating behaviors can be measured. First, it is shown that economics students provide greater trusting investments and reciprocate more. Accounting for the selection effect, these effects are explained by those who choose to study economics and not directly from the education being provided. Thus, economists play well with others and these social preferences are not taught in the classroom.

We who have studied economics are thus morally superior because we do play nicely with others: the reasons being that playing nicely with others is the reason we went to study economics.

Well, Hurrah! for that.

However, this does pose a problem for us as we try to explain it to others. For we’re, in some manner, captivated by those very examples of playing nicely together than the market offers us. We can see how competition is the method by which we decide who to cooperate with and that the vast majority of economic activity isn’t in fact competition at all, it’s cooperation. The seemingly vast and impersonal market itself is simply a description of how we all, the many billions of us, choose to cooperate to our mutual advantage.

Great, excellent and it’s all true. But note what the paper is telling us. We’re, because we chose to study economics, inclined to believe all of that anyway as that’s the way our own personalities work. But our task is to get across the points about such cooperation to those who simply do not have those same basic beliefs about human behaviour that we do. No wonder it sometimes comes out as a dialogue of the deaf: we don’t get what they don’t believe at root, that humans are naturally cooperative beings and markets are the way that we do this.

Thus, we might posit, the existence of this idea that trade, the economy itself, is a zero sum game. We have one view of human nature, they another and the fact that ours is correct doesn’t matter so much as the fact that they don’t believe us or the main point itself.


Companies are the cells of the economy

An interesting point being made by Ronald Coase here:

Wang: Microeconomics is about demand and supply. Compared with classical economics, marginal analysis clearly offers a deeper understanding of consumer choice. But I don’t think it is equally powerful in explicating production, the supply side of the economy.

Coase: To understand production, we have to go back to Adam Smith’s division of labor. It serves well as a starting point, even though the modern economy today has become far more complicated.

Wang: This must be Smith’s most undeserving failure. Modern economics is built on Smith’s framework of the “invisible hand”. But it leaves no room for the division of labor.

Coase: Modern economics shows little interest in production. I am not sure production function tells us anything about production in the economy.

Wang: Adam Smith used the pin factory as an example to develop his analysis of the division of labor. Today, to investigate the division of labor, we can no longer afford to confine our focus to a single firm. Instead, we have to study the organizational structure of production.

Coase: That’s right. The firm remains the cell of the economy, but the intricate relations and constant interactions among the cells determine economic dynamism.

It’s that last line that so particularly interests me. For it’s often pointed out that companies are little sections of a command economy and thus, some leap to say, obviously it’s possible to have a command economy because we actually do.

It’s possible however to run Coase’s analogy in two ways. One is to make that distinction between the cell itself and the entire organism, which do run to different rules. Another might be to compare it to physics: we know very well that there are entirely different rules at the quantum level and at the macro.

Any such analogy can be pushed too far of course but with the economy that cell might well be subject to central planning: but it’s the interaction of all of those limited plans which leads to the vibrancy of the economy as a whole. We as entire human beings cannot and do not work by the same rules that apply at the cellular level: nor do economies work well subject to the same rules that might apply at the company or organisational level.

A simple point on railway nationalisation

One point people bring up when they advocate renationalising railways (or renationalising stuff in general) is that when private companies run something they take a chunk of the total surplus in profit, but if the government were in control, that could go to them. But there’s a very basic reason why this isn’t the case: opportunity cost.

A firm, in doing business, puts capital to use. It uses a mix of physical and human capital and devotes it toward achieving tasks in order, usually, to turn a profit. The best way to measure the amount of capital tied up in a project is the market’s assessment thereof—the firm’s market capitalisation—although of course we know that market prices are never perfectly accurate, since they are only on their way to an ever-changing equilibrium, and they may not have got there yet. And what’s more, not all the relevant information will always be in the public domain.

For rail franchises—or TOCs (Train Operating Companies), as they seem to call themselves—it is relatively hard to pinpoint the exact amount of capital they are using, as they are usually subdivisions of a larger structure. But suffice to say, running trains involves tying up money on the order of billions, whoever does it (i.e. it includes Directly Operated Railways, the state body that is currently running the East Coast Mainline pretty well). You have to rent the rolling stock (trains), pay the staff, buy the fuel, pay to use the track and so on.

From this capital you get a return. TOC margins average about 4% over the last ten years. The average company got more like 10%. FTSE100 companies seem to enjoy higher returns. Of course, operating profits are not share returns, but they tell more or less the same story. The extra couple dozen billion the government would need to spend on trains could equally be spent on equities or anywhere else for more or less the same risk-adjusted return. The return they got here could be put into trains.

But even doing this makes no sense. If the government returns that couple dozen billion to the population at large, the government can tax the income that the private citizens make on the wealth, at a glance dealing with the problems of governments holding wealth—principally: they are not very good at picking winners. Or they could pay off debt and reduce their repayment costs—since the risk-adjusted return of gilts is priced in just the same way as other assets.

Either way, and whether or not rail re-nationalisation makes sense from any other perspective, it is simply not the case that government, by nationalising rail, could get a bit of extra cash to put into our network.

What glories this capitalist free market thing hath wrought

There’s nothing worse than being exploited by some running lackey pig dog of a capitalist, as Deirdre McCloskey reminds us:

The aim of the true Liberal should not be equality but “lifting up those below him.” It is to be achieved not by redistribution but by free trade and compulsory education and women’s rights.

And it came to pass. In the UK since 1800, or Italy since 1900, or Hong Kong since 1950, real income per head has increased by a factor of anywhere from 15 to 100, depending on how one allows for the improved quality of steel girders and plate glass, medicine and economics.

In relative terms, the poorest people in the developed economies and billions in the poor countries have been the biggest beneficiaries. The rich became richer, true. But the poor have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, cheap travel, rights for women, low child mortality, adequate nutrition, taller bodies, doubled life expectancy, schooling for their kids, newspapers, a vote, a shot at university and respect.

Never had anything similar happened, not in the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome, not in ancient Egypt or medieval China. What I call The Great Enrichment is the main fact and finding of economic history.

It’s that penultimate sentence which is so important. There have most certainly been many attempts at designing economic systems: there have been even more that just sorta happened out of voluntary interactions. But there’s only one of them that has actually managed what we are all the lucky, lucky, beneficiaries of. That is, one economic method of organisation that has led to a substantial, sustained, increase in the standard of living of the average woman on the Clapham Omnibus.

Nothing else, nothing planned nor nothing unplanned, has managed this. And that really is the main fact and finding of economic history. It’s the one unique even in it too. McCloskey, you and I, we might differ on the details of how it all happened but we shouldn’t allow minor disagreements over precedence between the flea and the louse to obscure the manner in which we’re all feeding off that larger truth. That nothing else does work as well as those largely bourgeois virtues plus economic and social liberty.