Can economists be trusted?

For the most part, economists don’t give people advice on how to run their lives. Rather we tend to focus on explaining the behavior of consumers and businesses, usually assuming they are at least somewhat rational. One exception is when there is a “principal-agent problem”, the case where the people you hire (the agents) have interests that differ from you own interest.

Thus economists might advise someone to be a bit skeptical if one’s dentist recommends that you get a new crown. Is it actually needed, or is the dentist merely trying to pad his income?

There is one area where economists are especially likely to give advice–personal investments. The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) suggests that it’s extremely hard for financial advisors to consistently beat the market. Because these professionals must be paid for their services, managed mutual funds tend to do worse, on average, than index funds. Thus almost all economists that I know recommend that average people invest in index funds.

Because of the EMH, the field of economics has its own distinct epistemology. We believe in the wisdom of markets. We believe that the optimal forecast of many economic variables is embedded in the consensus market forecast. AFAIK, other sciences don’t use this approach to ascertain what is true. Thus meteorologists don’t typically assume that a prediction market forecast of global temperatures in the year 2050 represents the optimal forecast, even were such a market to exist.

On the other hand, I do wonder if economists are being consistent in the way they apply concepts such as the principal-agent problem and the EMH. Doesn’t our criticism of managed mutual funds apply equally well to our own profession? Consider the following two approaches to policy:

1. Most economists seem to believe that it makes sense for our profession to do a lot of research on the macroeconomy, and then base our monetary policy on forecasts derived from computer models of the economy.

2. I believe that much of this research is wasteful, and that monetary policy should be guided by market forecasts of the relevant economic variables.

In order to see who’s right, let’s take the same analytical framework that makes economists so critical of the managed mutual fund industry and direct it toward our own field. We immediately see two problems. Just as with the financial industry, it is in the best interest of economists if society spends a lot of money financing research on predicting future macroeconomic outcomes. These are good jobs!

Second, the EMH suggests that the output of these investigations will be inferior to the consensus market forecast, and yet we usually argue that policymakers should rely on our computer models, not the consensus market forecast. Thus we seem to be dismissing the value of the EMH when it comes to our own profession, after using the EMH as a bludgeon to bash the financial services industry.

Of course one could argue that research by individual economists is a valuable input into the market forecast of inflation and GDP, but one could equally well argue that research by individual financial experts is a valuable input into the market pricing of assets.

And even if economic research should be subsidized because information has external benefits, that does not justify using a particular Fed model to set policy, rather than the market forecast.

Economists are also “agents”, and our self-interest is not the same as society’s self-interest. On the other hand, I’m also an economist, so why should you believe me? My self-interest might be to carve out a career as a contrarian.

I would respond as follows. I’m not trying to brainwash you; I’m merely pointing to some implications of ideas that many of you already know, especially those with some background in economics.  Back in 1996 (when he was defending free trade), Paul Krugman gave four suggestions to people trying to become public intellectuals.  This one struck home:

Adopt the stance of rebel: There is nothing that plays worse in our culture than seeming to be the stodgy defender of old ideas, no matter how true those ideas may be. Luckily, at this point the orthodoxy of the academic economists is very much a minority position among intellectuals in general; one can seem to be a courageous maverick, boldly challenging the powers that be, by reciting the contents of a standard textbook. It has worked for me!

That’s what I did in my new book, which comes out this summer.  And that’s what I’m doing here.  The principal-agent problem and the EMH are well-established ideas.  And it is well known that economists are highly skeptical of managed mutual funds, and often recommend indexed funds.  In this post, I’m merely pointing to the implication of applying this sort of analysis to my own profession.  Don’t automatically believe what I say—think about whether it makes sense.

After all, my best interest doesn’t coincide with your best interest.

PS.  You might argue that asset markets don’t exist for some key macro variables.  But that’s no excuse; the Fed can create them.

PPS.  Part 2 of my MMT critique is now out.  Now there’s a theory that categorically rejects the EMH!!


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The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns

Last Friday, February 19, I gave about a 1.6 hour Zoom talk to Ryan Sullivan’s class at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It was titled “Don’t Forget What We Know: The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns.”

Here it is.

By the way, the most surprising thing I heard from Jeremy Horpedahl in his debate/discussion with Phil Magness is that when there’s an externality, there’s a presumption in favor of government intervention. I disagree and I say why at about the 28:50 point.

