Mankiw’s tenth principle of economics is: Society faces a short-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. He admits that this is more controversial among economists than his other principles. He says that most believe this explanation:
- Increasing the amount of money in the economy stimulates the overall level of spending and thus the demand for goods and services.
- Higher demand may over time cause firms to raise their prices, but in the meantime, it also encourages them to hire more workers and produce a larger quantity of goods and services.
- More hiring means lower unemployment.
This line of reasoning leads to one final economy-wide trade-off: a short-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment.
This gives economic policy-makers a tool for influencing economic trends. “By changing the amount of money it prints”, says Mankiw, government can put more or less money into the economy, and thus influence unemployment, at least in the short run. The Great Crash of 2008 is an example. Mankiw explains that it was caused by “bad bets on the housing market”, and led to high unemployment and lower incomes. The Obama administration responded with a stimulus package of spending and tax cuts, and the Fed increased the amount of money in the economy, in an effort to reduce unemployment. He adds: “Some feared, however, that these policies might over time lead to an excessive level of inflation.”
The frightened people were, of course, proven absolutely wrong, though they won the policy argument with the imposition of the Sequester. The stimulus package was too small, though at least it more or less happened, and of course spending on the military increased, which helped, though it would have been nice to have something for the money besides the worthless F-35. This discussion is fleshed out beginning at about page 490 (in the 6th Ed.) with a long discussion of the Phillips Curve. This Wikipedia entry is at least cheaper than buying Mankiw’s book. for those not familiar with the subject.
This isn’t so much a principle in the sense of an axiom as it is a theorem, worked up from axioms. The source of the idea is a 1958 paper by William Phillips, showing an historical correlation between inflation and unemployment in the UK, and extended to US data by Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow. The correlation and the explanation worked together to persuade people that both the grounds of explanation and the relationship were more or less permanent features of the economy. The ideas behind the explanation are neoclassical, so the correlation served to validate those neoclassical ideas.
Recently the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Ben Leubsdorf discussing the current understanding of the Phillips Curve debate: The Fed Has a Theory. Trouble Is, the Proof Is Patchy. [Paywall]. Jared Bernstein discusses it in this post and links to this New York Times post; both are worth reading to see just how unhinged we are from the simple explanation offered by Mankiw. This chart is from the WSJ article.
To read the chart, select an expansion, find the line in that color, and look for the circle, which is the beginning of the period. Then follow the line as it moves showing the changes in inflation (y-axis) and unemployment (x-axis). Here’s Leubsdorf’s explanation:
But the simple link between U.S. unemployment and inflation described by the Phillips curve appeared to break down after the 1960s. High inflation coexisted with high unemployment in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the jobless rate fell as price pressures weakened. Over the past three years, inflation has declined despite a falling jobless rate.
Mankiw says there is dispute among economists about this, and Leubsdorf confirms that. He says that a recent WSJ survey found that 2/3 of economists “believed that the link exists.” Here’s a quote from a believer, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart.
“In the absence of direct evidence that inflation is in fact converging to the target and in the absence of compelling or convincing direct evidence, I think a policy maker has to act on the view that the basic relationship in the Phillips curve between inflation and employment will assert itself in a reasonable period of time as the economy tightens up ….
Economists are fully aware of the problems with the Phillips Curve, and there are plenty of attempts to make it better. This is from the conclusion of an April 2015 Working Paper by Laurence Ball and Sandeep Mazumder of the International Fund:
One of Mankiw’s (2014) ten principles of economics is, “Society faces a short-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.” This tradeoff, the Phillips curve, is critically important for monetary policy and for forecasting inflation. It would be extraordinarily useful to discover a specification of the Phillips curve that fits the data reliably. Unfortunately, researchers have repeatedly needed to modify the Phillips curve to fit new data. Friedman added expected inflation to the Samuelson-Solow specification.
Subsequent authors have added supply shocks (Gordon, 1982), time-variation in the Phillips-curve slope(Ball et al., 1988), and time-variation in the natural rate of unemployment (Staiger et al.,1997). Each modification helped explain past data, but, as Stock and Watson (2010) observe, the history of the Phillips curve “is one of apparently stable relationships falling apart upon publication.” Ball and Mazumder (2011) is a poignant example.
Even today people are looking for a way to find something useful in past data to predict future outcomes. As Leubsdorf noted, the Fed is using some version of this curve in deciding when to raise interest rates.
So, how does this fit with neoliberalism? One of the goals of neoliberal economics is the protection of established wealth. Inflation erodes wealth. Returns to capital may or may not keep up with inflation, depending on the strength of labor and other factors of production. Debtors are able to repay their debt in less valuable dollars, which erodes the assets of creditors. If the increased returns are less than the erosion, wealth suffers. As we have seen in the wake of the Great Crash, the governing power structure of neoliberalism demands that capital be protected whether in the form of equity or debt. This principle tells policy makers to put people out of work rather than suffer inflation.
The Fed follows this principle. This is a chart of the labor share of income.
The gray vertical bars are recessions. The chart shows that as the labor share rises, we get a recession. The following chart shows bank prime rates.
As interest rates rise, we get recessions. With the exception of the recession that followed the Great Crash, it’s fair to say that all of these recessions were engineered by the Fed because of inflation or fear of inflation.
The implications are fascinating. Before the Great Crash, almost all US money was created by bank lending and credit expansion. Mankiw’s Principle No. 9 tells us that when too much money is created, we get inflation. The Phillips Curve tells the Fed it has to raise interest rates to stem inflation, and that it does so at the cost of putting people out of jobs. So, businesses lend and borrow too much, creating inflation or fear of inflation, and to solve the problem created by the failure of capitalists, the Fed makes sure only the working people pay the price, by losing their livelihoods, and lately, by watching their incomes stagnate or drop. And that is the outcome of applying Mankiw’s Principles of Economics: damaging workers to protect the rich.
