DRI-303 for week of 8-17-14: When Fighting Fire With Fire Just Makes a Bigger Blaze

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

When Fighting Fire With Fire Just Makes a Bigger Blaze

Fans of the classic television series Get Smart will recall the snappy comeback of secret agent Maxwell Smart to a malefactor indignant at the prospect of detention: “You’re not going to arrest me on this flimsy evidence, are you?” “No,” Smart replied confidently, “I’ve got some more flimsy evidence.”

The quality of empirical debate over public policy has deteriorated to this level. Just as politicians are now compelled to act virtually any time something goes wrong, no matter what it is or how slim the likelihood of successful intervention, no exchange of opposing views is complete without quantitative citation. As soon as one side unveils its numbers, the other side must respond with numbers of its own – no matter how far-fetched or badly compiled. It is a Newtonian law of equal and opposite polemical reaction.

As a result, public discourse is now debased to the point of decadence. The long-running debate over the minimum wage has plumbed these depths of intellectual degradation. In the August 21 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Do Higher Minimum Wages Create More Jobs?” authors Liya Palagashvili and Rachel Mace probe for the bottom. It is as if they have rewritten Mel Brooks’ script: “You don’t expect me to believe this flimsy evidence, do you?” “Well, my flimsy evidence is a lot better than your flimsy evidence!”

The Left Wing’s Flimsy Evidence

Op-ed authors Palagashvili and Mace (hereinafter, P&M) correctly relate that the left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a report purporting to demonstrate the success of state-level minimum-wage increases in increasing relative employment growth among states. The report was released in June, 2014, and used data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It examined 13 states that increased their individual minimum wage (as distinct from the federal minimum wage) that month and compared them to the other 37 states whose minimum wage did not rise. The report claimed that the average overall employment growth among the 13 states exceeded that of the 37 states for the five-month comparison period.

The Obama administration appropriated these conclusions with the alacrity of a police department confiscating drug-dealer assets. As P&M note, there was the little matter of “why [the] firms [would] hire more workers when the government raises the cost of hiring workers?” The straight-faced answer was that “hiking the minimum wage raises the incomes of poor workers, causing them to spend more. This additional spending, in turn, is so great that firms hire even more workers.” No less a personage than Barack Obama himself got into this act. “That [worker spending] gets churned back into the economy. And the whole economy does better, including the businesses.”

A priori, this “theory” of economic development is so ludicrous that it would qualify for an evening comedy skit at an American Economic Association convention. “Ludicrous” means ludicrous a priori; its theoretical underpinnings are so completely lacking that nobody would take it seriously enough to investigate. Well, nobody should – these days, no premise is too ridiculous if it can backstop a political point. Our Economist-in-Chief in the White House needs to bolster his standing with the public and shore up two key constituencies. One of those is obvious – the poor, downtrodden low-skilled workers who allegedly benefit from the minimum wage. The other is hidden – the higher-skilled workers, particularly union members, who substitute for the low-skilled workers laid off after the minimum-wage increase.

The “spending rescue” thesis is the culmination of two decades’ worth of left-wing attempts to promote the minimum wage as the salvation of the poor. This crusade began in the early 1990s, when economists David Card and Alan Krueger published a now-legendary study purporting to show that imposition of a minimum wage in New Jersey increased employment there relative to Pennsylvania. The defects of this study have since become almost as legendary as its conclusions. It utilized phone surveys to gather data – a technique heretofore shunned within the profession but thereupon praised as innovative and groundbreaking. But when other economists attempted to confirm the results using payroll data, this change instead reversed the results of Card and Krueger. The study’s econometrics has been panned by expert econometricians. Card and Krueger themselves were unable to supply a theoretical rationale for their result. Ordinarily, this would have been a fatal defect, but the policy implications of the study’s results were so delicious to the left wing that Card and Krueger were lionized and have gone on to professional fame and fortune. The only valid theory that would support their result does not comport with the reality of labor markets.

Why is the left so desperate to validate such a worthless policy measure? Their anxiety derives from the unique qualities of the minimum wage: it hides the benefits to their treasured constituency (unions), masquerades as a godsend to the poor while actually screwing them, and visibly appears to screw the rich (business owners, all of whom are assumed “rich” by definition) while actually doing so only in the short run. What a deal! The “optics” of the minimum wage are ideal for the left; that is, its visible or apparent effects are politically beneficial to them. Of course, its actual effects are harmful to everybody except the special-interest monopolists who comprise the left wing’s leading constituency these days, but that is jake with the left. Their ultimate goal is power – increasing real incomes for special interests are only a means to that end.

The Traditional Economic View of the Minimum Wage

Until Card and Krueger came along, the minimum wage vied with tariffs and quotas on foreign goods for the title of “most unpopular policy measure” among professional economists. Nearly a half-century of empirical examination reaffirmed the verdict of a priori theory: minimum wages redistribute jobs and real income from some poor and low-skilled workers to other poor and low-skilled workers by reducing employment, closing some businesses and temporarily reducing profits earned by businesses utilizing low-skilled labor.

These results are the outgrowth of the impact felt by business upon imposition of the minimum wage. Formally, it acts like a tax on the employment of low-skilled labor, which is the kind of labor directly affected by the minimum wage. That tax has three kinds of impact: a substitution effect, an output effect and a profit effect. (The first two of these are analogous to the substitution and income effect of a price change in consumer demand theory.) The substitution effect causes firms to employ less low-skilled labor and more of other inputs, including the higher-skilled labor previously mentioned as well as machinery that substitutes for labor. The output effect causes businesses employing low-skilled labor to produce less output, thereby employing fewer inputs of all kinds including labor. The profit effect reduces the profits earned by firms employing low-skilled labor. This third effect is only temporary, because the exit of some firms from the industry due to insolvency or better opportunities elsewhere will eventually raise the rate of return back to its previous, competitive level. That is why so-called rich business owners are adversely affected only transitorily by the minimum wage. The “permanent” gains go to workers who retain their jobs at the higher minimum wage. The “permanent” losses are suffered by workers who lose their jobs, some of whom may leave the labor force altogether. This phenomenon of exit from the labor force is by now well-known to most Americans; it has reached its highest level in over thirty years.

