Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The failed econ profession

The economics establishment simply must realize that they are losing their legitimacy.  Of course, that would require a self-awareness not exactly common to the profession.  Ken Galbraith used to say that successful revolutions were mostly about kicking in a rotten door.  Doors don't get much more rotten than the economics taught in our finest schools.  As recently as April, we watched as the brilliant Steven Colbert reduced arguably Harvard's most important economist to an object of ridicule.

Two things prevent the revolution from happening: 1) The economic establishment has a DEEP bench—they hold every important job in the profession so any change must come from outside, and 2) The guys who must kick down the door simply do not have their act together and the theoretical underpinning that Marxism provided from 1848 to 1989 was discredited.  So unfortunately, the crackpot theories of neoliberalism tend to win by default.  Even so, I take joy in watching these smug, arrogant fools crash and burn with their ridiculous ideas.  And as a good Lutheran preacher's kid, I can hope the Reformation in economics is coming soon.

Mainstream economics is in denial: the world has changed

Despite the crash, the high priests of economics refuse to look at the big picture – and continue to prop up world elites

Aditya Chakrabortty  The Guardian, 28 October 2013

Rebellions aren't meant to kick off in lecture theatres – but I saw one last Thursday night. It was small and well-read and it minded its Ps & Qs, and I think I shall remember it for some time.

We'd gathered at Downing College, Cambridge, to discuss the economic crisis, although the quotidian misery of that topic seemed a world away from the honeyed quads and endowment plush of this place.

Equally incongruous were the speakers. The Cambridge economist Victoria Bateman looked as if saturated fat wouldn't melt in her mouth, yet demolished her colleagues. They'd been stupidly cocky before the crash – remember the 2003 boast from Nobel prizewinner Robert Lucas that the "central problem of depression-prevention has been solved"? – and had learned no lessons since. Yet they remained the seers of choice for prime ministers and presidents. She ended: "If you want to hang anyone for the crisis, hang me – and my fellow economists."

What followed was angry agreement. On the night before the latest growth figures, no one in this 100-strong hall used the word "recovery" unless it was to be sarcastic. Instead, audience members – middle-aged, smartly dressed and doubtless sizably mortgaged – took it in turn to attack bankers, politicians and, yes, economists. They'd created the mess everyone else was paying for, yet they'd suffered no retribution.

In one of the world's elite institutions, the elites were taking a pasting – from accountants, entrepreneurs and academics. They knew what they were on about, too. Given his turn on the mic, one biologist said: "I'll believe economists have reformed when the men behind Black and Scholes [the theory that helps traders value financial derivatives] have been stripped of their Nobel prizes."

One of the central facts of post-crash Britain is that the elites still hold power, but no longer command the credibility to wield it. You see that when Russell Brand talks on Newsnight about the corrupt lilliputian world of Westminster, and the various YouTube clips total more than 3m views. And I certainly saw it in Cambridge.

Like all the other plebs in Britain – whether on minimum wage, or a five-figure salary – the people in that lecture theatre had been told for decades to trust the politicians, policymakers and employers to provide the jobs, the houses and pensions, and the prospects for their kids. In the wake of the biggest economic rupture since the 1930s, they're evidently no longer so willing to extend that trust.

But at the same time, the elites – whether in Whitehall or the City – remain in charge. Looking at mainstream economists gives us as good an idea as any as to how reform has been warded off.

As Bateman points out, by rights these PhD-armed boosters of The Great Moderation should have been widely discredited after the crash. After all, the most significant thing to emerge from academic economicsin the past five years has not been any piece of research, but the superb documentary Inside Job, in which film-maker Charles Ferguson showed how some of the best minds at American universities had been paid by Big Finance to produce research helping Big Finance.

Yet look around at most of the major economics degree courses and neoclassical economics – that theory that treats humans as walking calculators, all-knowing and always out for themselves, and markets as inevitably returning to stability – remains in charge. Why? In a word: denial. The high priests of economics refuse to recognise the world has changed.

In his new book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, the US economist Philip Mirowski recounts how a colleague at his university was asked by students in spring 2009 to talk about the crisis. The world was apparently collapsing around them, and what better forum to discuss this in than a macroeconomics class. The response? "The students were curtly informed that it wasn't on the syllabus, and there was nothing about it in the assigned textbook, and the instructor therefore did not wish to diverge from the set lesson plan. And he didn't."

Something similar is going on at Manchester University, where as my colleague Phillip Inman reported last week, economics undergraduates are petitioning their tutors for a syllabus that acknowledges there are other ways to view the world than as a series of algebraic problem sets. I was puzzled by this: did that mean Smith, Marx and Malthus weren't taught? Yes, I was told, by final-year undergraduate Cahal Moran: in development studies. What about Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of creative destruction? Oh, he gets a mention – but literally only a mention.

This isn't all the tutors' fault: when you have to lecture to 400 students at once, it's hard to find time and space to go off-piste. But the result is that economics students come out of exam halls and go off to government departments or the City with exactly the same toolkit that just five years ago produced a massive crash.

Economics ought to be a magpie discipline, taking in philosophy, history and politics. But heterodox approaches have long since been banished from most faculties, claims Tony Lawson. In the 1970s, when he started teaching at Cambridge, the economics faculty still boasted legends such as Nicky Kaldor and Joan Robinson. "There were big debates, and students would study politics, the history of economic thought." And now? "Nothing. No debates, no politics or history of economic thought and the courses are nearly all maths."