The Commissar Komisar discussion at 54:27 is based on a short blog post I did here.


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Private versus Government

In his textbook Public Finance, 7th edition, 2005, Princeton University emeritus professor of economics Harvey S. Rosen, discussing the idea that incentives to monitor are better in the private sector than in government, quotes Adam Smith’s statement to that effect in The Wealth of Nations. He also gives a famous modern example. Rosen writes:

Anecdotal evidence for this viewpoint abounds. One celebrated case involved New York City, which spent $12 million attempting to rebuild the ice-skating rink in Central Park between 1980 and 1986. [DRH note: think about that–that’s 6 years.] The main problem was that the contractors were trying to use a new technology for making Iceland it did not work. In 1986, after spending $200,000 on a study to find out what went wrong, city officials learned they would have to start all over. In June 1986, real estate developer Donald J. Trump offered to take over the project and have it completed by December of that year for about $2.5 million. Trump finished the rink three weeks ahead of schedule and $750,000 under projected cost.

I remembered this passage when I was preparing for a Zoom interview on Monday with a high school senior in Arizona. He asked good questions and I gave him this example and a number of others.


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Boris Johnson’s reopening plan

On Twitter, Ryan Bourne links to a series of tweets by Ben Riley-Smith, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph, on Boris Johnson’s reopening plan. Ryan’s comment is: “Why are the UK guidance and laws so much more specific and prescriptive than anywhere else? Absurd level of micromanagement”. If you read Riley-Smith’s tweets (which, if I understand correctly, are based upon political rumor), you will indeed be left with a similar question.

It is notable, and troubling, how much “planning” has been going on in these matters. This is the consequence of an approach of fighting the pandemic in which most governments renounced early on the idea of using rules, as general as possible in these difficult times, and choosing instead a discretionary approach. Discretion has two benefits: on the one hand, it allows for faster adaptation as the pandemic situation evolves. On the other hand, it makes it easier for people in power to claim credit for whatever advancement recorded in the struggle with the virus.

But by using prohibitions and bans, rather than rules, and emphasizing the government’s power to impose and revise plans for the whole of society, we are wasting the opportunity to mobilize knowledge and creativity on a larger scale. Your grocer is not an epidemiologist, and his opinions on the virus’ variants, for example, are unlikely to be particularly well-founded. But if you tell him that he can have a certain number of people per hour / per square meter in his shop, or that he can stay open provided he copes with a certain degree of social distancing, he is likely to busy himself in contriving ways to keep open and complying with the rule at the same time.

Since the virus is a collective problem, governments have all somehow assumed that there can be no bottom up solutions. But the “struggle against the virus”, by any practical purpose, is in fact a series of attempts and actions aiming at keeping our lives together and similar to what they were before, as much as possible despite the pandemic. These attempts and actions could benefit a great deal from bottom-up, trial-and-errors endeavor. Governments have chosen to do without them. This may increase the costs of non pharmacological interventions, but it also means that we won’t benefit from tinkering solutions. It is an old story: the government assumes its experts have superior knowledge. When it comes to the virus, it is likely to be true. When it comes to how to adapt our lives to the fact the virus exists, perhaps no.


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Terence Kealey on the British ARPA

Terence Kealey has an excellent piece in CapX on the influence of Mariana Mazzucato’s work on the British “conservative” government. Boris Johnson has announced a new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a brainchild of his controversial advisor Dominic Cummings. It is an ambitious effort, as the government itself describes it as a “new research agency to support high risk, high reward science”. Here you can see the reaction of a few scientists who welcomed the news.

Terence begs to differ, and he does so by writing a short history of ARPA in the US, which he considers more a case of government failure than one of successful, “mission-oriented” public spending. At the very end of his piece, Terence reminds that some of Johnson’s voters, and Brexit fans, may have hoped to see the government shrinking once they regained “independence” from the EU. Sadly, they are going to be disappointed:

Some Brexiteers had hoped that leaving the EU would be a chance to shrink the state. Sadly for them, Boris Johnson knows he’s Prime Minister only because of the votes of the ‘left behind’, and such folk are none too keen on the bracing winds of competition: they are keen on high public spending, subsidies, and a corporate state within which they can find shelter.

And boy, is Johnson delivering for them, starting with an industrial policy based on vast corporate welfare – starting with research.