This is a formidable a priori case against the minimum wage. Economists never doubted that the minimum wage adversely affected employment of poor and low-skilled workers; they only doubted the degree to which this was true. Empirical studies of this issue began in the late 1940s, conducted by luminaries like future Nobel laureate George Stigler. Over the succeeding decades, economists used formal statistics to enforce the conditions necessary for a valid empirical examination of the issue.

One common defense of the minimum wage made by newspaper editorialists and readers over the years is that “the minimum wage went up but the U.S. unemployment rate did not go up; in fact, it went down, which proves that the minimum wage does not adversely affect employment.” This argument is invalid for several reasons. First, the minimum wage only affects employment within firms and industries that hire low-skilled labor. That does not begin to comprise the entire U.S. economy. Second, even within those industries directly affected by the minimum wage, the overall effects on employment of labor are equivocal. The substitution effect causes employment of less low-skilled labor but more higher-skilled labor, while the output and profit effects cause less employment of all inputs. It is not unusual at all to find that a liberal administration increases both the minimum wage and the money supply, with the latter causing temporary gains in income and employment that can swamp job losses associated with the minimum wage. This is not only ironic – since it harms the very people purportedly highest among the concerns of the left – but fully compatible with a condition in which the minimum wage causes job losses while the overall unemployment rate falls.

To avoid being fooled by effects outside the scope of the minimum wage, economists confined their studies to low-skilled workers and corrected their statistical methods to correct for trends and outside influences. That has been the traditional focus of econometrics, to compensate for the ways in which social sciences differ from the laboratory experiments common to the physical sciences.

Now, though, traditional econometrics has taken a back seat to raw political desire. And this corrupting influence has infected both sides of the political spectrum.

The Right Wing Retaliates With Its Own Flimsy Evidence

P&M disdain virtually all of the history and a priori theory cited above. They have their own flimsy evidence to present against the minimum wage. Their case is purely quantitative; clearly they believe in fighting fire with fire. They begin by finding the portion of the labor force comprised of low-skilled labor, which is roughly 2%, insufficient to generate the high-powered spending necessary to outweigh the minimum wage’s disincentives.

While no doubt true, this leaves room for counterargument by the left. Minimum-wage proponents will respond by accusing P&M of “overlooking” the greater propensity to spend by the poorest families. This is a feeble rebuttal, but the average person won’t know the difference and will probably rule the point a draw at best.

P&M then make a stronger point – that the logic of proponents’ case should mean that bigger minimum-wage boosts should have bigger effects on employment. In fact, the opposite was the case in January-May, 2014. The three substantial minimum-wage increases took place in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, the three falling between 5% and 14%. Yet these three states had the worst job growth of the 13 increase-states, an average of 0.3% compared to the 1.28% average increase in the other 10 states. “Indeed, job growth was worse in each of these three states than it was, on average, in the 37 states that did not raise their minimum wage at all,” P&M report. And “in New Jersey, the state that hiked [the] minimum wage the most – to $8.25 an hour from $7.25 – employment actually fell by about 0.56%.” In the state with the largest job growth, WashingtonState’s 2.1%, the minimum wage went up by a whopping 13 cents per hour, or almost $24 per month for a full-time employee.

If P&M had rested content with this demonstration, they could have escaped criticism. Up to this point, they were merely using the left’s own evidence against it without accepting its methods. They were showing that the left’s argument wasn’t consistent even in its own terms, albeit without demonstrating how hopelessly confused those terms really were.

But P&M couldn’t stand prosperity. To a roll of drums, they unwrapped the crown jewel in their collection. “We conducted a statistical analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data called a two-sample “t” test for comparing two means. We found, for this time period, no difference in the job-growth trend in the states that raised their minimum wages from states that did not. In other words, the correlation cited as debunking the economic case against the minimum wage is not statistically significant.”

Ta-daaaaaaa!!! Too bad there are no bows taken in print media; P&M would surely rate a round of applause in a run-of-the-mill graduate school economics seminar for their performance. It is surely no coincidence that “Ms. Mace studies economics at GeorgeMasonUniversity” while Ms. Palagashvili is a law-school fellow at NYU. Alas, they have displayed academia at its worst.

That is not to say that P&M flubbed their econometric dubs by conventional standards. We don’t know because we can’t see their results and have only their word as to their findings. But taking their comments at face value, it seems that they followed what have become standard econometric procedures. The t statistic is the standard one for small-sample tests of statistical significance. A comparison of sample means is a basic econometric procedure. Almost certainly, they assumed the standard “null hypothesis” of no difference between average job growth in the 13 states as compared to job growth in the 37 states. In this context, “no difference” does not mean that the two averages are exactly the same, which they obviously aren’t. It means that the degree of correspondence between the two is not sufficient as to enable us to be confident that the correspondence was not due to random chance. And just what does “confident” mean? The standard meaning for it is that we must be at least 90% certain. Lacking that degree of confidence, we enter a finding of “statistically insignificant” – which means that the minimum-wage increase did not “cause” the increases in job growth.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the readers of this op-ed – who undoubtedly make up a sample of Americans that is far more intelligent than any randomly chosen sample – fall into two categories: those who have no idea what P&M’s “statistical significance” paragraph meant and those who think they know but are wrong. Those who correctly understand it probably represent a statistically invisible sliver of its readership. And a majority of economists and statisticians are excluded from that sliver.

