Why Economists Messed Up

The biggest thing in economics today is Paul Krugman’s “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?” in the New York Times Magazine. If you have any interest in macroeconomic policy, you should read it.

For one thing, the illustrations by Jason Lutes are quite entertaining:


More important, though, is Paul’s evaluation of how we economists missed the 800-pound gorilla in the room. He fingers three suspects:

  • Mistaking beauty for truth. I.e., too much reliance on elegant, solvable, mathematical models in which economic players are rational and markets adjust to shocks easily. These models are a joy to play with — and provide important insights — but they miss messy truths about the actual economy.
  • Excess confidence in financial markets. He argues that widespread acceptance of the efficient markets hypothesis (the idea that asset prices incorporate all information and thus get prices “right”) left us blind to the risks of asset bubbles.
  • The limits of mainstream macroeconomics. This critique is harder to summarize, but in a nutshell he argues that (a) some economists have (incorrectly) embraced the classical view that the government can’t and shouldn’t try to moderate the business cycle and (b) the larger body of mainstream of economists have (correctly) embraced the Keynesian view that the government can try to moderate the business cycle but have (incorrectly) concluded that the Federal Reserve is the only appropriate tool to do so.

I think each of these charges has merit, with one caveat. Back in graduate school, I was indeed taught that monetary policy was the preferred tool for addressing economic weakness (e.g., because of policy lags and concerns about the political economy of what passes as fiscal stimulus from the Congress). In my years in Washington, however, I have met many economists, of the left, right, and center, who believe in fiscal policy as well. Indeed, in policy circles, the idea of fiscal stimulus was active in 2001, 2003, 2008, and 2009, each of which witnessed tax cuts (and, in the most recent case, spending increases) that were partly or wholly passed in the name of stimulus. One can debate the merits of those acts, but the concept of fiscal stimulus has been alive and kicking.

Paul’s recommendations for the way forward for economists:

First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.

On his final point, I should note that one of the leading thinkers on the links between finance and macro is none other than Ben Bernanke, current (and, one hopes, future) chairman of the Federal Reserve. That’s one of the reasons he’s the right person for the job.

Related commentary: EconomistMom, Barry Ritholz, Paul Kedrosky, Brad DeLong, and Paul Krugman himself.

Unemployment Still Rising

Today’s jobs report didn’t deliver any real surprises. The number of payroll jobs fell by 216,000 in August, slightly less than expectations, but revisions to earlier months subtracted an additional 49,000 jobs. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7%, more than expected and consistent with the consensus view that unemployment will exceed 10% in coming months.

In short, we are still losing jobs, but at a much slower pace than earlier in the year.

Looking further into the details, there are two things I’d highlight. First, the U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes workers who are discouraged or working part-time for economic reasons, increased even more than the regular unemployment rate, rising from 16.3% to 16.8%:

Unemployment August 2009

Second, unemployment among teenagers in August was the highest ever recorded. More than 25% of teenage workers were unemployed in August, topping the previous peak of 24.1% set in late 1982:

Teen Unemployment August 2009

Teenage unemployment jumped sharply from July to August, rising from 23.8% to 25.5%, an increase of 1.7 percentage points. In comparison, unemployment among adult men increased by “only” 0.3 percentage points and among adult women by 0.1 percentage point.

I predict that the econo-blogosphere will feature some healthy debate about whether the sharp increase among teenagers has anything to do with the most recent increase in the minimum wage that went into effect toward the end of July (and, therefore, after the July unemployment data were collected). As you would expect, teenagers are more likely to earn the minimum wage than are adult workers. If the latest minimum wage increase had immediate, negative effects on employment, you might therefore expect to see it among teenagers.

On the other hand, the chart shows that teenage unemployment can be quite volatile from month to month; as a result, analysts should be humble about what they can infer from the changes observed during a single month. Moreover, teenage unemployment has been rising rapidly throughout the downturn, which may reflect the intensity of the economic weakness rather than a series of increases in the minimum wage.

My advice: Before accepting or rejecting the idea that the recent minimum wage hike has hurt teen employment, wait to see whether any enterprising economists come up with compelling data that go beyond the month-to-month pattern. For example, it would be interesting to see comparisons among states. Some states had minimum wages above the federal level, and thus were unaffected by the recent increase.