I am not so sure what the “left behind” would make of the building of a “British ARPA”. Is that helping in any way the left-behinds? I suppose the Johnsons of this world would make the case that the new agency is indirectly strengthening British business, keeping it at the frontier of technology and thus “saving jobs” from globalization and international trade. It is sort of variation of the old argument for infant industry protection.

But I also suppose that the left-behinds do care about improvements in their lives- here and now- and it is harder to make the case that a British ARPA would play any role in providing them with better job opportunities, or strengthening their purchasing power, or safeguarding their savings. It may please them as a symbol: the British flag waving over science- be proud of your government because it invests in science. We tend to overestimate the role of interests in real-life politics, but my takeaway from the last few years of ramping populism is that most of the time, people do not vote thinking of their immediate interests. They are mesmerized by symbols, and happy to be fed with them.


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In Praise of CVS

As I mentioned in a recent post, Monterey County, where I live, is behind almost every other part of the country in achieving vaccinations.

Enter CVS.

Last Friday, my wife, Rena, got on a user-friendly CVS site to see where she could get vaccinated. She was still working with it when I left for work. I have a 10-minute commute. A minute after I arrived at work, she called and told me that she had an appointment for the following Monday, Feb. 15, in Capitola, about 45 minutes north of us. She told me how to get on and find an appointment. I got on the site and it seemed that everything had been taken. I called her and told her that.

Rena said, “You always give up too early. Let me try it. How far are you willing to drive?”

“Quite far,” I said. I was picturing driving 2 or 3 hours to Modesto or Fresno. Ten minutes later she called back and had an appointment for me on the next day, Saturday, Feb. 13, in Santa Clara, a 75-minute drive each way. I drove up there the next day. I called a friend on the way, a fellow Canadian who had come with me to UCLA in 1972, and told him that I hadn’t been that excited since getting my green card. A couple of hours later, I got the Moderna shot.

Thank you, CVS. I like you so much more than the Monterey County government.


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The Communist Trabant

In a comment on co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s post this morning, I mentioned the fact that in the 1980s, star East German figure skater Katarina Witt was given a Trabant as a reward for her productivity. Many East Germans were allowed to buy Trabants but, as with most consumer items, there was a lengthy queue.

Here’s a video about the Trabant. Watch it and you get some appreciation for what East Germans thought of as a reward for outstanding performance.

A couple of facts:

The top speed was under 6o mph.

It was a 2-stroke engine that achieved 26 mph.

Watch the video and you’ll learn a lot more about this Communist consumer item.

Personal story

In October 1999, I taught an economics course  in the MBA program in Prague run by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Wandering around Prague during my off time, I saw a handful of Trabants on the road. In October 2000, I was back to teach again and I didn’t see a single Trabant on the road.

After Communism, Trabants were replaced largely by Skodas. The comparison between the two is stark.




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Will Walmart Save America?

My question is only partly rhetorical. Just two days after I published my post “Vaccine Adventures,” I read in the Wall Street Journal that the federal and state governments had started allocating vaccines to large pharmacy chains, including Walmart (Sharon Terlep and Jaewon Kang, “CVS and Walmart Decide Who Gets Leftover Covid-19 Vaccine Doses,” February 11). After reading this story in the wee hours of February 12, I went on Walmart’s website and, in just a few minutes, made myself an appointment for six days later. Appointments are available at 20-minute intervals during the whole day.

The efficiency of Walmart is legendary despite its being a behemoth, just as the inefficiency of the government is legendary because it is a behemoth (and other reasons explored by the economics of public choice).

Yesterday, another Wall Street Journal story described the rollout of Walmart’s Covid-19 vaccination (Sarah Nassauer, “Walmart’s Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Heads to Small Town,” February 14). To get an idea of “what the weather [is] really like on earth” (le vrai temps qu’il fait sur la terre) to borrow an expression from Saint-Exupéry (in his novel Southern Mail or Courrier Sud), a few quotes from this Wall Street Journal story are useful:

Skowhegan, Maine—Pat and John Thomas were watching the news one night last week when they saw that Walmart in this central Maine town of 8,000 people was taking appointments for the Covid-19 vaccination. They had signed up for shots at a hospital about a month ago but still hadn’t heard back. Ms. Thomas, a 74-year-old retiree, jumped on the computer.