P&M thought that they were “one up” on the minimum-wage proponents at CEPR because they (P&M) were using the tool of statistical significance as it has been used for decades in academia and government. That statement would be correct only if the word “misusing” were substituted for “using” in two places. That is why they were fighting fire with fire – they were responding to CEPR’s misuse of numbers with their own misuse of statistical inference. Their mistakes were just fancier than CEPR’s, that’s all.

The Flaws of Statistical Significance

Various authors have expounded the flaws of statistical significance as developed by the late statistician Sir Ronald Fisher. The most comprehensive treatment is probably that of Deirdre McCloskey and Stephen Ziliak, The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice and Lives. For our purposes, it is sufficient to summarize how one of the two groups referred to above views the notion of statistical significance and compare it with the truth.

Ask readers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed to explain the meaning of P&M’s statistical significance paragraph in layman’s terms. Those who think they know the answer will probably say something like the following: “Well, it means that the effect of an increase in the minimum wage on overall job growth is insignificant, the opposite of significant. That means it is “too small to matter.” It’s so small we can’t be confident that something else might not be causing what we’re seeing in job growth.” That’s an intuitively appealing explication for at least two reasons. First, it incorporates the familiar meaning of the words “significant” and “insignificant.” Second, it incorporates the kind of answer we are looking for when we do empirical research on issues like this. Typically, we want “how big” or “how much” kinds of answers rather than “yes or no” types of answers.

Unfortunately, the concept of statistical significance is not what most people think it is. Its findings do not convey any quantitative sense of how big an effect is or how much influence one variable (such as an increase in the minimum wage) has on another (such as state-level growth in employment). Rather, it is a binary, “yes-no” type of concept. It registers the likelihood that the influence of one variable on another is random, as compared to systematic or non-random. Because the variables involved are invariably derived from sample data, it can be viewed as a verdict on the representativeness of a chosen sample.

This is useful information, to be sure. But it is not the most useful information we could wish to obtain. And that is a crying shame because the obsession with statistical significance has pretty much overshadowed everything else in empirical research in the social sciences and even in much of the physical sciences today. This has reached such epidemic proportions that McCloskey, a leading economic historian and econometrician, declares that most statistical work in economics done over the last thirty years is useless and must be done over. That is tantamount to saying that we might as well junk the leading academic journals published during that interval.

Fighting Fire With Fire

The proper reaction to P&M’s reaction to the CEPR study and the left-wing minimum-wage ballyhoo is a polite yawn and a “So what?” This should be followed by a trip to the woodshed and back to the drawing board for P&M, where they would be schooled in proper econometric practice. Alternatively, they can do what true free-market economists have done while their colleagues were practicing pretend-Science: spend the time honing their understanding of concepts like the time-structure of production and capital theory. That will better inform their grasp of reality than the most esoteric econometric model.

Fighting fire with fire can work in specialized cases like oil-well fires. But in today’s debates over economic theory and policy, fighting fire with fire does not extinguish the original fire. It does not even provide intellectual illumination. It merely makes the blaze bigger.

DRI-265 for week of 2-23-14: False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

For many years, the public pictured an economist as a vacillator. That image dated back to President Harry Truman’s quoted wish for a “one-armed economist,” unable to hedge every utterance with “on the one hand…on the other hand.”

Surveys of economists belied this perception. The profession has remained predominantly left-wing in political orientation, but its support for the fundamental logic of markets has been strong. Economists have backed free international trade overwhelmingly. They have opposed rent control – which socialist economist Assar Lindbeck deemed the second-best way to destroy a city, ranking behind only bombing. And economists have denounced the minimum wage with only slightly less force.

Now, for the first time, this united front has begun to break up. Recently a gaggle of some 600 economists, including seven Nobel Laureates, has spoken up in favor of a 40% increase in the minimum wage. The minimum wage has always retained public support. But what could possibly account for this seeming about-face by the economics profession?

The CBO Study

This week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study that was hailed by both proponents and opponents of the minimum wage. The CBO study tried to estimate the effects of raising the current minimum of $7.25 per hour to $9 and $10.10, respectively. It provided an interval estimate of the job loss resulting from President Obama’s State of the Union suggestion of a $10.10 minimum wage. The interval stretched from roughly zero to one million. It took the midpoint of this interval – 500,000 jobs – as “the” estimate of job loss because… because…well, because 500,000 is halfway between zero and 1,000,000, that’s why. Averages seem to have a mystical attraction to statisticians as well as to the general public.

Economists looking for signs of orthodox economic logic in the CBO study could find them. “Some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.” The minimum wage is a poorly-targeted means of increasing the incomes of the poor because “many low-income workers are not members of low-income families.” And when an employer chooses which low-wage workers to retain and which to cut loose after a minimum-wage hike, he will likely retain the upper-class employee with good education and social skills and lay off the first-time entrant into the labor force who is poor in income, wealth and human capital. These are traditional sentiments.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s hired gun at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Chairman Jason Furman, looked inside the glass surrounding the minimum wage and found it half-full. He characterized the CBO’s job-loss conclusion as a “0.3% decrease in employment” that “could be essentially zero.” Furman cited the CBO estimate that 16.5 million workers would receive an increase in income as a result of the minimum-wage increase. Net benefits to those whose incomes currently fall below the so-called poverty line are estimated at $5 billion. The overall effect on real income – what economists would call the general equilibrium result of the change – is estimated to be a $2 billion increase in real income.

The petitioning economists, the CBO and the CEA clearly are all not viewing the minimum wage through the traditional textbook prism. What caused this new outlook?