Mankiw’s ninth principle of economics is: Prices Rise When the Government Prints Too Much Money. He describes hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic in Germany in the early 1920s. The US hasn’t experienced hyperinflation, but it has had problems with inflation, as in the 1970s. He says that inflation imposes costs on societies, so a goal of policymakers is to keep it under control. He tells us the cause of inflation:
In almost all cases of large or persistent inflation, the culprit is growth in the quantity of money. When a government creates large quantities of the nation’s money, the value of the money falls. … The high inflation of the 1970s was associated with rapid growth in the quantity of money, and the low inflation of more recent experience was associated with slow growth in the quantity of money.
As stated, this principle doesn’t sound quite right. In the US, at least, the government doesn’t print money, as we found out in the uproar over the Trillion Dollar Coin. That idea brought out the flying monkeys, shrieking that it would be wildly illegal for the Treasury to mint money other than small coins. According to Mankiw, in the US substantially all money is created by banks, as he explains in Chapters 16 and 17. He gives the standard description of fractional reserve banking. He explains that the Federal Reserve Board can add to bank reserves, thus creating the possibility of new loans that will create new money, or reduce reserves, reducing the ability of banks to create new money. These tools enable the Fed to control the money supply. He acknowledges that there are serious difficulties facing the Fed in exercising that control, but he claims it can be done as long as the Fed is “vigilant”. Chapter 16, page 339. With this explanation, it is not clear why Mankiw claims that government is responsible for inflation by printing too much money.
One of the difficulties Mankiw describes is the problem of measuring the money supply. In the US, there are two broad measures of the money supply, M1 and M2. The Fed quit publishing a third figure, M3, in 2006, but it is estimated by the OECD. Here’s a handy chart from Wikipedia showing the various measurements of money supply. For those interested, here’s an Austrian definition of money supply. And here’s an argument for including repurchase agreements in the calculation of the money supply. I’m not quite sure how Mankiw would measure the money supply for his principle, especially because other economists don’t agree.
I’m also not sure what to make of Mankiw’s claim that the inflation of the 1970s was associated with a “rapid increase in the quantity of money.” Here’s a chart showing the growth of M2 for the period 1965 through 1985. It looks like it is rising, a bit faster after each recession (grey bars). It looks to me like the next chart, gross domestic product over the same period seasonally adjusted. Perhaps there is some other factor, or maybe I’m just reading this wrong.
Here’s a chart of M2 from 2000 to the present. There is a noticeable increase in the rate of growth of the money supply in the immediate wake of the Great Crash, leveling off in March 2009. Starting about August 2010, the increase is again greater than in the pre-Crash years. These rapid increases in the money supply match up with the Fed’s Quantitative Easing programs. It has not, as many economists (not Mankiw) predicted, led to rapid inflation.
That points us to the central question raised by the principle: how much money is too much? If Principle 9 were a scientific principle, we could use it to work out an equation for the correct amount of money, either empirically or theoretically. Mankiw doesn’t offer either. Instead, he has a section explaining the debate between those who think the Fed should have discretion and those who think the Fed should follow a strict rule, like increasing the money supply by 3% per annum. P. 520. It isn’t much of a principle if it doesn’t lead anywhere, and doesn’t predict anything.
Mankiw’s phrasing, blaming the government for inflation because of its intervention with the operation of markets, fits nicely with Mirowski’s 10th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Blame Corporations and Monopolies. It supports Mirowski’s Third Commandment, calling for full reliance on the marvelous market and making sure governments don’t interfere. We get a good look at this in a recent paper by Thomas Palley who has been writing about neoliberalism for some time, titled The US Economy: Explaining Stagnation and Why It Will Persist. Palley says that there are three explanations for the Great Crash.
1. The hardcore neoliberal explanation: it was all the fault of the government. Interest rates were forced too low for too long in the wake of the 2000 recession, interfering with the market for money. For purely political reasons, the government intervened in the housing market to encourage increased homeownership, leading to misallocation of scarce financial and other resources. This is the position of Peter Wallison of the AEI, whose dissent from the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission explains this view. It is not recommended reading.
2. The softcore neoliberal explanation: it was the fault of government regulators. The regulators allowed excessive risk-taking by lenders, and perverse incentive pay structures in the financial sector. They allowed deregulation to proceed too far. That enabled bad allocation of the flood of foreign savings into an overblown housing sector. When it popped, the resulting financial disorder deepened a structural business cycle recession into a near depression.
3. The Keynesian explanation: neoliberalism did us in. The explanation is that neoliberal policies destroyed the institutions and rules that kept corporate greed in check and made sure that the benefits of a growing economy were shared between capital and labor. In the end, consumer demand was crushed by inadequate wages. It slowed to the point that it could not drive economic growth as it had during the period 1950-75. As incomes dropped, debt rose, so that when the Great Recession hit, there was no demand left to drive a recovery. The cycle of jobless recoveries has come to the point that stagnation is the plausible future for the US economy.
Mankiw argues for neoliberal explanations and solutions and certainly not the Keynesian explanation or its solutions. For example, in October 2008, he wrote that the Great Depression was largely cured by monetary policy, and pointed to studies saying that New Deal legislation like the expansion of labor rights was counter-productive because it allowed labor power to interfere with market forces.
I don’t doubt that the quantity of money might have something to do with inflation in some cases. I’m not convinced that it explains either the inflation of the 1970s, the lack of inflation in recent times, or the current inflation in Russia.