On Friday the couple got the Skowhegan Walmart’s first doses …

Walmart Inc., the U.S.’s largest retailer and private employer, is set to become one of the biggest distributors of the Covid-19 vaccine as the federal government enlists retail pharmacies to accelerate what has been a choppy rollout. …

Walmart is likely to benefit in other ways. Many of the people getting the vaccine at the Skowhegan store Friday didn’t previously have patient profiles in Walmart’s system, said [regional Walmart manager] Mr. Tozier. “We are making relationships with new patients,” he said.

Ann Jackson and her husband, Norman Jackson, 73 and 76 years old respectively, arrived for their vaccine appointment midmorning after waiting for weeks to get an appointment at the local hospital, said Ms. Jackson. Later, she added chips, bananas and T-shirts to her cart. “You never want to waste the trip to Walmart,” she said.

Contrary to what I implied in my previous post, there seem to be incentives enough for private pharmacies, at least those with a Walmart sort of efficient logistics, to administer Covid-19 vaccines when Big Brother releases them.

Such recourse to private enterprise could partly protect us from the central planners in DC and the state capitals. But why give the vaccines to some private organizations but not others—say, to Walmart but not to Hannaford? Is it because the central planners know better where demand is most intense or where low-cost distribution is most likely? That would possibly be a first in the history of mankind.

It would have been much more efficient, from the beginning, if the government had sold the vaccines to whoever was willing to buy them in order to make a profit and had given vouchers to whoever wanted to be vaccinated. After this redistribution of purchasing power, the market—that is, individual demands—would have decided where the vaccines should go.


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Vaccine Adventures

Following up on information that Covid-19 vaccines were available there, I walked into the small Maine pharmacy. I saw nobody inside, not even at the cash register. I continued to the back of the store: nobody manned the two counters of the pharmacist’s hideout. I stood in front of one. After just a few minutes, an employee appeared on the other side.

“Could I see the pharmacist?” I asked.

The pharmacist came.

“I have been told that you have Covid vaccines,” I said.

“We have a waiting list,” she replied.

I asked to be put on it but she would not, or could not, tell me when they were likely to phone me for an appointment. I recognized something like the Canadian health system, under which I lived for decades.

“Is it a matter of days, weeks, months, or years,” I asked.

“Days. At least.”

That looked good, except for the “at least.” In some of the on-line and mortar-and-brick places, there is not even a queue you can get at the back of.

At this stage, the actual vaccines don’t seem to be the problem. In the United States, the manufacturers have delivered twice as many vaccines as have been administered. According to the Wall Street Journal (Jared S. Hopkins and Arian Camp-Flores, “Demand for Covid-19 Vaccines Overwhelms State Health Providers,” February 8, 2021),

[a]lthough state officials often cite limited vaccine supply, manufacturers are producing largely on schedule. Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. since December have supplied about 60 million doses, nearly one-third of the 200 million the companies together must deliver by the end of March.

State governments are supposed to distribute the vaccines that the federal government, after literally monopolizing the market, makes available to them. The length of the queues varies from place to place, perhaps depending partly on the success of whatever entrepreneurship can creep into what is basically a socialized distribution system. One Missouri hospital has a waiting list of 100,000 names and no vaccine left. Queues are not an efficient way to ration demand.

In the former Soviet Union, the government always had an excuse for shortages. The real problem was different: no private property, no market prices to signal scarcities, and no free entrepreneurship to respond to the signals.

In America, once the federal government has purchased them, the Covid vaccines are priced at zero, which implies that government allocation is required. At a zero price, demand is much larger than the quantity that bureaucrats can supply. The fee governments pay providers (hospitals, pharmacies, and such) for administering the vaccines may not be higher than the latter’s cost. For example, Medicare pays about $40 for administering the two doses of the currently available vaccines. In a flash of economic realism, Joe Biden has expressed some concern that this fee may not be sufficient.

It is no consolation that all governments in the “free” world have adopted similar policies. No “American exceptionalism” here.

For Soviet agricultural production, the weather was often the excuse. For Covid vaccines, we are told that “the supply chain” and logistics are the problem. The Wall Street Journal‘s Jennifer Smith reported (“Mass Vaccination Sites Will Mean Scaling Up Logistics Coordination,” January 30, 2021):

Other local health departments might need information technology help to cope with overwhelmed appointment systems, or assistance with planning and sourcing the labor, supplies and procedures needed to administer hundreds of shots a day. “People underestimate that this is a massive logistics operation,” Dr. Wen said. “That type of expertise is often missing in state and local public health.”