The “New Learning” and the Old-Time Religion on the Minimum Wage

The impetus to this eye-opening change has ostensibly been new research. Bloomberg Businessweek devoted a lead article to the supposed re-evaluation of the minimum wage. Author Peter Coy declares that “the argument that a wage floor kills jobs has been weakened by careful research over the past 20 years.” Not surprisingly, Coy locates the watershed event as the Card-Krueger comparative study of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1994. This study not only made names for its authors, it began the campaign to make the minimum wage respectable in academic economic circles.

“The Card-Krueger study touched off an econometric arms race as labor economists on opposite sides of the argument topped one another with increasingly sophisticated analyses,” Coy relates. “The net result has been to soften the economics profession’s traditional skepticism about minimum wages.” If true, this would be sign of softening brains, not skepticism. The arguments advanced by the re-evaluation of the minimum wage have been around for decades. Peter Coy is saying that, somehow, new studies done in the last 20 years have produced different results than those done for the previous fifty years, and those different results justify a turnabout by the economics profession.

That stance is, quite simply, hooey. Traditional economic opposition to the minimum wage was never based on empirical research. It was based on the economic logic of choice in markets, which argues unequivocally against the minimum wage. Setting a wage above the market-determined wage will create a surplus of low-skilled labor; e.g., unemployment. Thus, any gains accruing to the workers who retain their jobs will come at the expense of workers who lose their jobs. The public supports the minimum wage on the misapprehension that the gains come at the expense of employers. This is true only transitorily, during the period in which some firms go out of business, prices rise and workers are laid off. During this short-run transition period, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of business owners and laid-off workers. But once the adjustments occur, the business owners who survive the transition are once again earning a “normal” (competitive) rate of profit, as they were before the minimum wage went up. Now, and indefinitely going forward, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of laid-off workers and consumers who pay higher prices for the smaller supply of goods and services produced by low-skilled workers.

The still-employed workers are by no means all “poor,” despite the face that they earn the minimum wage. Some are teenagers in middle- or upper-class households, whose good educations and social skills preserved their jobs after the minimum-wage hike. Some are older workers whose superior discipline and work skills made them irreplaceable. The workers who rate to lose their jobs are the poorest and least able to cope – namely, first-time job holders and those with the fewest cognitive and social skills. The minimum wage transfers income from the poor to the non-poor. What a victory for social justice! That is why even the left-wing economists like Alan Blinder formerly pooh-poohed the minimum wage as a means of helping the poor. (While he was Chairman of the CEA under President Clinton, Blinder was embarrassed when the arguments against the minimum wage in his economics textbook were juxtaposed alongside the administration’s support of a minimum-wage increase.)

This does not complete the roster of the minimum wage’s defects. Government price-setting has mirror-image effects on both above-market prices and below-market prices. By creating a surplus of low-skilled labor, the minimum wage makes it costless for employers to discriminate against a class of workers they find objectionable – black, female, politically or theologically incorrect, etc. Black-market employment of illegal workers – immigrants or off-the-books employees – can now gain a foothold. Business owners are encouraged to substitute machines for workers and have done so throughout the history of the minimum wage. In cases such as elevator operators, this has caused whole categories of workers to vanish. This expanded range of drawbacks somehow never finds its way into popular discussions of the minimum wage, which are invariably confined to the effects on employment and income distribution.

“If there are negative effects on total employment, the most recent studies show, they appear to be small,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  The trouble is that the focus of the minimum wage is not properly on total employment. The minimum wage itself applies only to the market for low-skilled labor, comprising roughly 20 million Americans. There are certainly effects on other labor and product markets. But it is difficult enough to estimate the quantitative effect of the minimum wage on the one market directly affected, let alone to gauge the secondary impact on the other markets comprising the remaining 300 million people. The Obama administration, the vocal economists, the Bloomberg Businessweek and the political Left are ostensibly concerned with the poor. Why, then, do they insist on couching employment effects only in total terms?

It is clear that the same reasons why economists have traditionally chosen not to confuse the issue by dragging in total employment are also the reasons why economists now choose precisely to do so. They want to confuse the issue, to disguise the full magnitude of the adverse effects on low-skilled workers by hiding them inside the much smaller percentage effect on total employment. That is what allows CEA Chairman Jason Furman to brag that the “CBO’s central estimate…leads to a 0.3% decrease in employment… [that] could be essentially zero.” 500,000 is not 0.3% of 20 million (that would be 60,000) but rather 0.3% of the larger total work force of around 170 million. 0.3% sounds like such a small number. That’s almost zero, isn’t it? Surely that isn’t such a high price to pay for paying people what they’re worth – or what a bunch of economists think they’re worth, anyway.

But we digress. Just what is it that causes those “apparently small” effects on total employment, anyway? “Higher wages reduce turnover by reducing job satisfaction, so at any given moment there are fewer unfilled openings. Within reasonable ranges of a minimum wage, the churn-reducing effect seems to offset whatever staff reductions occur because of higher labor costs. Also, some businesses manage to pass along the costs to customers without harming sales.”

This is mostly warmed-over sociology, imported by economists for cosmetic purposes. American industry is pockmarked with industries plagued by high turnover, such as trucking. If higher wages were a panacea for this problem, it would have been solved long since. Today, we have a minimum wage. We also have a gigantic mismatch of unfilled jobs and discouraged workers. The shibboleth of businesses “passing along” costs to consumers with impunity was a cherished figment imagined in books by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s and 60s, but neither Galbraith nor today’s economists can explain what hypnotic power businesses exert over consumers to accomplish this feat.