Mankiw’s eighth principle of economics is: a country’s standard of living depends on its ability to produce goods and services. He points out that there are vast differences between the average incomes of different countries. In the US, average income has increased about 2% per year adjusted for increases in the cost of living, he says, and doubles about every 35 years. The explanation for this change is productivity, defined as “the amount of goods and services produced from each unit of labor time.” The growth rate of a nation’s productivity determines the growth rate of its average income, he asserts. He dismisses other explanations, such as the prevalence of labor unions and minimum wage laws. He claims that US productivity dropped in the 1970s which accounts for the slow growth of average wages over that period. He concludes with this claim:
To boost living standards, policymakers need to raise productivity by ensuring that workers are well-educated, have the tools needed to produce goods and services, and have access to the best available technology.
This principle supports Philip Mirowski’s Sixth Commandment of Neoliberalism: Thou Shalt Become the Manager of Thyself. “Human beings [are reduced] to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts.” The goal of the entrepreneur of you is to find some way to make yourself valuable enough to fill a slot in some corporate entity that will pay off on your investments. It also supports the Ninth Commandment, Thou Shalt Know that Inequality is Natural, because it tells the entrepreneur of you that if you fail, it’s your fault for being insufficiently productive. The problem is always the workers; and never the owners of capital for they can do no wrong. That comes from the Tenth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Blame Corporations and Monopolies, especially for investing their capital in foreign countries so jobs are created there instead of in the US. After all, the free flow of capital is critical in Capitalism, as we learn in Mirowski’s discussion of Commandment 8: Thou Shalt Keep Thy Cronyism Cosmopolitan.
Mankiw’s explanation is intellectually dishonest. He only talks about average incomes, not median incomes, and not the incomes of the working people of the US. That enables him to paint a false picture of the economy, and of the role of productivity in increasing standards of living. The leading work on this issue was done by Larry Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute. His April 2012 paper, The Wedges Between Productivity And Median Compensation Growth is the seminal work on this issue. Here’s an updated chart showing the disparity between wages and productivity. For a discussion of the productivity measurement, see this 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics paper. It’s important to note that Mishel is using the median wage growth for production/non-supervisory workers, not total labor compensation. With this statistic, we look at the actual experience of approximately 80% of workers.
According to Mishel, the gap in the chart from 2000 to 2011 is the result of three factors (see Table 1):
1. Income inequality increased, with the great gains going to the top few percentiles and the rest stagnant or falling, accounting for 39% of the gap.
2. Income shifted from labor to capital, accounting for 45% of the gap.
3. Output prices diverged from consumer prices, accounting for 16% of the gap.
Dave Dayen discusses Mishel’s paper here, focusing on efforts of conservatives to discredit Mishel’s work. The only consideration that seems even questionable is 3, and Dayen’s discussion seems fair. He concludes with this:
If you believe the Lawrence/Yglesias argument, policies that raise wages are secondary to policies that raise productivity more generally. If you believe the Mishel argument, reconnecting wages to productivity becomes central. Rather than stressing the need to acquire more education and skills, you would support increasing the minimum wage and allowing for more union organizing to put leverage in the hands of labor over capital. You would support proper use of overtime laws to reduce wage theft, and paid family and medical leave to keep wages strong during times of family stress.
But if productivity gains just leak out to the wealthy through financial engineering, all the growth in the world won’t benefit the typical worker.
Mankiw doesn’t acknowledge the problems with his principle, problems which have been evident for a long time as the chart shows. The source of this principle is the neoclassical argument of William Stanley Jevons and John Bates Clark which I discuss in detail here and here. Mankiw is preaching from the Natural Law Bible without mentioning it. This is a perfect example of Keynes’ dismissive statement on these writers: “We have not read these authors; we should consider their arguments preposterous if they were to fall into our hands.“ Certainly this principle is preposterous both factually and theoretically.
Mankiw’s Seventh Principle of Economics is: Governments Can Sometimes Improve Market Outcomes. Mankiw says economics will refine the view of the student on the role of government. In Mankiw’s book, government has several acceptable roles:
1. Enforcement of property rights. It is imperative that scarce resources are owned by individuals and firms. Government enforces the rules and protects the institutions that support these property rights. If the rights of creators of products are not protected, people won’t make things. “The invisible hand counts on our ability to enforce our rights.”
2. Government intervention is allowed to achieve greater efficiency or greater equality.
The first point fits squarely with Mirowski’s commandments of neoliberalism. The Fourth Commandment is: Thou Shalt Retask the State to Thy Needs. The function of the strong state is to make sure that the neoliberal program can come into existence; it must, as we learn from the First Commandment, be constructed, it will not happen without force and socially acceptable forms of violence. This is accomplished by using the state to marketize everything, and by ensuring that scarce resources are put into the hands of the wealthy and secured to them. The rest of us become forced customers of private entities, health insurance companies, policing, and education. Can water be far behind? Care to buy your water from Comcast?
As an aside, privatized education really bothers me. We’ve learned that the Educational Testing Service has rewritten the guidelines for AP History to cut back on what wingnuts call negativity and the rest of us call reality, and to focus on US exceptionalism. The ETS is a private corporation. Its Chairman is Robert Murley, who is also the CEO of Apollo Education Group, Inc., which operates Phoenix University. His only interest is making money. The idea that he is a scholar is preposterous. But he sets the standards for many of our smart kids, the lucky ones in schools that have AP classes.
The second allowable activity of government is to achieve greater efficiency. This entails dealing with market failures or with externalities. Neither of these is an allowable function of government in a truly neoliberal society. Markets cannot fail in neoliberalism, as Mirowski explains in Commandment 3, Thou Shalt Worship “Spontaneous Order”. More important, market power is not a problem for neoliberals, as we learn in Commandment 10, Thou Shalt Not Blame Monopolies and Corporations. The idea that a government might intervene to reduce inequality is anathema to neoliberals. Mirowski explains this in his Ninth Commandment: Thou Shalt Know That Inequality is Natural.
