Schools of Thought

If you’re at all familiar with the schools of thought in economics, you may wonder where I stand. Am I a Keynesian? Or perhaps a post-Keynesian? A New Keynesian? A neo-Keynesian (not to be confused)? A neo-paleo-Keynesian? Or am I a Monetarist? Or a Modern Monetary Theorist? Or perhaps something more heterodox, like an Austrian or a Sraffian or a Marxist?

No, I am none of those things. I guess if you insist on labeling, you could call me a “cognitivist”; and in terms of policy I tend to agree with the Keynesians, but I also like the Modern Monetary Theorists.

But really I think this sort of labeling of ‘schools of thought’ is exactly the problem. There shouldn’t be schools of thought; the universe only works one way. When you don’t know the answer, you should have the courage to admit you don’t know. And once we actually have enough evidence to know something, people need to stop disagreeing about it. If you continue to disagree with what the evidence has shown, you’re not a ‘school of thought’; you’re just wrong.

The whole notion of ‘schools of thought’ smacks of cultural relativism; asking what the ‘Keynesian’ answer to a question is (and if you take enough economics classes I guarantee you will be asked exactly that) is rather like asking what religious beliefs prevail in a particular part of the world. It might be worth asking for some historical reason, but it’s not a question about economics; it’s a question about economic beliefs. This is the difference between asking how people believe the universe was created, and actually being a cosmologist. True, schools of thought aren’t as geographically localized as religions; but they do say the words ‘saltwater’ and ‘freshwater’ for a reason. I’m not all that interested in the Shinto myths versus the Hindu myths; I want to be a cosmologist.

At best, schools of thought are a sign of a field that hasn’t fully matured. Perhaps there were Newtonians and Einsteinians in 1910; but by 1930 there were just Einsteinians and bad physicists. Are there ‘schools of thought’ in physics today? Well, there are string theorists. But string theory hasn’t been a glorious success of physics advancement; on the contrary, it’s been a dead end from which the field has somehow failed to extricate itself for almost 50 years.

So where does that put us in economics? Well, some of the schools of thought are clearly dead ends, every bit as unfounded as string theory but far worse because they have direct influences on policy. String theory hasn’t ever killed anyone; bad economics definitely has. (How, you ask? Exposure to hazardous chemicals that were deregulated; poverty and starvation due to cuts to social welfare programs; and of course the Second Depression. I could go on.)

The worst offender is surely Austrian economics and its crazy cousin Randian libertarianism. Ayn Rand literally ruled a cult; Friedrich Hayek never took it quite that far, but there is certainly something cultish about Austrian economists. They insist that economics must be derived a priori, without recourse to empirical evidence (or at least that’s what they say when you point out that all the empirical evidence is against them). They are fond of ridiculous hyperbole about an inevitable slippery slope between raising taxes on capital gains and turning into Stalin’s Soviet Union, as well as rhetorical questions I find myself answering opposite to how they want (like “For are taxes not simply another form of robbery?” and “Once we allow the government to regulate what man can do, will they not continue until they control all aspects of our lives?”). They even co-opt and distort cognitivist concepts like herd instinct and asymmetric information; somehow Austrians think that asymmetric information is an argument for why markets are more efficient than government, even though Akerlof’s point was that asymmetric information is why we need regulations.

Marxists are on the opposite end of the political spectrum, but their ideas are equally nonsensical. (Marx himself was a bit more reasonable, but even he recognized they were going too far: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”) They have this whole “labor theory of value” thing where the value of something is the amount of work you have to put into it. This would mean that labor-saving innovations are pointless, because they devalue everything; it would also mean that putting an awful lot of work into something useless would nevertheless somehow make it enormously valuable. Really, it would never be worth doing much of anything, because the value you get out of something is exactly equal to the work you put in. Marxists also tend to think that what the world needs is a violent revolution to overthrow the bondage of capitalism; this is an absolutely terrible idea. During the transition it would be one of the bloodiest conflicts in history; afterward you’d probably get something like the Soviet Union or modern-day Venezuela. Even if you did somehow establish your glorious Communist utopia, you’d have destroyed so much productive capacity in the process that you’d make everyone poor. Socialist reforms make sense—and have worked well in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. But socialist revolution is a a good way to get millions of innocent people killed.