The magic word never mentioned by Peter Coy or the 600 economists or Jason Furman is productivity. Competitive markets enforce a strict link between market wages and productivity – specifically, between the wage and the discounted marginal value product of the marginal worker’s labor. Once that link is severed, the tether to economic logic has been cut and the discussion drifts along in never-never land. The political Left maunders on about the “dignity of human labor” and “a living wage” and “the worth of a human being” – nebulous concepts that have no objective meaning but allow the user to attach their own without fear of being proven wrong.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s cover features a young baggage handler holding a sign identifying his job and duties, with a caption reading “How Much Is He Worth?” Inside the magazine, a page is taken up with workers posing for pictures showing their jobs and their own estimation of their “worth.” These emotive exercises may or may not sell magazines, but they prove and solve nothing. Asking a low-skilled worker to evaluate their own worth is like asking a cancer victim what caused their disease. Broadcast journalists do it all the time, but if that were really valuable, we would have cured cancer long ago. If a low-skilled worker were an expert on valuing labor, he or she would qualify as an entrepreneur – and would be set up to make some real money.

A Fine-Tuned Minimum Wage

Into the valley of brain death rode the 600 economists who supported a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. Their ammunition consisted of fine-tuning based on econometrics. Let us hear from Paul Osterman, labor economist of MIT. “To jump from $7.25 to $15 would be a long haul. That would in my view be a shock to the system.” Mr. Osterman, exercising his finely-honed powers of insight denied to the rabble, is able to peer into the econometric mists and discern that $10.10 would be …somehow… just right – barely felt by 320 million people generating $16 trillion in goods and services, but $15 – no, that would shock the system. In other words, that first 40% increase would be hardly a tickle, but the subsequent 38% would be a bridge too far.

In any other context, it would be quite a surprise to the economics profession to discover that the study of econometrics had advanced this far. (The phrase “science of econometrics” was avoided advisedly.) For decades, graduate students in economics were taught a form of logical positivism originally outlined by John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard Keynes) and developed by Milton Friedman. Economic theory was advanced by developing hypotheses couched in the form of conditional predictions. These were then tested in order to evaluate their worth. The tests ranged from simple observation to more complex tests of statistical inference. Hypotheses meeting the tests were retained; those failing to do so were discarded.

Simple and attractive though that may sound, this philosophy has failed utterly in practice. The tests have failed to convince anybody; it is axiomatic that no economic theory was ever accepted or rejected on the basis of econometric evidence. And the econometric tools themselves have been the subject of increasing skepticism by economists themselves as well as the outside world. One of the ablest and most respected practitioners, Edward Leamer, titled a famous 1983 article, “Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics.”

The time period pictured by Peter Coy as an “econometric arms race” employing “increasingly sophisticated” tools and models overlapped with a steadily growing scandal enveloping the practice of econometrics – or, more precisely, statistical practice across both the natural and social sciences. Within economics alone, it concerned the continuing failure of the leading economists and economic journals to correctly enforce the proper interpretation of the term “statistical significance.” This failure has placed the quantitative value of most of the econometric work done in the last 30 years in question.

The general public’s exposure to the term has encouraged it to regard a “statistically significant” variable or event as one that is quantitatively large or important. In fact, that might or might not be true; there is no necessary connection between statistical significance and quantitative importance. The statistician needs to take measures apart from ascertaining statistical significance in order to gauge quantitative importance, such as calculating a loss function. In practice, this has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Two leading economic historians, Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Ziliak, have conducted a two-decade crusade to reform the statistical practice of their fellow scientists. Their story is not unlike that of the legendary Dr. Simmelweis, who sacrificed his career in order to wipe out childbed fever among women by establishing doctors’ failure to wash their hands as the transmitter of the disease.

This scandal could not be more relevant to the current rehabilitation of the minimum wage. The entire basis for that rehabilitation is supposedly the new, improved econometric work done beginning in 1994 – the very time when the misuse and overemphasis of statistical significance was in full swing. The culprits included many of the leading economists in the profession – including Drs. Card and Krueger and their famous 1994 study, which was one of dozens of offending econometric studies identified by McCloskey and Ziliak. And the claim made by today’s minimum-wage proponents is that their superior command of econometrics allows them to gauge the quantitative effects of different minimum-wages so well that they can fine-tune the choice of a minimum wage, picking a minimum wage that will benefit the poor without causing much loss of jobs and real income. But judging the quantitative effect of dependent variables is exactly what econometrics has done badly from the 1980s to the present, owing to its preoccupation with statistical significance. The last thing in the world that the lay public should do is take the quantitative pretensions of these economists on faith.

This doesn’t sound like a profession possessing the tools and professional integrity necessary to fine-tune a minimum wage to maximize social justice – whatever that might mean. In fact, there is no reason to take recent pronouncements by economists on the minimum wage at face value. This is not professional judgment talking. It is political partisanship masquerading as analytical economics.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the $2 billion net gain in real income projected by the CBO if the minimum wage were to rise to $10.10 is a minute percentage gain compared to the size of a $16 trillion GDP. (It is slightly over 0.001%.) The notion of risking a job loss of one million for a gain of that size is quixotic. Even more to the point, the belief that economists can predict gains or losses of that tiny magnitude in a general equilibrium context using econometrics is absurd. The CEA and the CBO are allowing themselves to be used for political purposes and, in the process, allowing the discipline of economics to be prostituted.

The increasing politicization of economics is beginning to produce the same effects that subservience to political orthodoxy produced on Russian science under Stalin. The Russian scientist Lysenko became immortal not because of his scientific achievements but because of his willingness to distort science to comport with Communist doctrine. The late, great economist Ronald Coase once characterized the economics profession’s obsession with econometrics as a determination to “torture the data until it confesses.” Those confessions are now taking on the hue of Soviet-style confessions from the 1930s, exacted under torture from political dissidents who wouldn’t previously knuckle under to the regime. Today, politically partisan economists torture recalcitrant data on the minimum wage in order to extract results favorable to their cause.

The CBO and the CEA should have new stationery printed. Its logo should be an image of Lubyanka Prison in old Soviet Russia.

