Felix Martin: How the new economics outgrew the academies

Reports of the death of popular economics turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, as two new books by Edmund Phelps, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, make clear.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much 
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20

Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change 
Edmund Phelps
Princeton University Press, 392pp, £19.95

1. Eighteen months ago, I attended a conference on the crisis facing economics. Its title posed a blunt question: “Are graduate economists fit for purpose?” That it was sponsored by two of the largest employers of professional economists in the country – the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service – suggested that their polite answer was no.

There was worse to come. The conference heard that the teaching of economics at universities had been in decline for more than two decades. In 1992, the government’s Research Assessment Exercise indicated that there were 60 fully fledged university economics departments. By 2001 the number had fallen by a third to 41, and by 2008 to only 35. It seemed that not only were employers no longer confident of the value of modern economics, but students did not want to study it – and the government had given up funding it.

Yet we all knew there was something that didn’t quite add up about this dismal picture. Whatever problems might be plaguing economics at the universities, a quick glance at the bestseller lists shows that public interest in the subject is in ruder health than ever. Books such as Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism are among the most popular nonfiction titles of the past decade. What is going on? How is the apparent death spiral of economics at universities to be squared with the enormous resurgence of interest in the subject among the general public? Anyone who wants to know the answer could do much worse than turn to the two books under review.

2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much is by two of the coming men in US economics, Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and Eldar Shafir of Princeton. The book is representative of a growing library aimed at popularising the new school of “behavioural economics”, in which the strict assumptions concerning individual rationality built into old-school microeconomics are jettisoned in favour of a more realistic understanding of individual decision-making derived from experimental psychology. As Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (who, like Shafir, is a psychologist by training), likes to say, traditional economics studied how individuals would act if they were rational; behavioural economics studies how they actually do.

In Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir set out to summarise their research on what they believe to be one of the central lessons of modern psychology for economics. This is that there is a generic mindset associated with the experience of scarcity, of money, of time, of friends; indeed, of more or less anything. This mindset, they argue, has its own logic, which has to be understood before a vast array of economic, business and personal problems can be properly addressed.

The authors’ basic argument is as follows. Experimental psychology has shown that the experience of scarcity produces both good and bad results. The good result is “focus”: increased attention and therefore potentially increased effectiveness. Who hasn’t been in a meeting, for example, which was directionless and unproductive until everyone realised that there was only 15 minutes left and everyone got down to business?

This effect of scarcity can also be bad, however. In that case, it should be called not “focusing” but “tunnelling”, in order to emphasise how, as well as concentrating attention on one objective, it draws it away from others that may be just as (or more) important.

The problem with tunnelling is that it shrinks the mind’s capacity to do anything else. It reduces cognitive capacity, or what Mullainathan and Shafir colloquially call “bandwidth”. That then creates a vicious circle – because operating with reduced bandwidth makes it more difficult to escape the circumstances that induced scarcity in the first place. A poor single mother experiences scarcity of money and time; therefore she is constantly stressed out; therefore she can’t think straight about financial matters or planning; therefore she fails to get a better job, or even to register for her benefits on time; therefore she sinks further into poverty and experiences even greater scarcity, and so on.

A criticism often made of behavioural economics is that many of its findings sound suspiciously like statements of the bleeding obvious. Even Kahneman likes to recall how he and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky used to joke to one another that they hadn’t discovered a single thing that their grandmothers didn’t know. Those who take this view will find much grist to their mill in a book that serves up “discoveries” such as how poor people get more stressed than rich people do when presented with a large and unexpected bill, or that it is harder to sleep well when you have things on your mind.

Though there is some truth in these objections, I think they miss the merits of the approach. It was John Maynard Keynes who mused, “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.” What he meant was that it is easy in economics to come up with vast and abstract theories but very difficult to come up with useful, practical solutions.

A distinctive claim of behavioural economics is that it generates practical ideas for public policy and personal conduct. For the behavioural economists, there is no more sitting alone in dusty faculty offices working out hard problems with nothing but a pencil and a bit of algebra – all in the name of knowledge for its own sake. On the model of proper scientists, they work in “labs”, leading “research groups” and collecting empirical data from randomised experiments run across many continents, all with the aim of informing “evidence-based policy”.

Hence, in the last third of Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir present a variety of principles for the design of aid and welfare programmes, for management practices in business and for various kinds of personal decisions and habits. One such principle is that anti-poverty programmes should be more tolerant of faults by the recipients (because, being under stress, they are likely to make mistakes): so, for instance, deadlines for registration should not be too strictly observed. Another is that, because bandwidth per se is an important determinant of poverty, programmes should value it and be designed to build it, or at least make sure not to tax it. So, to all the other benefits of providing convenient childcare should be added the benefit that mothers have a chance to think clearly about whatever else they are doing. These ideas make sense and they sound implementable.