For Mankiw, at least theoretically, government is allowed to legislate on externalities and market power. Sadly, all externalities can be litigated indefinitely. Between the courts and flaccid enforcement, antitrust law has been ignored for years. As to inequality, Mankiw tells us that markets reward those who produce things other people want to buy, which is closely related to his Principle Number 8. Markets, he admits, won’t make sure everyone has food, clothing, health care, shelter, or anything else. “This inequality may, depending on one’s political philosophy, call for government intervention.” That might mean welfare, progressive income taxation or other programs. Then we get a full paragraph explaining the problems of using government for these purposes, including this gem: “Sometimes policies are designed simply to reward the politically powerful.”
In my discussion of Principle 6 (markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity) I pointed out that Mankiw ignores the enormous amount of buying done by governments at every level, which in Mankiw’s language probably confuses the Invisible Hand. Similarly, in his discussion of Principle 7, Mankiw ignores the role of government in establishing the rules related to markets, and in enforcing a minimal level of anti-fraud rules. This role of government obviously improves market outcomes, unless the rules are “designed to reward the politically powerful.” I assume he doesn’t mention this crucial role of government in the economy because it would show that markets are a construction, not a given and that would be one too many deviations from neoliberal dogma.
That markets are constructed is most obvious in the area of “intellectual property”, a term that probably came into wide use in the late 1940s. Essentially, the people behind this term want to marketize intellectual activity, making it an article of commerce rather than a commons.
Mankiw assigns to government the obligation to “maintain the institutions that are key to a market economy.” I suspect this is more than the courts and US Marshals, but Mankiw leaves us hanging. Perhaps he means private groups like ETS, or the World Intellectual Property Organization. Or perhaps he means groups like the Uniform Law Commission. Who knows? Here’s a story about the Uniform Law Commission.
Several years ago, the group decided to rewrite the section of the Uniform Commercial Code governing security interests, which is the technical term for liens on personal property. The purported problem was that compliance with the requirements of Article 9 was so complex that bank paperwork occasionally didn’t comply. In Chapter 7 cases, the Bankruptcy Trustee is allowed to set aside a defective security interest, and sell the property for the benefit of unsecured creditors. Trustees are paid a small percentage of the funds raised, which encourages them to inspect the paperwork carefully. The idea was to amend the rules so that close enough was good enough. One of the participants in the revision process told a CLE session I attended that in drafting sessions, the members would joke that these provisions would really screw the Trustee. That was silly. Trustees have plenty of work, and only got a tiny payment for setting aside invalid security interests. The actual people getting screwed were unsecured creditors. Of course, none of the participants represented unsecured creditors, so the changes were made, and with the imprimatur of a supposedly neutral group, they were adopted in all of the states. I know for a fact that this resulted in more wins for the banks at the expense of common creditors. A decent government would have insisted on participation by all relevant groups in the drafting of these changes, which violently upset the original balance between secured and unsecured creditors that once was the hallmark of the UCC.
That’s the kind of institution Mankiw wants the government to protect. Oh, and ALEC.
Mankiw’s sixth principle of economics is: Markets are Usually a Good Way to Organize Economic Activity. There are six paragraphs of explanation. About half say that central planning as in Communist Russia doesn’t work, culminating with this:
Central planners failed because they tried to run the economy with one hand tied behind their back – the invisible hand of the marketplace. Page 11.
Mankiw says that in a market economy, the decisions of a central planner are replaced by decisions of millions of market participants. Firms decide what and how much to make, and households decide where to work and what to buy. It is wonderful how this system is so successful at “organizing economic activity to promote overall economic well-being.” The magic is prices.
As a result of the decisions that buyers and sellers make, market prices reflect both the value of a good to society and the cost to society of making the good.
But, when government interferes with the market and prevents prices from adjusting to supply and demand, disaster awaits. Thus, taxes “adversely affect the allocation of resources, for they distort prices and thus the decisions of households and firms.”
Mankiw doesn’t define the terms market, or marketplace. That fits perfectly with Mirowski’s Second Commandment of Neoliberalism: Thou Shalt Erase Distinctions. Here is his discussion in full:
What sort of “market” do neoliberals want to foster and protect? It may seem incredible, but historically, both the neoclassical tradition in economics and the neoliberals have both been extremely vague when it comes to analytical specification of the exact structure and character of something they both refer to as the “market” Both seem overly preoccupied with what it purportedly does, while remaining cavalier about what it actually is. For the neoliberals, this allows the avoidance of a possible deep contradiction between their constructivist tendencies and their uninflected appeal to a monolithic market that has existed throughout all history and indifferently across the globe; for how can something be “made” when it is eternal and unchanging? This is solved by increasingly erasing any distinctions among the state, society, and the market, and simultaneously insisting their political project is aimed at reformation of society by subordinating it to the market. Emphasis in original.
While neoliberals do not define market, they assert that it is perfect, as Mirowski’s Third Commandment says: Thou Shalt Worship “Spontaneous Order”. Neoliberals assert that markets are emergent phenomena, and are inevitable and perfect. The theory of Natural Law is thus updated for the 21st Century with a metaphor from biology.
Just as Mirowski says, it is difficult to see what Mankiw means by market. There is nothing to be learned from his statement that the market economy consists of the decisions of millions of firms and households, not least because it ignores the decisions of hundreds of thousands of governmental units, controlling the spending of about 1/3 of the GDP. And it’s difficult to understand how the many thousands of rules that govern many thousands of markets can be translated into formal language, let alone into mathematical terms. Mankiw relies on a sort of collective understanding to provide sufficient clues that the average reader will know what he means, which is part of the problem. If the textbook doesn’t define things so that everyone is talking about the same thing, it is dangerous because people assume others agree with them when they don’t. The lack of a definition is a signal of sloppy thinking.