DRI-186 for week of 1-5-14: The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

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The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

The topic du jour in economic-policy circles is “secular stagnation,” thanks to two recent speeches on that topic by high-powered macroeconomist Lawrence Summers. The term originated just after World War II when Keynesian economists, particularly Alvin Hansen, used it to justify their forecast of the high unemployment and low growth that ostensibly awaited the U.S. after the war.

Now, nearly 70 years later, it is back. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, monetary economist John Taylor likened its re-emergence to a vampire arising from his crypt. There is indeed something ghoulish about the propensity of Keynesian economists to ransack outdated textbooks in search of conceptual support for their latest brainstorm.

The backstory behind secular stagnation is only half the story, though. The other half is the insight it offers into the mindset of its patrons.

The Birth of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

As World War II drew to a close, economists gradually turned their attention to a problem that had intermittently occupied them since the late 1930s. The Great Depression had soured the profession on the workings of free markets. The publication of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment Interest and Money had suggested a new framework for economic analysis that placed emphasis on unemployment and its elimination. While war mobilization had made this issue moot, the return of servicemen and readjustment to a peacetime economy brought it back to prominence.

Many Keynesians foresaw a return to mass unemployment and Depression. The leading American exponent, Alvin Hansen, developed a specific hypothesis along those lines. Keynes had posited a simple theory of aggregate consumption: consumption was a stable, linear function of income. These properties implied that, over time, it might become progressively more difficult to maintain full employment.

A numerical example using the simple Keynesian macroeconomic model will clarify this point. Y = real income or output, which is the sum of C (Consumption), I (Investment) and G (net Government spending). Further, C is a linear function of Y; that is, C = a + bY, where the “a” term reflects the influence on Consumption of factors other than real income and “b” (the slope of the Consumption function depicted diagrammatically) is the marginal propensity to consume from additional income acquired. Assume, purely for expository purposes, that a = 50, b = .75, I = 100 and G = 100. If Y = 1000, then C = 50 + .75 (1000) = 800. The influence of technology, which improves from year to year, will cause productivity to increase and output to increase over time, all other things equal. Assume, again purely for illustrative purposes, that this increase is 5%. In that case, the full employment level of income will increase from 1000 to 1050. But C does not increase by 5% to 840; it increases only to 837.50. In order to preserve full employment (according to Keynesian logic), the sum of I and G will have to increase by 212.50, an increase of 6.25% over its previous value of 200 – which is more than 5%. Over time, this putative annual shortfall in Consumption would get larger and larger, requiring successively larger doses of I and G to keep us at full employment.

Already we can see the germ of logic behind Hansen’s secular stagnation hypothesis, which is that Consumption over time will fall farther and farther behind the level necessary to preserve full employment. (The word “secular” does not reflect its customary meaning of “non-religious or worldly” but rather its technical economic meaning of “a long time series of indefinite duration.”) Underconsumption is a theme dear to the hearts of Keynesian economists. In this case, it depends as a first approximation on the algebraic structure of the simple Keynesian model, in which Consumption is a simple linear function of income (Y).

There was much more to the analysis than this. In principle, Consumption might increase for reasons unrelated to income. But Hansen predicted just the opposite. He believed the primary source of autonomous increases in Consumption was population growth, and he foresaw a sharp in U.S. population growth after the war. He was equally pessimistic about increases in autonomous Investment because he thought the highest-returning investments had already been tapped. Thus, by default, government deficit spending was the only possible remedy for progressively worsening unemployment and stagnating economic growth – hence the term “secular stagnation.”

The Gruesome Death of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

Alvin Hansen was known as the “American Keynes.” Presumably this was because of the apostolic fervor with which he preached Keynesian gospel. In this case, he shared something else with Keynes: the thoroughness with which history repudiated his ideas.

Hansen predicted population decline. Instead, the U.S. experienced the biggest baby boom in history. Among other effects, this produced an explosion of household investment in consumer durables such as homes, automobiles and appliances. The shortages and government-imposed rationing of World War II had generated a pent-up demand that burst its boundaries in the postwar climate.

Rather than unemployment and depression, the U.S. enjoyed one of its biggest expansions ever in 1946. This eventually created problems when, during the Korean War, the Truman administration preferred to fund the war via money creation rather than employing the borrowing that had financed most defense expenditures during World War II. The result was inflation, which the Administration countered with wage and price controls.

The U.S. had borrowed to the max in its conquest over the Axis powers, with debt climbing to its highest level as a percentage of national output. In his recent book, David Stockman pointed out the important role played by the Eisenhower Administration in paying down this debt and returning a semblance of sanity to federal-government spending.

This combination of private-sector buoyancy and government fiscal retrenchment left no need or room for the Keynesian remedy proposed by Hansen. As the 1950s unfolded, economic theoreticians on all sides of the spectrum delivered the coup de grace to the secular stagnation hypothesis.

In 1957, Milton Friedman presented his “permanent income” hypothesis of consumption spending, which fleshed out the individual utility-maximizing theory of consumer behavior with the picture of a consumer whose spending is governed by an estimation of lifetime or “permanent” income. He or she will tend to dissave by borrowing when young and by drawing down accumulated assets when old, meanwhile accumulating assets via saving in prime earning years. It is not actual or realized income so much as this individualized conception of expected normal income that influences consumption spending.

Keynesian Franco Modigliani developed his own theory of “life cycle” consumption, rather broadly similar to Friedman’s, within the same time frame. Left-wing economist James Duesenberry developed a “relative income” hypothesis stating that consumption was influenced by the consumer’s income relative to that of others. While there were important theoretical and practical differences between the three theories, they all rejected the simple Keynesian linear dependence of consumption on income. And this drove a stake through the heart of the secularly widening gap between consumption and income. The slats had been kicked out from under the secular-stagnation platform.

