Sunday, June 2, 2013

Debunking the economics "profession"

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” John Maynard Keynes

Of all the scams, none is so pernicious as the one that claims economics is a science.  The discipline has some scientific moments, to be sure, but the way it is practiced has MUCH more in common with theology.  The recent saga of Rogoff and Reinhart should serve as a permanent warning that even the most highly credentialed economists are at best, sloppy theologians, who have at most, only a vague and passing interest in the rigors of scientific research. (See the April 25 coverage of this story here at real economics.)

Of course, the scandal here is not that a couple of arrogant academics mailed in a study that should have embarrassed a freshman, the scandal is that anyone treated it seriously because it was obvious from the outset that this paper was nothing more than a hack job turned out to please some stupendously stupid rich client(s).  So now that the work of Rogoff and Reinhart has been discredited, the attack on them has turned into an attack on the folks who have been paying their bills.  Krugman even seems to believe this is the beginning of the end for the whole austerity movement R & R were such a part of.

We can only hope he is right.

Reinhart And Rogoff's Pro-Austerity Research Now Even More Thoroughly Debunked By Studies

Mark Gongloff   05/31/2013

The debunking of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff continues.

The Harvard economists have argued that mistakes and omissions in their influential research on debt and economic growth don't change their ultimate austerity-justifying conclusion: That too much debt hurts growth.

But even this claim has now been disproved by two new studies, which suggest the opposite might in fact be true: Slow growth leads to higher debt, not the other way around.

In a post at Quartz, University of Michigan economics professor Miles Kimball and University of Michigan undergraduate student Yichuan Wang write that they have crunched Reinhart and Rogoff's data and found "not even a shred of evidence" that high debt levels lead to slower economic growth.

And a new paper by University of Massachusetts professor Arindrajit Dube finds evidence that Reinhart and Rogoff had the relationship between growth and debt backwards: Slow growth appears to cause higher debt, if anything.

As you can see from the chart from Dube's paper below, growth tends to be slower in the five years before countries have high debt levels. In the five years after they have high debt levels, there is no noticeable difference in growth at all, certainly not at the 90 percent debt-to-GDP level that Reinhart and Rogoff's 2010 paper made infamous. Kimball and Wang present similar findings in their Quartz piece. (Story continues below chart.)

This contradicts the conclusion of Reinhart and Rogoff's 2010 paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt," which has been used to justify austerity programs around the world. In that paper, and in many other papers, op-ed pieces and congressional testimony over the years, Reinhart And Rogoff have warned that high debt slows down growth, making it a huge problem to be dealt with immediately. The human costs of this error have been enormous.

Even after University of Massachusetts graduate student Thomas Herndon found Reinhart and Rogoff's work included errors and that their 2010 paper was missing important data, the researchers stood by their ultimate conclusion: that growth dropped off significantly after debt hit 90 percent of GDP. They claimed that austerity opponents like Paul Krugman have been so so rude to them for no good reason.

At the same time, they have tried to distance themselves a bit from the chicken-and-egg problem of whether debt causes slow growth, or vice-versa. "The frontier question for research is the issue of causality," they said in their lengthy New York Times piece responding to Herndon.

It looks like they should have thought a little harder about that frontier question three years ago. more

How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled

JUNE 6, 2013 Paul Krugman

The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin
Penguin, 430 pp., $29.95

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth
Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $24.95

The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America by David A. Stockman
PublicAffairs, 742 pp., $35.00

In normal times, an arithmetic mistake in an economics paper would be a complete nonevent as far as the wider world was concerned. But in April 2013, the discovery of such a mistake—actually, a coding error in a spreadsheet, coupled with several other flaws in the analysis—not only became the talk of the economics profession, but made headlines. Looking back, we might even conclude that it changed the course of policy.

Why? Because the paper in question, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” by the Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, had acquired touchstone status in the debate over economic policy. Ever since the paper was first circulated, austerians—advocates of fiscal austerity, of immediate sharp cuts in government spending—had cited its alleged findings to defend their position and attack their critics. Again and again, suggestions that, as John Maynard Keynes once argued, “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”—that cuts should wait until economies were stronger—were met with declarations that Reinhart and Rogoff had shown that waiting would be disastrous, that economies fall off a cliff once government debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP.

Indeed, Reinhart-Rogoff may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics. The 90 percent claim was cited as the decisive argument for austerity by figures ranging from Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate who chairs the House budget committee, to Olli Rehn, the top economic official at the European Commission, to the editorial board of The Washington Post. So the revelation that the supposed 90 percent threshold was an artifact of programming mistakes, data omissions, and peculiar statistical techniques suddenly made a remarkable number of prominent people look foolish.

The real mystery, however, was why Reinhart-Rogoff was ever taken seriously, let alone canonized, in the first place. Right from the beginning, critics raised strong concerns about the paper’s methodology and conclusions, concerns that should have been enough to give everyone pause. Moreover, Reinhart-Rogoff was actually the second example of a paper seized on as decisive evidence in favor of austerity economics, only to fall apart on careful scrutiny. Much the same thing happened, albeit less spectacularly, after austerians became infatuated with a paper by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna purporting to show that slashing government spending would have little adverse impact on economic growth and might even be expansionary. Surely that experience should have inspired some caution.

So why wasn’t there more caution? The answer, as documented by some of the books reviewed here and unintentionally illustrated by others, lies in both politics and psychology: the case for austerity was and is one that many powerful people want to believe, leading them to seize on anything that looks like a justification. I’ll talk about that will to believe later in this article. First, however, it’s useful to trace the recent history of austerity both as a doctrine and as a policy experiment. more

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