Tracking the Stimulus: Update

Good news: The Recovery.gov website now includes information about the tax components of the stimulus, not just the spending components:


According to the chart, an estimated $62.5 billion made its way out the door in tax reductions through the end of August. The corresponding spending data indicate that $88.8 billion in federal spending made its way out the door by August 28.

Putting these together, you get an estimated $151.3 billion in combined tax reductions and spending increases through the end of August.

Continue reading “Tracking the Stimulus: Update”

Bending the Curve: Redefining Health Insurance

Over the past few months, a politically-diverse group of health policy experts has been pondering a key question: what are the “specific, feasible steps” that policymakers could use to reduce the growth of health spending? In short, how can we bend the curve?

The fruits of their labor were published by the Brookings Institution on Tuesday as Bending the Curve: Effective Steps to Reduce Long-Term Health Care Spending Growth.

I encourage everyone interested in health policy to give it a close look.

The report’s recommendations for fixing health insurance particularly caught my eye:

Governments should ensure proper incentives for non-group and small-group health insurance markets to focus on competition based on cost and quality rather than selection. Achieving this requires near-universal coverage and insurance exchanges to pool risk outside of employment, augment choice, and align premium differences with differences in plan costs.

[Therefore, these insurance markets should be restructured to] focus insurer competition on cost and quality through requirements for guaranteed issue without — or with very limited — pre-existing condition exclusions; limited health rating, such as those related to age and behaviors only; and full risk-adjustment of premiums across insurers based on enrollees’ risk. For market stability, these reforms must be undertaken in the context of an enforced mandate that individuals maintain continuous, creditable basic coverage.

In short, the report recommends a combination of an individual mandate and reforms that eliminate both the ability of and the incentive for insurance companies to try to enroll only the healthy and low-cost.

Continue reading “Bending the Curve: Redefining Health Insurance”

Another Look at Oil and Natural Gas Prices

A couple weeks ago, I discussed the remarkable divergence between the prices of oil and natural gas. At the time, the spot price of West Texas Intermediate was above $73 per barrel, while the spot price of natural gas at the Henry Hub was about $3 per MMBtu. The ratio of the two prices was at record levels, with the oil price 24.5 times the natural gas price.

Oil prices have declined since then, closing at $68.24 per barrel yesterday. But natural gas prices have also declined, closing at $2.82. As a result, the price ratio remains above 24, much higher than the 6 to 12 that’s been normal in recent decades.

To provide some more insight into what’s going on, I made a new graph to show the path of oil and natural gas prices since the start of 2001:

Natural Gas and Oil Prices - Sep 1 2009

The chart (squiggle, if you prefer) tracks the path of monthly average oil prices along the horizontal axis and monthly average natural gas prices along the vertical, plus yesterday’s closing data. Several features of the graph leap out:

Continue reading “Another Look at Oil and Natural Gas Prices”

Dodging the Resource Curse

Over the weekend, the Financial Times had a fascinating piece about Farouk al-Kasim, an Iraqi who is credited with saving Norway from the resource curse:

Poor countries dream of finding oil like poor people fantasise about winning the lottery. But the dream often turns into a nightmare as new oil exporters realise that their treasure brings more trouble than help. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, one time Venezuelan oil minister, likened oil to “the devil’s excrement”. Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, his Saudi Arabian counterpart, reportedly said: “I wish we had found water.”

Such resignation reflects bitter experience of the way that dependency on natural resources can poison a country’s economic and political system. Inflows of hard currency push up prices, squeezing the competitiveness of non-oil businesses and starving them of capital. As a result, productivity growth withers (a phenomenon known as “Dutch disease” after the negative effects of North Sea gas production on the Netherlands). Meanwhile, the state institutions in charge of oil often become corrupt and evade democratic control. And oil-rich states almost invariably waste the income it brings, many ending their oil booms deeper in debt than when they started.

al-Kasim is credited with designing a system that struck a balance among a state-owned oil company, private oil companies, and an independent regulator:

The real achievement, in other words, was not finding oil but coping with its discovery. Norway faced the same dilemma as every other new oil producer with no experience of the industry: if you rely too much on private foreign companies, too little of the oil wealth benefits the country in the form of government revenue or economic development; if you go too far in the other direction, you risk a bloated, politicised oil sector that evades both accountability to the people and competitive pressures to be efficient.

The economic question is fascinating — how can you avoid the resource curse? — but you should also read the article for his unique personal journey (involving a child with cerebral palsy and one of the easiest job hunts in history).

P.S. Other coverage at Curious Capitalist and Kottke.