The secular stagnation hypothesis had already been proved to be a resounding flop in practice. Now it was shown to be wrong in theory as well. Before Keynesian economics had even been adopted on a wholesale basis, it had suffered its first crushing defeat.

The Rise of the Undead: Secular Stagnation Rises from the Crypt

Broadway impresarios sometimes revive past productions, but they invariably choose to revive hit plays rather than flops. Based on its first run, secular stagnation would not seem to be a prime candidate for revival. Nevertheless, Lawrence Summers mounted a new version of the concept and took it out of town for a tryout in two recent speeches, supplemented by comments on subsequent blog posts.

In his first speech, made to the International Monetary Fund Research Council, Summers grappled with the theoretical issues involved in resurrecting Hansen’s ancient bogeyman. Paraphrasing Clemenceau on war and generals, Summers mused that “finance is too important to be left to financiers.” The U.S. quickly recovered from the financial panic of 2008-09, but the ensuing four years brought astonishingly little progress when measured in standard macroeconomic metrics like employment and output growth. Although the term “secular stagnation” has long been neglected by his profession, Summers now finds it “not…without relevance” in understanding our current situation.

If the U.S. suffered a mass power blackout, output would fall precipitously. It would be idiotic for economists to object that electricity constitutes “only 4%” of total output – obviously, its importance is not indicated by its fraction of total output. Similarly, finance should be viewed in the same light – as the intermediating, lubricating force that enables the bulk of our goods and services. If a power blackout did occur, we would naturally expect restoration of service to be followed by a catch-up period of increased output, rather than the sort of prolonged stagnation we have actually experienced after the financial crisis. So why hasn’t it happened?

Summers’ explanation to the IMF audience was technical – that the “natural rate of interest” is negative; e.g., below zero. “We may need to think about we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential.” Summers means that the practical inability to charge negative rates of interest – e.g., subsidize loans rather than charge money for them – is what is chaining the U.S. economy down.

In his second speech and follow-up blog  comments, Summers elaborated on the policy implications of his musings. “Our economy is constrained by lack of demand rather than lack of supply. Increasing our capacity to produce will not translate into increased output unless there is more demand for goods and services.” Of course, this is the old-time Keynesian religion of underconsumption, set to the background music of Cole Porter’s “Everything Old is New Again.” Secular stagnation has been brought down from the attic, fumigated with a dusting of demographics (the declining U.S. birth rate) to remove the stench of disgrace left by Hansen.

We need to “end the disastrous trends toward less and less government spending and employment each year.” In other words, the problem is not that we overspent and created too much sovereign debt in 2008-09; the problem is that we spent too little – and then cut spending after that. We should replace coal-first power plants – that will necessitate a huge program of capital spending to keep the power on. Following Keynes, Summers stresses the importance of supporting domestic demand by improving the trade balance.

Just as this program begins to sound suspiciously like a hair of the dog that bit us – or maybe the entire hair coat – Summers removes all doubt. It is “a chimera to rely on regulation” to pop asset bubbles in the face of the monetary excess necessary to underpin his program.

At the close of his first speech, Summers provided the only saving grace with the caveat: “This may all be madness and I may not have this right at all.”

Krugman’s Endorsement of Summers: For This We Need Economists?

Summers’ revival of the secular stagnation hypothesis was the talk of policymaking circles. Half of the talk was probably devoted to wondering what Summers was saying; the other half to wondering why he was saying it. Perhaps trying to be helpful, Summers’ partner in Keynesian crime Paul Krugman weighed in with his own interpretation of Summers’ remarks.

Inevitably, Krugman’s own views crept in to his discussion. The result was a blog post that could scarcely be believed even when read. (Readers with broad minds and strong stomachs are referred to “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” 11/16/2013, on the Krugman archive.)

Krugman begins with an uncharacteristic (and unrepeated) touch of humility. Noting the similarity between his own previous published diagnosis of our economic ills and Summers’ current one, he admits that Summers’ is “much clearer…more forceful, and altogether better.”

According to Krugman, he and Summers both view the U.S. economy as stuck in a “liquidity trap.” This is another Keynesian illustration of market pathology. As Keynes originally described the concept, a liquidity trap existed during an economic depression so intense that monetary policy was rendered impotent. Governments use banks as their tool for creating money; securities sold to the public are snapped up by banks, which in turn use them as the basis for making loans to businesses. But banks cannot force businesses to take out loans. If businesses decide that conditions are so bad that investing is too risky no matter how low the borrowing rate of interest, then monetary policymakers are helpless. In contrast, fiscal policy labors under no such constraint, since the government can always spend money for stimulative purposes. In a liquidity trap, though, monetary policy is likened to “pushing on a string” – a fruitless effort.

Krugman carries this notion further by identifying it with Summers’ evocation of a negative equilibrium interest rate. Investment demand is so weak and the desire to save so strong that the two are equilibrated only when “the” interest rate is below zero. In this climate, Krugman maintains, “the normal rules of economic policy don’t apply…virtue becomes vice and prudence becomes folly. Saving hurts the economy – it even hurts investment thanks to the paradox of thrift.” Krugman hereby drags in Keynesian anachronism #3. The so-called “paradox of thrift” states that the attempt to save more results in less saving because ex ante increases in saving will reduce income and employment, thus preventing the saving that consumers are trying to do, while reducing consumption as well. The only problem with this is that we have actually realized increases in saving and income at the same time, which is diametrically opposite to the effects predicted by the concept.

But these are trifles compared to the powerhouse contentions Krugman has coming up. Summers outlined a general program of public spending to increase demand and frankly admitted the futility of suppressing bubbles caused by the money creation necessary to finance the spending. Is Krugman troubled by this? Not merely “no,” but “Hell, no.”