Mankiw gives us mushy statements like markets promote overall economic well-being. The only people who can participate in markets are those with money. The level of participation is directly related to how much money one has. The fact is that markets cater to people with lots of money, those who can buy whatever they want. When resources or goods are actually scarce, markets allocate them to those with money. When there is plenty, markets can serve those with less money. But markets will never do anything for poor people.
I’m stunned by the nonchalant statement that households decide where to work. I’m equally stunned by the idea that taxes distort markets because they affect spending decisions. It goes with his forgetting to mention government as a market participant. If we didn’t have taxes, that would distort markets too, because people would have to buy protection and roads and a lot more.
If, as Manikw claims, markets measure the value of goods to society, then the values of goods to society are determined by the rich. Markets do not include all the costs of production and therefore that part of Mankiw’s statement is false, assuming it meant anything measurable.
This entire statement of principle is useless as a guide to anything specific. Again, I realize this is just an introduction, but students treat it as accurate. It’s easy to remember and it will stick with people long after they leave school.
I’ve written several posts on the nature of markets as used in introductory economics courses, including this one and the linked posts, and more at Firedoglake, including this one. If you go to this link and search for Bernard Harcourt, or for masaccio markets, you can find much more. For anyone not aware of it, FDL is no more, and all my posts can be found at Shadowproof.com., but you have to search. Here’s my definition of market:
A market is the set of social arrangements under which people buy and sell specific goods and services at a specific point in time.
Social arrangements means all of the things that constrain and organize human action, including laws, regulations, social expectations, conventions, and standards, whether created or enforced by governments, institutions or local traditions.
With that definition, Mankiw’s Principle No. 6 becomes more or less true, though meaningless. My definition carries no pretense of fairness or social justice. It doesn’t suggest that the market is perfect at any point in time; instead it suggests that markets can and should be the subject of social action to insure social goals. Maybe that’s a good reason for neoliberals and their friend Mankiw to avoid providing their own definition. After all, as Adam Smith tells us:
Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV Chapter VIII, v. ii, p. 660, para. 49.
Mankiw’s fifth principle is: Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off. He says that that my family competes with other families for jobs, and when we shop, we compete with others to find the best prices. But if we cut ourselves off from the market, we would have to grow our own food, make our own clothes, and build our own houses. “Trade allows each person to specialize at what he or she does best, whether it’s farming, sewing, or home building.” In the same way, nations can specialize in what they do best. In both cases, people get a wider range of choices at lower prices.
It’s obvious that there are too many humans for us to exist on this planet without the kind of trade Mankiw is talking about. There isn’t enough arable land to support the huge number of tiny farms we would need to set this up, even if we wanted to, and I don’t think that’s what people want. And the way Mankiw explains it, it all seems so natural, probably because we’ve been hearing it all our lives. Everyone knows people like to trade for things. Our most ancient ancestors traveled to trade goods, and to party and marry across groups. Codification of this idea goes back at least as far as Adam Smith.
It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.
The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV Chapter II, pp. 456-7, paras. 11-12.
As long as you have lots of money and better things to do, that makes sense. If you have spare time and the means, why not grow your own food and make your own cloth, and save your money for things you can’t make? I assume that was the case for many Britons of Smith’s day. As a maxim, I assume it has much older roots. It’s easy to see why people who live in Whitby, England are specialists in making jet jewelry: the jet there is perhaps the finest in the world, and people have been working it into jewelry for centuries. In the same way, it’s easy to understand that a small town in 18th C. England is better off with a professional blacksmith than with a forge in every home.
People in India have been making beautiful cotton textiles for centuries, as I learned from Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. Those textiles were shipped around the world for most of recorded history, until what Beckert calls War Capitalism began to take control of it in the 17th Century. For a very brief discussion of the role of cotton in Gandhi’s India, see this.
What we now know is that owners of capital decide where investments are made. With low transportation costs globally, capitalists are able to locate businesses anywhere. The point is that when specialization reaches a certain level, the role of the craftsman comes to a bitter end, replaced by selling fast food or tending children. This is precisely what happened with cotton. Rich merchants stopped importing finished goods, and stopped using independent weavers in distant parts of the world, and built plants with capital intensive machines in Northern England. The price of cotton textiles went down, but millions of India’s workers lost their incomes, and millions of Africans were sold into slavery to raise cheap cotton for shipment to England. Trade didn’t make them better off.
Of course, it happens all the time. One excellent example is aircraft manufacture. Boeing’s principle resource was once its amazing workers, especially its engineers and assembly line workers in northwestern Washington. But its executives wanted the big bucks, so when it came time to build the Dreamliner, they broke that system to replace those skilled workers with cheaper unskilled labor all around the world, and increased their own salaries. Then the entire system broke down. Here’s a timeline of the known failures of the Dreamliner. Currently, Boeing estimates it is losing $23.2 million on each sold aircraft. Much of this can be blamed on stupid management decisions about production. Boeing CEO James McInerny got about $29 million in 2014 compensation, and the chief of commercial aircraft, Ray Connor, got $16 million. This is payment for abject failure. I guess they benefited from trade.
Maybe that’s why Mankiw’s fifth principle is couched in such weak language. Here’s a better statement: trade can make some people better off, especially if we ignore all the people it makes worse off.
We also see how beautifully this principle supports Mirowski’s Eighth Commandment of Neoliberalism: Thou Shalt Keep Thy Cronyism Cosmopolitan, which teaches the importance of free flows of capital. The capital needed to make aircraft and textiles can be sent wherever labor is cheapest, including South Carolina. That’s neoliberal freedom. You will recall that most of the British assault on India was led by the East India Trading Company, an early corporation. These stories tell us that Mankiw’s fifth principle works well with Mirowski’s Tenth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Blame Monopolies and Corporations. They are simply not responsible for any of the misery their trade policies hurt. And finally, see how Smith’s maxim works with the average person’s understanding of economics, that what is good for the household is good for the nation.