How do elites remain in charge? If the tale of the economists is any guide, by clearing out the opposition and then blocking their ears to reality. The result is the one we're all paying for. more
Here Dean Baker highlights the problem with central banker economic thinking. Some folks determine that the best way to travel through life is to never question the conventional wisdom.  And they figure the way to rise above the herd is to know more arcane details about the conventional wisdom.  Such people are extremely dangerous because much conventional wisdom is pretty goofy and by becoming experts, they take this goofiness to extremes.  Note here, the ability to accumulate more details of the conventional wisdom can soak up a whole bunch of smarts, but it will never be confused with genius—a term that only applies to folks who answer questions that have not been answered before.  Genius starts when the conventional wisdom is left behind.

It is not surprising that Greenspan was such a boring little drudge of a man.  They select for that quality in Fed chairmen.  There's an expression that is highly popular in the construction business (and probably others), "that man is just smart enough to be dangerous."  The best description of Alan Greenspan was that he was just smart enough to be VERY dangerous—as the millions whose lives were destroyed can attest.

Alan Greenspan owes America an apology

The former Fed chair is promoting his new book. He should admit his role in the housing crisis, not insult our intelligence

Dean Baker, 28 October 2013

Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the person most responsible for the enormous economic damage caused by the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the market. The United States is still down almost 9m jobs from its trend path. We are losing close to $1tn a year in potential output, with cumulative losses to date approaching $5tn.

These numbers correspond to millions of dreams ruined. Families who struggled to save enough to buy a home lost it when house prices plunged or they lost their jobs. Many older workers lose their job with little hope of ever finding another one, even though they are ill-prepared for retirement; young people getting out of school are facing the worst job market since the Great Depression, while buried in student loan debt.

The horror story could have easily been prevented had there been intelligent life at the Federal Reserve Board in the years when the housing bubble was growing to ever more dangerous proportions (2002-2006). But the Fed did nothing to curb the bubble. Arguably, it even acted to foster its growth with Greenspan cheering the development of exotic mortgages and completely ignoring its regulatory responsibilities.

Most people who had this incredible infamy attached to their name would have the decency to find a large rock to hide behind; but not Alan Greenspan. He apparently believes that he has not punished us enough. Greenspan has a new book which he is now hawking on radio and television shows everywhere.

The book, which I have not read, is ostensibly Greenspan's wisdom about the economy and economics. But he also tells us that his problem as Fed chair was that he just didn't know about the flood of junk mortgages that was fueling the unprecedented rise in house prices during the bubble years. He has used this ignorance to explain his lack of action – or even concern – about the risks posed by the bubble.

Greenspan's "I didn't know" excuse is so absurd as to be painful. The explosion of exotic mortgages in the bubble years was hardly a secret. It was frequently talked about in the media and showed up in a wide variety of data sources, including those produced by the Fed. In fact, there were widespread jokes at the time about "liar loans" or "Ninja loans". The latter being an acronym for the phrase, "no income, no job, no assets".

The fact that banks were issuing fraudulent mortgages by the millions, and that the Wall Street crew was securitizing them as fast as they could get them, was not top secret information available only to those with special security clearance. This was the economy in the years 2002-2006.

It was impossible to look at the economy in these years and not see the role of the housing bubble and the tsunami of bad mortgages that fueled it. The run-up in house prices led to a near record pace of construction. Typically housing construction is around 4.5% of GDP. It peaked at 6.5% in 2005. Greenspan didn't notice? Who did he think was going to live in all these units, the building of which had created record vacancy rates as early as 2003?

And he didn't notice that the spike in house prices had led to a surge in consumption pushing saving rates to nearly zero? He actually co-authored several pieces on exactly this topic with another Fed economist. Between the 100% predictable collapse of residential construction and the plunge in consumption that would follow the loss of the housing wealth that was driving it, we were looking at a loss of more than $1tn in annual demand. What did Greenspan think would fill this gap, purchases of Ayn Rand's books?

Greenspan had all the information that he could have possibly needed to spot the housing bubble and to know its collapse would be really bad news for the economy. More than anyone else in the country he was in a position to stop the growth of the bubble.

Suppose that, instead of extolling the wonders of adjustable rate mortgages, Greenspan used his public addresses to warn people that they were buying into an overpriced housing market; and he warned investors that the subprime mortgage backed securities they were buying were filled with fraudulent mortgages. Suppose further that he used the Fed's research staff to document these facts.

Greenspan could have used the regulatory powers of the Fed to crack down on the bad mortgages being issued by the banks under the Fed's jurisdiction, as his fellow governor Edward Gramlich urged. And, he could have arranged to have a meeting with other federal and state regulators to see what they were doing to prevent mortgage fraud in the financial institutions under their jurisdictions as well.

Those are the actions that we had a right to expect from a Fed chair faced with the growth of a dangerous asset bubble. That is what Alan Greenspan would have done if he had been earning his salary. Instead, he did nothing. He cheered on the bubble until it burst and then he said it wasn't his fault.

This man has nothing to tell the country about the economy and the media is not doing its job to imply otherwise. If Greenspan doesn't have the decency to keep himself out of public view after all the damage he has done to the country, then the media should do it for him. The only thing he has to say that would be newsworthy is that he's sorry. more

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