“While productive spending is best, unproductive spending is still better than nothing…this isn’t just true of public spending. Private spending that is wholly or partially wasteful is also a good thing, unless it somehow stores up trouble for the future.” And how could that possibly happen? (See “Europe, Sovereign Debt of; Europe, Financial Crises of; Europe, Bailouts Multiply Across; Europe, Political Protests Blanket.”)

Krugman continues with an example of wasteful spending by U.S. corporations that produced virtually no payoff after three years. “Nevertheless, the resulting investment boom would have given us several years of much higher employment, with no real waste, since the resources employed would have otherwise been idle.[emphasis added] F.A. Hayek characterized Keynesian economics as the negation of the market, a description well befitting this rationalization. In Krugman’s world, the labor market and relative prices might as well not exist, for all the effect they have. Microeconomics either does not exist or operates on a different plane of existence than the macroeconomic plane on which the statistical construct of aggregate demand wields its decisive influence. For this we need economists?

Krugman now arrives at “the radical part of Larry’s presentation” – as if the foregoing weren’t radical enough! He straightforwardly, even proudly admits what Summers guardedly suggests – that asset bubbles are a good thing. In fact, according to Krugman, U.S. prosperity has been built on bubbles for quite a while. “We now know that the economy of 2003-2007 was built on a bubble.” Krugman is being coy here since he made a celebrated statement in 2002 calling for the Federal Reserve to create a bubble in the housing market. Oddly enough, this attracted almost no attention at the time and has brought him no adverse reaction since then. “You can say the same about the latter part of the 90s expansion; and… about the later years…of the Reagan expansion, which was driven …by runaway thrift institutions and a large bubble in commercial real estate.”

Krugman’s recall of history is curiously defective, especially considering that he was employed in the Reagan Administration at the time, albeit in a minor position. The 1986 tax reform law was, and still is, pinpointed for tax-law changes that helped pop a real-estate bubble largely built on tax-deductibility. The political Left is fond of criticizing Reagan for claiming to have lowered taxes in the early 80s while actually raising them later on. The Left is even fonder of excoriating Reagan and Paul Volcker for ending inflation on the backs of the poor by killing off inflation by stopping monetary expansion too abruptly. Now Krugman is criticizing Reagan for doing just the opposite!

Krugman’s piece de resistance is his riposte to future critics who will object to the runaway inflation that the Summers/Krugman project will promote. Krugman unblinkingly admits that inflation “expropriates the gains of savers,” but replies that “in a liquidity trap, saving may be a personal virtue but it’s a social vice.” And in an economy facing secular stagnation, the liquidity trap is “the norm. Assuring people they can get a positive rate of interest on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver.”

Krugman implicitly and explicitly assumes that markets are as dysfunctional as life-support patients with no respirator. But when he needs a justification for deep-sixing the life savings of hundreds of millions of people, he suddenly pulls out “the market” and gives its ostensible verdict a personal blessing of moral authority. Yet in this very same blog post, he cavalierly dismisses his critics as “a lot of people [opponents of Krugman] want economics to be a morality play and they don’t care how many people suffer in the process” [!!] For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the long-running debate between Krugman and his critics, those critics are free-market economists who want bubbles to end with unsustainable businesses being liquidated rather than bailed out, and the business cycle to be cut short rather than prolonged indefinitely with each iteration worse than the previous one.

Intellectual Stagnation, Not Economic

At this point, it is all too clear that secular stagnation has taken place. But the stagnation is intellectual, not economic. Keynesian economists are framing policy arguments using terms like “secular stagnation,” “liquidity trap” and “paradox of thrift.” These recondite terms went out of fashion over thirty years ago, along with the paleo-Keynesian economic theory that spawned them. They survive in the 20th-century textbooks and graduate-school memories of economists now approaching retirement.

The shocking character of the Summers/Krugman hypothesis doesn’t derive from its vintage, though. Its anti-economic character – relative prices are irrelevant, waste is a good thing, markets are worthless except when economic managers need a pretext for arbitrary action – is professionally repellent. Even more frightening is the hubris on display. Summers is a disgusting sight, standing up in front of an audience at the International Monetary Fund, pontificating with grandiose gravity about “managing an economy” – as if he were the CEO of a U.S. economy of some 315 million people and tens of thousands of businesses.

There are quite a few people who consider a large public corporation too unwieldy to manage effectively. The difficulty of one economist managing an entire economy must increase not merely linearly but exponentially, considering the interaction and feedback effects involved. At least Summers had the minimal presence of mind to recognize that he might be mistaken. Krugman, in contrast, displays the same mindset as his intellectual antecedent, John Maynard Keynes. Several biographers and friends – including F.A. Hayek, with whom his relations were cordial despite their opposing views – remarked that Keynes was obsessed with his own preeminence as a public intellectual rather than with mastery of economic theory as such. Hayek remarked that Keynes may have been the most brilliant man he ever encountered but was a bad economist. Summers and Krugman show no signs of possessing the intellectual diversity and flexibility of Keynes – only his arrogance and deep-seated need for personal attention.

There is another shocking aspect to this latest policy flap. Summers/Krugman are in the anomalous position of criticizing the results of their own policies. That is, even they cannot credibly maintain that we have lived under a regime of laissez-faire or tight fiscal or monetary discipline for the last five years. They can only insist that not enough was done. Of course, this is the standard big-government lament; when big-government fails, try bigger government. But in this case, they are telling us that the results they formerly called bad were really good and we should expect no more from them in the future. The friendliest left-winger would have to acknowledge that Summers/Krugman are confessing failure and telling us that this is the best we can do. Notice, for example, that neither man stressed the very short-term nature of their policy prescription or promised that once their strategy of fiscal inebriation reached its apogee, we could let the market take over. No, theirs was a counsel of despair reminiscent of late 1970s malaise.

You can’t get any more stagnant than that.