The Fourth Principle of Economics, which N. Gregory Mankiw assures us is accepted by almost all economists is: People Respond To Incentives. This is obviously true, so it’s good that almost all economists agree. Neoliberals agree as well; it’s the basis of their understanding of human nature that people respond to money, and not much else.
Here are the examples. When the price of apples goes up, people buy fewer apples, and “…apple orchard owners decide to hire more workers and harvest more apples.” Supply and demand are the direct result of incentives. Taxes can be used as incentives. If the gasoline tax goes up, people drive smaller cars, switch to public transport and buy hybrids. If the price goes high enough, they might even switch to electric cars. Incentives can have unintended consequences. Seat belt laws led to a higher number of accidents, and more accidents involving pedestrians. There are two longer examples, one on changes resulting from the gas price hikes from 2005 to 2008, and one on the way bus drivers are paid in Chile.
It’s no doubt true that generally as prices rise, the amount purchased falls. It’s probably the case that the relationship isn’t continuous. People don’t watch the price of apples at all. When they are at the store or the market to buy they don’t say to themselves “prices are up a penny a pound, so I’ll just buy a bit less.” Instead, they compare apples to other fruits and even vegetables and as long as the prices seem about right, they buy. It takes a pretty good price jump foror people to notice the exact price per pound. On the other hand, maybe people think Fuji’s are about as good as Gala’s, so if one is cheaper, they buy them. Or if one set looks tastier for some reason, they buy those.
The idea that the orchard owners harvest more or less depending on the price seems equally inadequate. Of course, once harvest season is over, there won’t be any more harvesting, so all decisions have to be made during the short season when the apples are at the proper stage of ripeness. If owners think the prices will be higher, maybe they will harvest more. Or, maybe they harvest all they can to protect the trees and the fields, and only sell if the price is right, and feed the rest to the cows. I don’t know enough about running an orchard to have an opinion, but apparently Mankiw does.
The second example, gasoline taxes, supports the idea that demand can be manipulated by society for its own good. I don’t think that was Mankiw’s point though. We return to this idea in Principle 8.
The discussion of seat belt changes shows typical short-term thinking. Assuming that the study Mankiw cites is accurate, and I note he describes it as controversial, in the short term, people acted in a more risky way after the passage of seat belt laws. Here’s a chart from the Statistical Abstract produced by the Census Bureau in 2012 with more recent statistics.
Those statistics tell a different story. They say that the incentive created by one set of changes can be changed once the actual outcomes are known. Cars have become more and more safe, and with the recognition that some of the changes produced bad driving, people were able to find ways of making cars safer in ways that defeated the original incentives.
You’ll note that the deaths of pedestrians were down, too, but that doesn’t tell us much. The number of pedestrians overall may be down.
Finally we have the bus driver example in Chile. It comes from Austan Goolsbee, and explains that drivers paid by the passenger work harder than drivers paid by the hour, including taking the shortest routes between two points when there is a lot of traffic. It doesn’t tell us anything about the response of bus riders who don’t get picked up, oe of other people trying to drive on the same streets as racing bus drivers.
So, everyone agrees that people respond to incentives. The question is how people respond to incentives. Mankiw tells us that economists are social scientists, and their field is centered on understanding human behavior. If these examples are typical of economic thinking, the understanding of behavior is rudimentary and reductive. It’s fair to assume that models built on rudimentary and reductive ideas may produce strange and untrustworthy results.
Mankiw’s third principle: Rational People Think At The Margin. His definition is:
Rational people systematically and purposefully do the best they can to achieve their objectives, given the available opportunities.” Principles of Macroeconomics 6th Ed. at 6
He defines marginal change: a small incremental adjustment to a plan of action. He teaches that rational people often compare the results of marginal changes to make decisions. Finally we get to his major premise:
A rational decision maker takes an action if and only if the marginal benefit of the action exceeds the marginal cost.
The first example is dinner. The choice, Mankiw says, is not between fasting and eating like a pig, but whether to eat another spoonful of mashed potatoes. At exam time, the choice is not blowing them off versus pulling all-nighters, but whether to put in an hour on your notes or goof off for that hour. His next example is seat prices for airplanes. The airline should sell seats at the price above the marginal cost of flying the passenger. Then we get the water/diamonds example. Water is essential for life, but it’s cheap. Diamonds are an extravagance, but they are very expensive.
All of this is in support of a central element of neoliberal and mainstream economics, that economies can be modeled by treating them as made up of rational agents. This idea fits neatly into Mirowski’s commandments of neoliberalism, specifically number 6: Thou Shalt Become The Manager Of Thyself. This means that individuals must learn to act rationally to decide upon a set of investments in themselves and changes in their behavior that will improve your appeal to people with money so they will give you money to work for them.
The food example is straight-forward enough, but how is the choice made? Some people are raised to clean their plates, and they do even if they could have skipped the last few forkfuls. Some people feel differently about meat than about French fries or carrots. Some people are abstemious, and always leave food. Others make the choice at the outset, by serving themselves a fixed amount and then eating all of it. Suppose the person would prefer to eat the last few bites of pork chop and skip dessert? If all these are rational choices for individuals, what possible generalization about eating is there? What, if anything, can this principle predict? How would Mankiw use that idea to model eating dinner?
The study example is fascinating. I remember my college days, and I ‘m sure I didn’t rationally choose whether to goof off with my friends or to study for finals. I chose, but it was random. And how would you calculate the benefit of one hour of study versus one hour of relaxing? Is that a real possibility?
