Fri, 29 August 2014
A key difference between Austrian economics and the neoclassical-mathematical economics developed in the mid-twentieth century by Paul Samuelson and others is the assumption by the latter that people are essentially omniscient. What neoclassical economists call "rationality" effectively means omniscience. When the agents in neoclassical models face any uncertainty, the uncertainty is always fully understood in advance; for instance, a stock's value tomorrow might be drawn from a normal distribution with a known mean and variance. Without the assumption of omniscience, the Austrian school faces the important question of how people can make economic decisions in a complex, uncertain world.
Ludwig von Mises' answer (see his 1920 essay, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth) was that capitalist entrepreneurs calculate in monetary terms. That is, they use the prices of the immediate past as their starting data, and attempt to direct factors of production in such a way as to maximize the spread between costs and revenues. If their predictions of price changes are good, they earn profits. If their predictions are bad, they earn losses. Thus, their direction of scarce resources is subject to immediate and consequential feedback allowing a selective process for only the best entrepreneurial forecasting methods. Without monetary exchange and prices, the problem of directing factors of production to their highest uses becomes intractable.
An interesting thing about Mises' calculation argument is that it does not only relate to socialism, but to free, capitalist societies also. Mises states that, "Economic goods only have part in this system [of monetary calculation] in proportion to the extent to which they may be exchanged for money." Thus, when a good cannot be exchanged for money, for any reason, it is subject to a Misesian calculation problem.
One type of capital good that I have identified as facing a calculation problem is education. The present value of an education is nowhere represented as a market price. The rental rate of the education is represented in the price spread between educated and uneducated labour, but the present value of the education is not a price because the education itself cannot be exchanged.
The present value of the education would correspond to the expected discounted stream of income generated by the education, but this income is not represented in prices until years after the education is complete. Thus, students cannot use monetary calculation to allocate their time, funds, and efforts to being educated. They cannot refer to the present value price of the education in their initial estimation of the education's value, nor can they refer to that price to evaluate their decisions in real time.
In my view, the way to introduce economic rationality to education is to have a well-functioning market in student debt. Student debt can be priced in the market, and can thus be efficiently allocated according to monetary calculation. The value of a student loan is related to the value of the student's education. To the extent that the availability of credit can affect people's educational choices, lenders will be able to steer the allocation of resources towards more productive lines of education.
The student loan markets are not healthy, however, because of decades of government interventions intended to increase the availability of credit for students.
Garrett M. Petersen is an economics PhD student at Simon Fraser University. You can find him online at the economics detective blog.
Fri, 22 August 2014
In this episode, Ash Navabi discusses whether the Austrian School of Economics is a cult and the value of mathematics in economic theory. Ash is an economics student at Ryerson University.
Ash wrote an article responding to recent criticisms of the Austrian school by Keynesian bloggers Noah Smith and Paul Krugman. Krugman approvingly referenced Smith's attacks on the “hermetic system that is Austrians.” Just a week later he made the following telling comment about the economics mainstream:
"And modern academic economics is very much an interlocking set of old-boy networks; to some extent this has become even more true since the decline of the journals, with most discourse taking place via working papers long before formal publication. I used to refer to the international trade circuit as the floating crap game — the same 30 or 40 people meeting in conferences all over the world, reading and citing each others’ work; it’s the same in each sub-field. And to some extent it’s inevitable: there’s so much stuff out there, and you have to filter somehow, so you mainly read stuff by people you know and people they tell you are worth reading."
Ash was quick to point out that, by the logic of the people who deride Austrian economists as "cultish" because they interact mainly with one another, each of the "old-boy networks" Paul Krugman refers to (that is, each sub-field of mainstream economics) must also be a cult.
Gary Becker, another Nobel Laureate, referred to the Austrian school as a cult in a letter to Walter Block. Becker's definition of a cult was "a small number of dedicated followers who speak mainly to each other, and interact little with let us call them mainstream economists.” This definition is problematic, to say the least. When people hear the word "cult," they don't think of Becker's dry definition but of animal sacrifice and mass suicide. The word "cult" also implies unquestioning devotion to the cult leaders, but modern Austrians frequently criticize Mises and Hayek, in highly un-cultish fashion.
Ash also wrote an article on mathematical economics versus so-called "literary" economics. John Cochrane recently referred to non-mathematical economics as "literary," a mild slur that goes back at least as far as the 1940s when Mises responded to it in Human Action. The Austrian method is not "literary" in the sense of using airy prose and fuzzy logic, rather it uses a highly rigorous form of verbal logic to derive causal chains from the basic axioms of human action.
Mathematical economics forces economists to start their analyses from unrealistic assumptions in order to put all problems in mathematically tractable terms. However rigorous the mathematics itself is, the foundation is flawed so the conclusions are flawed.
Austrians conceive of economic theory as a descriptive science rather than a predictive one. That is, pure theory cannot tell you how the future will turn out, nor is a theory tested by its empirical predictions. An entrepreneur can have a true theory of how the economy works, and yet he can still make wrong predictions if he misjudges the actual factors at play.
Ash can be found online at the Mises Canada blog page.
Fri, 15 August 2014
In this episode, James Caton discusses the classical and inter-war gold standards. James is an economics PhD student at George Mason University.
Gold has many qualities that make it an ideal money: It is valuable, scarce, divisible, and easy to transport. It is also easy to verify the value of a given amount of gold: The Old Testament references weights and scales being used to measure gold. Ancient people could verify the purity of the gold by observing its water displacement.
Before 1870, only Great Britain was on a gold standard, while gold, silver, and other metals would circulate freely alongside one another throughout the rest of Europe. The classical gold standard began in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, when the victorious Germany demonetized silver in favour of gold and the rest of Western Europe followed suit (see Caton on the deflation that resulted from the demonetization of silver). America converted to the gold standard in 1879 upon redeeming the Civil War greenbacks for gold.
The classical gold standard operated as a fixed exchange rate regime. As England was the center of global finance, the Bank of England held a privileged position whereby other central banks would follow the Bank of England to keep their currencies constant against the Pound Sterling (see Eichengreen and Bordo). This was the case until the First World War.
Europe's governments suspended the convertibility of their currencies into gold during the First World War. These governments created a great deal of inflation to finance the war, but they were reluctant to devalue their exchange rates after the war had ended. They wanted to return to their pre-war exchange rates.
At this point, the Fed did something crazy: It slashed the US money stock by over 40%, increasing demand for gold, and causing a general deflation. Before 1925, as gold flowed into the United States, the Fed did not increase the monetary base in tandem with the increasing gold stock, thus sterilizing the gold inflows' influence on prices. After 1925, when Europe returned to the gold standard, the Federal Reserve did increase the monetary base alongside the gold stock. The typical Austrian narrative about the Great Depression (see Robbins and Rothbard) blames the Fed for the 1920s inflation that created an unsustainable boom resulting in the eventual crash that became the Great Depression. However, James disagrees with the blame put on the Fed in this story, as the ratio between the base money stock and the gold stock was fairly constant from 1925 to 1929.
From 1925, the Bank of England was acting as Europe's central bank, holding most of Europe's gold. This was politically unpalatable for the French, who began hoarding gold in 1927, devaluing the Franc and causing gold to flow into France (see Irwin). Between 1927 and 1932, France went from holding 7% to 27% of the world's monetary gold. The resulting deflation exacerbated the Great Depression.
The Bank of England went off gold in 1931, sounding the death knell for the international gold standard. FDR devalued the dollar and outlawed private ownership of gold in 1933, ending what was left of the gold standard. Although this mitigated the ongoing institutional collapse in the American banking sector, the Great Depression continued on until after the Second World War.