But except for governments—that is, political and bureaucratic processes—that should not be an unsurmountable logistics problem. Private businesses without central coordination produce and deliver the food, in innumerable configurations, for the daily meals of 320 million Americans. Recall the Russian official who, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, asked British economist Paul Seabright, “Who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?”

In 2020, Amazon shipped 4.5 billion packages to American consumers—more than 12 million per day. The UPS hub in Louisville, Kentucky has a five-million-square-foot facility for sorting and treating more than 400,000 packages or documents per day. The hub sees 387 inbound or outbound flights daily from the company’s fleet of nearly 600 aircraft. What is more impressive is to think of the millions of individuals around the country and around the world who work in long and diverse supply chains to provide the equipment and inputs necessary for UPS’s operations. We are reminded of Leonard Read 1958 essay I, Pencil, which explains how the manufacture of a simple pencil requires the voluntary cooperation of a multitude of individuals producing, without a mastermind, the zinc, the copper, the graphite, and the equipment to make pencils out of that, and all the equipment for producing that equipment, and so on.

Although working under no central direction, these innumerable people who contribute to the production of pencils or UPS’s equipment and supplies are coordinated by markets (supply and demand) and the prices that signal what is needed where.

Compare this to the federal government’s “centralized system to order, distribute, and track COVID-19 vaccines” in which “all vaccines will be ordered through the CDC” (see the description by Anthony Fauci’s shop: COVID-19 Vaccine Questions and Answers, accessed February 10, 2021), the price for the final consumer is zero, and providers are paid fees determined by bureaucrats. No wonder the distribution runs into problems. The contrary would be surprising.

Note that the vaccine could still be free for the final customer if the federal government had simply subsidized consumers for their vaccine purchases (with vouchers, for example) and had let markets, entrepreneurship, competition, and prices distribute the stuff. And it wouldn’t take ages, luck, and some humility to put one’s hands on the thing—or one’s arm under the syringe.

The consumer who wants a vaccine gets a small taste of what French philosopher Raymond Ruyer, in his 1969 book Éloge de la société de consommation (In Praise of the Consumer Society), described as the difference between a market economy, where the consumer is sovereign, and a planned economy, where the producer runs the show (under government’s control):

In a market economy, demand gives orders and supply is supplicant . . . In a planned economy, supply give orders and demand is supplicant.

« Dans l’économie de marché, la demande est impérieuse, et l’offre suppliante (the supply is supplying). Dans l’économie planifiée, l’offre est impérieuse, et la demande suppliante. »


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John Kay on Mariana Mazzucato’s Capitalism

In the Financial Times John Kay reviews the new book by Mariana Mazzucato. The book is called Mission Economy. A Moonshot Guide to Change Capitalism.

Mazzucato, like she did before, argues for governments “creating market” and “steering” capitalism in one direction or another. Ambitious goals should fuel mission-oriented capitalism, with government at the helm.

Kay has many excellent points but I particularly commend these:

But Apollo was a success because the objective was specific and limited; the basic science was well understood, even if many subsidiary technological developments were needed to make the mission feasible; and the political commitment to the project was sufficiently strong to make budget overruns almost irrelevant. Centrally directed missions have sometimes succeeded when these conditions are in place; Apollo was a response to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a human into space, and the greatest achievement of the USSR was the mobilisation of resources to defeat Nazi Germany. Nixon’s war on cancer, explicitly modelled on the Apollo programme, was a failure because cancer is not a single illness and too little was then — or now — understood about the science of cell mutation. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a vain bid to create an industrial society within five years, proved to be one of the greatest economic and humanitarian disasters in human history. At least 30m people died. The ‘new frontier’ of the late 1960s turned out to be, not space, but IT — characterised by a striking absence of centralised vision and direction Democratic societies have more checks and balances to protect them from visionary leaders driven by missions and enthused by moonshots, but the characteristics which made the Great Leap Forward a catastrophe are nevertheless still evident in attenuated version. With political direction of innovation we regularly encounter grandiosity of ambition and scale; the belief that strength of commitment overcomes practical problems; an absence of honest feedback; the suppression of sceptical comment and marginalisation of sceptical commentators.

Read the whole thing.


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