The airline example is obvious to anyone familiar with basic business principles. It certainly isn’t an indication of “rationality” in the sense Mankiw is using the term. It merely requires an understanding of the difference between fixed costs and variable costs.
Then there’s the water/diamonds example. Here’s Mankiw’s explanation, so you won’t think I’m being snarky:
The reason is that a person’s willingness to pay for a good is based on the marginal benefit that an extra unit of the good would yield. The marginal benefit, in turn, depends on how many units a person already has. Water is essential, but the marginal benefit of an extra cup is small because water is plentiful. By contrast, no one needs diamonds to survive, but because diamonds are so rare, people consider the marginal benefit of an extra diamond to be large.
So water is cheap because people have a lot of it? Of course, there is plenty of water in most parts of the country, in our commonly held lakes, rivers, underground acquifers, and water run-off. As a commonly-owned asset, it’s free, if you could get it. But it has to be cleaned, delivered, and disposed of. That means the real question is why do we have a lot of clean water at the tap and few diamonds? The real reason is that our ancestors decided to make sure we all had clean water to drink, and explicitly chose to keep the “free market” out of it.
There are plenty of diamonds, though they are hard to find and dig up. The diamond business is controlled by a monopoly that artificially restricts the supply. Our ancestors made sure that didn’t happen to water. To see this clearly, think about the price of a bottle of water at the movies. There we have artificial scarcity, produced by the theater’s policy against bringing in snacks. Just ask yourself whether you want to buy your water from a profit-maximizing monopoly, say the Comcast or the DeBeers of water. Maybe you’d like to buy your water from the private company that didn’t have a system in place to detect the foul chemicals in the water supply of Charleston, WV?
So now let’s see how this rationality principle works in practice. Consider retirement savings. What would it mean operationally to say that people act rationally when making decisions about saving and preparing for retirement? What does this principle tell them to do? How should they invest? What should they do to protect themselves against losing big in those investments? What happens if they are hurt and can’t work, or if their spouse gets hurt and they need to quit work to take care of them? How do you calculate the value of a dollar today against the value of that dollar in retirement? For a short lesson in the prevalence of financial literacy, look at this paper, or this site.
Finally, it isn’t just one choice. There is a chain of choices in life, each one eliminates other choices and creates new choices and possibilities, each with its own probability of success. In the retirement example, you might have a 75% chance of correctly guessing at how much to save, a 95% chance of getting an honest financial adviser, a 60% chance that the investments will be very successful, and related chances of less good outcomes. Your chances of getting the best result are about 43%, and that’s before you consider the general state of the economy when you need money, continued good health, unexpected possible current uses for your money, good relations with your partner and your partner’s success in contributing, and all the other variables. That tells you that most people will be somewhat successful, a few will be wildly successful, and a fair number will crash and burn. The reality is that most families have very little success, and are dependent on Social Security and Medicare for a decent retirement. Even people who do reasonably well need those social arrangements to secure a good retirement.
This analysis shows that the margin plays little or no role in the lives of ordinary humans. It’s just a construct used to simplify human life in a way that permits economists to justify their use of calculus.
Here are some possible conclusions:
1. This principle makes sense when considered in the very short run, like the mashed potatoes example. For any longer term, it feels more or less random, mostly because there is no way to determine the probabilitiies. Some people get lucky and win the game of life. Others don’t get lucky. The number of things that seem perfectly rational at a point in time either work, or they don’t, and the results are unpredictable. That accords with my understanding of markets as minute by minute affairs. In the longer run, investment and housing markets are a real threat to the marginal thinking of Mankiw’s rational people.
2. We all want to think we are pursuing their goals systematically and purposefully, Mankiw’s definition of rational people. We want to believe our success is the result of their personal skill, and many people apparently feel justified in looking down on, and even punishing, the losers. I’d say the reality is that it’s better to be lucky than rational.
2. By deciding that the economy is full of rational people, the door opens to armchair speculation. Hmmm, says Mankiw, if I were faced with a bowl of mashed potatoes, here’s how I’d decide how much to take. I’m rational, so that means everyone would act that way. So, I’ll model mashed potato eating based on purely rational me. In exactly the same way, they figure out how they prepare for retirement, and draw conclusions about the way rational people act and build that into their models. No.
3. I do not think this is the definitive discussion of the role of rationality in human decision making. The entire subject of rational agents has been subjected to criticism on philosophical and practical grounds, and I hope to get to it at some point.
Mankiw’s second principle is The Cost of Something Is What You Give Up To Get It. Mankiw explains that you have to include opportunity costs in your calculations. His example is college: the actual cost of going to college includes tuition, but not necessarily all of the costs of room and board, because you need food and a place to sleep whether or not you go to college. It also includes the money you didn’t earn by going to work instead of going to college.
Before I read Mankiw’s explanation, I thought we were going to get a discussion of the way an economist might calculate costs. That was not to be. Maybe I have to buy his Principles of Microeconomics. In the express language Mankiw chooses, you are the sole standard for calculating costs. That kind of calculation fits perfectly with the neoliberal canon of Philip Mirowski. It’s part of Number 6: Thou Shalt Become The Manager Of Thyself for sure, and it complements Number 3: Thou Shalt Worship “Spontaneous Order”, meaning the market.
Again, non-specialist students will likely remember the principle, and will repeat it mindlessly when talking about value and cost, even though this discussion doesn’t include value or even price. This is a license to ignore all the costs that are not visited upon the neoliberal You. Smoking may not make you sick, but smoking makes some people sick directly and others indirectly. The neoliberal You hopefully doesn’t pay those costs, so they aren’t included in the calculations of the neoliberal You. Computers have a number of components that are dangerous to the health of people. Those costs aren’t paid by the neoliberal You, so they aren’t included in the calculation of costs. Coal burning is a major contributor to climate change, but maybe those costs won’t be paid by the neoliberal You, so they don’t count.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t Mankiw’s intent. He does discuss externalities as something government can correct maybe, sometimes, after a fashion, and at a cost to efficiency. The notion of opportunity costs arises directly from Principle 1: People Face Trade-offs. Most likely the only point of the second principle is to make sure there a nice round ten.
