Tag Archives: Economic policy

Lucas on an OECD Economic Expert Report

In a Carnegie-Rochester paper from 1979, Robert Lucas reviews an earlier report to the OECD by a group of independent experts. Lucas views the report as vacuous, eclectic, and dangerous:

… I know of no other way to convey the Report’s undisciplined eclecticism. It meanders through the long list of issues which have been defined in popular debate as “policy problems,” accepting all as equally suited to treatment by government action and equally amenable to economic expertise, offering ambiguous and unsupported opinion on each. Nowhere can one discern a consistent set of economic principles underlying either the choice of questions to be addressed or the policy stances which are recommended.

As an economist, I find this alarming, but not because I believe the Report will in any direct way contribute to a worsening in economic policy in the OECD countries. On the contrary, the Report is so nearly vacuous that it will be difficult to tell which governments are attempting to follow its guidance and which are not. It is alarming because of the vision of economics it presents, to the public and to us: an economics limited to the writing of safely ambiguous lines for insertion in the speeches of treasury officials and central bankers. It is opportunism posing as pragmatism.

And he argues that economics and economists can only lose from contributing to reports of this kind.

It seems certain that economic policy in the OECD countries in the coming ten years will involve a wide variety of government interventions in particular sectors and industries. The particular interventions which emerge will, looked at in the right way, presumably exhibit some pattern. (For a social scientist, this much must be taken as an article of faith.) The chances that it will be economic theory which provides coherence to these policies must be judged, however, to be near zero. In these circumstances, the McCracken Committee is attempting to create the appearance that economic advisors are technically in control of developments, guiding them in a spirit of flexibility and pragmatism, supported by the technical research efforts of an entire

Yet is it in the interest of economics that these political developments be viewed as being supported by a consensus of professional opinion? The main reason to answer in the negative, stressed in this review, is also the simplest: it is not true. There is also a second reason, of a more “pragmatic” nature. There is every reason to believe that the economic policies of the coming decade will, being guided by no economic principles, lead to very bad results. What can be the benefit of claiming for economic theory the blame for a collection of policies which in no way follow from it?

It would be interesting to know how Lucas assesses contemporary reports issued by the OECD and other bodies.

Comments on Geneva Report 23

Panel with Elga Bartsch, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Giancarlo Corsetti, Olivier Garnier, and Charles Wyplosz. Moderated by Tobias Broer.

Elga Bartsch, Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Giancarlo Corsetti, Xavier Debrun: Geneva Report 23 | It’s All in the Mix: How Monetary and Fiscal policies Can Work or Fail Together.

Event at PSE.

My comments on the report.

“Wirtschaftspolitik in Corona-Zeiten (Economic Policy in Times of Corona),” FuW, 2020

Finanz und Wirtschaft, December 9, 2020. PDF.

  • Economic policy is not about GDP growth. It’s about welfare.
  • Externalities are key. Infection externalities don’t go away by calling for responsible behavior. Infection externalities can turn positive.
  • Keeping worthy companies or networks alive does not require government intervention, unless capital markets don’t work.
  • To judge the right amount of burden sharing is beyond economics. But economics gives some clues: In an ideal world, idiosyncratic risk exposure would be insured while in second best, taxes and subsidies achieve only part of that. The data show that trade-offs between public health and economic activity are less severe than sometimes argued.

“Nicht-Wissen kann schützen (Knowing Less Protects),” FuW, 2018

Finanz und Wirtschaft, November 24, 2018. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, November 26, 2018. HTML.

  • European firms dealing with Iran face U.S. “secondary sanctions.”
  • European counter measures (including a blocking statute) prove toothless.
  • Even central banks in the European Union surrender to U.S. pressure, as does SWIFT.
  • Ignorance is bliss: For a sovereign, the best protection against foreign states pressuring to monitor domestic citizens and businesses may be to know as little as possible.

Neoliberalism—Narrow and Broad

In the Boston Review, Dani Rodrik discusses neoliberalism and argues that

mainstream economics shades too easily into ideology, constraining the choices that we appear to have and providing cookie-cutter solutions.

Rodrik emphasizes that sound economics implies context specific policy recommendations.

And therein lies the central conceit, and the fatal flaw, of neoliberalism: the belief that first-order economic principles map onto a unique set of policies, approximated by a Thatcher–Reagan-style agenda.

But he also stresses that the

principles [of economics] are not entirely content free. China, and indeed all countries that managed to develop rapidly, demonstrate their utility once they are properly adapted to local context. Conversely, too many economies have been driven to ruin courtesy of political leaders who chose to violate them.

In Rodrik’s view

[e]conomists tend to be very good at making maps, but not good enough at choosing the one most suited to the task at hand.

I have argued elsewhere that the main job of economists is to create maps, not to choose among them. See also the earlier post on Ariel Rubinstein’s excellent discussion of Rodrik’s recent book.