Sraffians are also quite silly; they have this bizarre notion that capital must be valued as “dated labor”, basically a formalized Marxism. I’ll admit, it’s weird how neoclassicists try to value labor as “human capital”; frankly it’s a bit disturbing how it echoes slavery. (And if you think slavery is dead, think again; it’s dead in the First World, but very much alive elsewhere.) But the solution to that problem is not to pretend that capital is a form of labor; it’s to recognize that capital and labor are different. Capital can be owned, sold, and redistributed; labor cannot. Labor is done by human beings, who have intrinsic value and rights; capital is made of inanimate matter, which does not. (This is what makes Citizens United so outrageous; “corporations are people” and “money is speech” are such fundamental distortions of democratic principles that they are literally Orwellian. We’re not that far from “freedom is slavery” and “war is peace”.)

Neoclassical economists do better, at least. They do respond to empirical data, albeit slowly. Their models are mathematically consistent. They rarely take account of human irrationality or asymmetric information, but when they do they rightfully recognize them as obstacles to efficient markets. But they still model people as infinite identical psychopaths, and they still divide themselves into schools of thought. Keynesians and Monetarists are particularly prominent, and Modern Monetary Theorists seem to be the next rising star. Each of these schools gets some things right and other things wrong, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t make ourselves beholden to a particular tribe.

Monetarists follow Friedman, who said, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” This is wrong. You can definitely cause inflation without expanding your money supply; just ramp up government spending as in World War 2 or suffer a supply shock like we did when OPEC cut the oil supply. (In both cases, the US money supply was still tied to gold by the Bretton Woods system.) But they are right about one thing: To really have hyperinflation ala Weimar or Zimbabwe, you probably have to be printing money. If that were all there is to Monetarism, I can invert another Friedmanism: We’re all Monetarists now.

Keynesians are basically right about most things; in particular, they are the only branch of neoclassicists who understand recessions and know how to deal with them. The world’s most famous Keynesian is probably Krugman, who has the best track record of economic predictions in the popular media today. Keynesians much better appreciate the fact that humans are irrational; in fact, cognitivism can be partly traced to Keynes, who spoke often of the “animal spirits” that drive human behavior (Akerlof’s most recent book is called Animal Spirits). But even Keynesians have their sacred cows, like the Phillips Curve, the alleged inverse correlation between inflation and unemployment. This is fairly empirically accurate if you look just at First World economies after World War 2 and exclude major recessions. But Keynes himself said, “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” The Phillips Curve “shifts” sometimes, and it’s not always clear why—and empirically it’s not easy to tell the difference between a curve that shifts a lot and a relationship that just isn’t there. There is very little evidence for a “natural rate of unemployment”. Worst of all, it’s pretty clear that the original policy implications of the Phillips Curve are all wrong; you can’t get rid of unemployment just by ramping up inflation, and that way really does lie Zimbabwe.

Finally, Modern Monetary Theorists understand money better than everyone else. They recognize that a sovereign government doesn’t have to get its money “from somewhere”; it can create however much money it needs. The whole narrative that the US is “out of money” isn’t just wrong, it’s incoherent; if there is one entity in the world that can never be out of money, it’s the US government, who print the world’s reserve currency. The panicked fears of quantitative easing causing hyperinflation aren’t quite as crazy; if the economy were at full capacity, printing $4 trillion over 5 years (yes, we did that) would absolutely cause some inflation. Since that’s only about 6% of US GDP, we might be back to 8% or even 10% inflation like the 1970s, but we certainly would not be in Zimbabwe. Moreover, we aren’t at full capacity; we needed to expand the money supply that much just to maintain prices where they are. The Second Depression is the Red Queen: It took all the running we could do to stay in one place. Modern Monetary Theorists also have some very good ideas about taxation; they point out that since the government only takes out the same thing it puts in—its own currency—it doesn’t make sense to say they are “taking” something (let alone “confiscating” it as Austrians would have you believe). Instead, it’s more like they are pumping it, taking money in and forcing it back out continuously. And just as pumping doesn’t take away water but rather makes it flow, taxation and spending doesn’t remove money from the economy but rather maintains its circulation. Now that I’ve said what they get right, what do they get wrong? Basically they focus too much on money, ignoring the real economy. They like to use double-entry accounting models, perfectly sensible for money, but absolutely nonsensical for real value. The whole point of an economy is that you can get more value out than you put in. From the Homo erectus who pulls apples from the trees to the software developer who buys a mansion, the reason they do it is that the value they get out (the gatherer gets to eat, the programmer gets to live in a mansion) is higher than the value they put in (the effort to climb the tree, the skill to write the code). If, as Modern Monetary Theorists are wont to do, you calculated a value for the human capital of the gatherer and the programmer equal to the value of the goods they purchase, you’d be missing the entire point.

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