I was less persuaded by the claim that the results of this fascinating research agenda constitute “a radical reconceptualisation of poverty”. I fear that this might be an example of the tunnelling the authors do so much to warn against. Scarcity certainly convinced me that it is important to understand that indigent rag traders in India experience debilitating stress from constant threats by the moneylenders on whom they depend for working capital and that schemes to alleviate this would be highly worthwhile development interventions. Yet that should not distract us from the dominance of the cultural, social and political roots of poverty – the iniquities of caste, political disenfranchisement and the failings of the judicial system – and students of development economics will, I hope, continue to learn also about old-fashioned ideas such as land reform and political revolution.

However, Mullainathan and Shafir never claim to have all the answers. They style their book as “an invitation to read about a science in the making” and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics.

3. For all Keynes’s criticism of economists’ overweening ambitions, he also believed in the value of big-picture thinking. He taught that economics is “a moral science and not a natural one” and that the good economist should therefore be a “mathematician, historian, statesman [and] philosopher – in some degree”. As such, he would have been equally in favour of another branch of economics that has thrived in the past decade and a half – one that operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to the behavioural and experimental economists. Its exponents collaborate not with psychologists but with historians and political scientists and they have returned to the macro-historical questions of classical political economy; above all, to Adam Smith’s ur-question of why some countries are richer than others. This field, too, has encountered no shortage of interest from the general public, with the popularity of books such as Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, published last year.

Mass Flourishing by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, is recognisably representative of this genre – yet highly unusual, both for the breadth of its scope and for the manner in which it confounds ideological categorisation. It begins by arguing that while material wealth is important, what defines a truly prosperous society is the degree to which its citizens achieve the intangible benefit of living a good life. But what is a “good life”?

Phelps traces a consistent, humanist conception of this from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson: a life in which the individual is able to grow, to realise herself and, indeed, to create her human identity through her search for knowledge and understanding and the exercise of her creative faculties. To be able to lead such a life is to flourish – and when most people in a society are able to do so, we have arrived at the book’s first core concept: mass flourishing.

Historically speaking, Phelps further argues, very few economies have provided the conditions for such mass flourishing. Those that have succeeded have been characterised by the second core concept of his book: economic modernity. It was only once Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism and baroque vitalism had mixed together to produce the culture of modernity that economies oriented to experimentation, innovation and self-improvement at the grassroots level evolved. The result was a century-and-a-half-long golden age – from around 1825 to roughly 1975 – in countries such as the United States and Britain that developed “modern economies”.

These modern economies were different, Phelps argues, not only from the static economies of the medieval world but also, crucially, from the numerous capitalist and materially prosperous economies of today that are no longer or never were properly modern. Just to be a dynamic economy – that is, to be open to social change and capable of rapidly adopting new technologies, as continental Europe and Japan were after the Second World War – is not enough. Nor is it sufficient to be a nation that makes significant advances in science or technology, as the Soviet Union did. It is the economic culture of modernity that leads to grass-roots innovation and so the self-realisation that matters. That and that alone is the philosopher’s stone.

It is easy to be suspicious of an argument as wide-ranging as this – and, summarised in this way, Phelps’s thesis may sound simplistic and his historical claims naive. His unequivocal approval of modernity might not be to everyone’s taste: after all, the mindset of modernity was the backdrop to the nightmare of Kafka’s Trial as well as the humanity of Joyce’s Ulysses and was responsible for the delusions of Italian futurists and Soviet communists as well as the Whiggish optimism of Bloomsbury and the Fabians. I, too, was sceptical when I started Mass Flourishing. Yet, overall, I found that the more I read of it, the more my expectations were confounded and the more I found myself thinking that its basic thesis has a great deal of truth to it.

So ashamed was I of my initial assessment, once I had finished reading through Phelps’s fascinating, versatile and profound book, that I was put in mind of those immortal lines by Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years . . .”

4. So what do these two very different books have to tell us about the elusive crisis in economics? The answer is that they are excellent examples of two things. The first is the huge variety of fascinating new thinking (and new applications of old thinking) that many leading economists have been engaged in over the past 15 years. The second is that the pioneers in these new fields have curiously succeeded better at communicating directly to the general public through popular writing than they have in convincing the rest of their profession to reorient what is taught by economics degree courses and how.

Fortunately, that conference’s pronouncement of the death of economics has turned out to have been greatly exaggerated. The Financial Times recently reported that more than 26,000 students took economics at A-level this year, which represents a bigger year-on-year growth than in any other subject and a 50 per cent increase from 2007. The ongoing economic crisis is no doubt an important factor in stimulating their interest. Yet the huge impact of efforts by innovative academic economists to bring their subject steeped in history, psychology and the real world to the general public has surely played a critical role, too. It only remains for orthodox curricula to catch up.

Felix Martin is an NS columnist. His book “Money” (Bodley Head , £20) has just been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award

Magic numbers: the public's interest in how economies work is in ruder health than ever. Photograph: Larry Sultan/Gallery Stock.

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist, bond trader and the author of Money: the Unauthorised Biography

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?