The first of the Ten Principles of Economics laid down by N. Gregory Mankiw is “People Face Trade-Offs”. Principles of Macroeconomics, 6th Ed. 2012, p. 4. In language more suited to a high school textbook than a best-selling college textbook, he provides several examples. If you study economics for five hours, then you can’t spend that time studying something useful, like welding or English Literature. If parents have a certain amount of money, every dollar they spend on rent can’t be saved, or used to buy food. Then, as if society were a person, and faced trade-offs in exactly the same way (government is just like a household) he gives two macro examples. First:
The more a society spends on national defense (guns) to protect its shores from foreign aggressors, the less it can spend on consumer goods (butter) to raise the standard of living at home.
There is also a trade-off between a clean environment and a high level of income. If companies have to pay for environmental contamination, they make smaller profits, pay lower wages, or raise prices or some combination. This is the last example:
Another trade-off society faces is between efficiency and equality. Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. Emphasis in original.
Mankiw explains this by saying that government policies that help those in need, like unemployment insurance or welfare reduce efficiency, because, and I quote because otherwise you’ll think I’m being snarky:
When the government redistributes income from the rich to the poor, it reduces the reward for working hard; as a result, people work less and produce fewer goods and services. In other words, when the government tries to cut the economic pie into more equal slices, the pie gets smaller.
The statement that individuals face trade-offs in consumption of goods and services as well as every other human activity is vacuously true. We get one life, and at any point in time can only do one thing. If we do one thing we cannot do another. So what’s the point of this principle? I think it’s not the principle itself, but the examples. Each supports the principles of neoliberalism, as described by Philip Mirowski in this article.
Mankiw’s first two examples are folksy and disarming. Let’s try a similar version:
Angela has a problem: should she summer with her mom on Martha’s Vineyard, or should she summer with her dad on their ranch in Montana? Jane has a problem: should she pay her utility bill, or should she buy the drugs she needs to control her Parkinson’s Disease? Since these are two individuals, you can see that the problems they face are identical. Both will suffer if they make the wrong decision, and both will suffer anyway because of the knowledge they could have chosen otherwise. The rich and the poor are just the same: people struggling with trade-offs. Or, from Mirowski on neoliberalism:  Thou Shalt Know That Inequality Is Natural.
Things get more complicated at the macro level. The third example, guns or butter, is as abstract as the first two are concrete. Mankiw makes it seem that “defense” is a consumer good, like Hummel Figurines or orange marmalade. The government just goes down to the defense store and buys as much as it wants. He doesn’t talk about how those decisions get made at the social level, and doesn’t talk about who gets the benefits of those guns and who pays the costs of the foregone butter, or whether there are better ways to keep aggressors away than bombing their countries. He turns the example into a concrete fact, with no context. The choices made in the US and other countries about how much “defense” to “buy” would make a really interesting case study in macroeconomic behavior, and just defining terms would be really helpful to public discourse. That’s certainly not the point of the Mankiw textbook.
One of the goals of neoliberalism, Mirowski’s Number 5, is to change the idea of democracy from one of participation by citizens in determination of social policy to one of consuming state services, like defense. Guns v. butter shows how that notion gets into people’s heads. Given the level of corruption in the system, in the broad sense of Zephyr Teachout in her excellent book, Corruption in America, it’s also an example of crony capitalism, part of Number 8. There’s a lot more to unpack in the guns and butter example, but let’s move on.
The environmental example is fascinating. From the very beginning of this country, companies polluted lakes, rivers and the air, to keep costs low and prices down. No one did anything. Then when citizens started complaining about their ability to breathe the air and drink the water, and the rich people and their corporations act all outraged, like they have a right to pollute. Mankiw ignores this history, and ignores the obvious fact that dumping pollutants everywhere hurts everyone in general, and some people dramatically; and profits only a few. Again, the entire issue of pollution and environmental destruction would make fascinating case studies in economics. Mankiw’s discussion supports Mirowski number 10: Thou Shalt Not Blame Monopolies and Corporations.
Finally, there is the trade-off between equality and efficiency. Mankiw’s explanation about the negative effects of a progressive income tax on economic efficiency is flatly wrong. For my explanation, see this and this and this. For a short view, does Mankiw think the economy in the 50s was less efficient strictly because of high income and estate taxes on the rich? I’d love to see a paper showing how that happened. Piketty and Saez suggest a top tax rate of 80%. Here’s a short article explaining their thinking, and here’s an impenetrable paper that lies below it.
I assume Mankiw was referencing Arthur Okun’s 1975 book Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade-Off. Okun postulated that there was a trade-off between equality and economic efficiency from his armchair, and he discusses the implications for policy in this excellent piece. By 1995, it was clear that the facts did not support his speculation. This paper is a review of literature and discussion of exactly how wrong Okun was: Lars Osburg, The Equity/Efficiency Trade-off in Retrospect. Subsequent work has made this even more clear. Mankiw ignores all the evidence and new theory to the contrary, choosing to continue to support an unmeasured armchair theory Mirowski number 9: Thou Shalt know that Inequality is Natural.
The point of this discussion is that textbooks have an outsized influence on people, particularly on non-specialists. They may not recall the argument, but they will recall the examples and the general approach, especially when those are common in discourse, and not contravened by other authorities. I know this from my own college education. It has taken years for me to shed the parts that don’t conform to the reality of life as I have lived it and seen it.