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I Confess, Graunt Didn’t Invent Economics…

Aristotle did. As Philip Kreager reminded me:

Historians of economics have for some time treated his [Aristotle's] writings as formative, even though relevant passages in the Politics and Ethics amount to only a few pages.

Wait. There’s more:

In the Politics, however, population is a recurring topic, extensively discussed and integral to the overall argument. “The first part of a state’s equipment,” Aristotle says, “is a body of men, and we must consider both how many they ought to be and with what natural qualities,”

The almost obsessive focus on proportionality I noted in Graunt and Locke is no proof of Graunt’s influence on Locke. The proportional view was central to Aristotle’s Politics and everybody in early modern humanism “up to and including Adam Smith” was doing Aristotle. You didn’t have to read Aristotle. The commentaries on Aristotle were ubiquitous. For Aristotle,

The logic of proportional versus numerical relationships also describes the economy of the household in relation to its size, and this in turn shapes the wider demography of constituent groups. Oikos, the household, is the root of oikonomia, the art of household management, from which we derive the modern term “economics.”

What Graunt did contribute was a brilliant synthesis of humanist Aristotelianism with the techniques of merchant bookkeeping.

Graunt’s work brilliantly synthesized humanist methods of natural history and rhetorical communication that were basic to Aristotelianism with techniques of merchant bookkeeping in which population totals are treated as open or relative accounting balances, rather than closed aggregates; his method arose as a direct response to the need to calculate balances in the body politic.

So no, Graunt didn’t invent economics. He did invent the science of population statistics, though, and thus laid the foundation for modern social sciences. As for Graunt’s contribution relative to Petty’s, Walter Wilcox aptly summed up my own impression, “To the trained reader Graunt writes statistical music; Petty is like a child playing with a new musical toy which occasionally yields a bit of harmony.”

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“A certain proportion of work to be done”: How John Graunt invented economics

John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662) is acknowledged as the inaugural text of “political arithmetick.” Graunt is ranked along with William Petty, Charles Davenant and Gregory King as a major pioneer of “the art of reasoning by figures, upon things relating to government.”

In their Outline of the History of Economic Thought, Screpanti and Zamagni, however, describe Graunt as a “follower” of Petty. In books and articles on history of economic thought, Petty is mentioned ten times as often as Graunt (JSTOR, Google Scholar). Graunt is more frequently thought of as a pioneer of population studies and vital statistics. Regarding that latter capacity, Philip Kreager has written extensively and wonderfully on Graunt’s truly innovative methodology.

It is convenient at this point to recall that to produce, to consume and to trade are actions first, as are supply, demand, value and price – before they can be treated as things and aggregated. People perform those actions and they do them in proportion to their numbers, abilities and appetites.

Proportion, by the way, is central to Graunt’s methodology. Did I mention the word appears no fewer than 68 times in Graunt’s Observations? Kreager’s article, “New Light on Graunt” contains 48 occurrences of the word. The methodological significance of this word for Graunt cannot be overstated. I am therefore quoting in full Kreager’s explanation of the analytical role of proportional checks in bookkeeping and Graunt’s Observations:

A population, like a commercial enterprise, must achieve at least an equilibrium of income and expenditure over time, if it is to survive. Graunt noticed that the bills, like a merchant’s day-book, provided a continuous record of additions and subtractions in a constantly changing numerical whole. The diversity of transactions in people and trade, however, make such a simple running account difficult to interpret. The ‘method of double-entry’ bookkeeping, widely promoted in Graunt’s time, claimed to provide a solution to this problem by revealing the inherent order and regularity of trade. The procedure may be summarized as follows. On the basis of his daily journal of transactions, a merchant was supposed to classify and tabulate every entry according to a few major types of account. Successive transactions pertaining to an account were then entered twice in a ledger, in parallel columns, one entry showing the changing balance of debt, and the other of credit. The comparison or proportion of the two columns relative to starting and subsequent balances provided the merchant with an immediate evaluation of the current and past status of the account, relative to others. This made it possible to spot accounting errors, to isolate losses, and to distinguish real profits from diverse fluctuations in income.

Therefore, when Graunt wrote, “…if there be but a certain proportion of work to be done; and that the same be already done by the not-Beggars; then to employ the Beggars about it, will but transfer the want from one hand to another…” it is virtually certain that he was not referring to a “fixed amount” of work. Instead he was referring to a regularity. Change happens but disproportionate change may be cause for concern.

It is difficult to think of a economically-significant fact that doesn’t involve “a certain proportion” of something to something else. GDP per capita gauges a certain proportion between economic output and population. Productivity measures a certain proportion between economic output and hours of work. Economic growth reflects a certain proportion between one year’s output and the next’s. The unemployment rate considers a certain proportion between the labor force and the number of people who are looking for work. It is certain proportions all the way down.

Compare, though, Dorning Rasbotham’s lament, 118 years after Graunt, about people who say there is a “certain quantity” of labor to be performed:

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Prayer – Science = 0

Yes, it’s okay to talk about climate change right now. The devastating natural disaster in Fort McMurray is “consistent” with climate change.

Fort McMurray

The Fort McMurray wildfire is horrific. Miraculously, no people have been killed, so far. Saying that the unseasonably hot conditions in Alberta are “consistent with” climate change is not to say that they are “caused by” anthropogenic global warming. But there is no jurisprudential rationale here for requiring that guilt be established beyond a reasonable doubt. On the contrary, the precautionary principle is the appropriate standard for evaluating the possible connection.

A lot of people take to social media to proclaim their prayers for the people affected by the disaster. There’s nothing wrong with prayers. I do wonder about the public testimonial of praying, though. If that isn’t a politico-religious act, what is?

But what really gets the Sandwichman’s goat are the sanctimonious edicts against “politicizing” the disaster by mentioning the connection to climate change. “Now is not the time.” And if not now, when? If expressions of religious faith are welcome in times of trouble, why should affirmations of scientific conscience be considered disrespectful?

Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been castigated for “linking” the fire to climate change even though she qualified the connection by stipulating that no single event is caused by climate change alone. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subsequently “corrected” May, pointing out that no single event is caused by climate change alone. You can read the two leaders’ statements right in the same CBC news bulletin.

Outgoing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair boldly evaded the controversy with a forthright equivocation that “It’s not the time to start laying blame…” This is like one of those NRA pronouncements after a mass shooting that “now is not the time” to discuss preventative measures.

“Blame”? Talking about science is “laying blame”? Well, I suppose if some folks refuse to talk about science, deny the science, then talking about science might be seen as laying blame.

I shudder at the long lines of pickup trucks idling in evacuation traffic, running out of fuel… but I must qualify that no single pickup truck’s running out of gas in wildfire evacuation traffic can be directly attributed to the consequences of anthropogenic global warming alone. There’s a lot of factors involved. It’s complicated. Let us pray.

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Is the Road to Hell Paved with Pareto Improvements?

In a large multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, any change in any one individual’s strategy doesn’t affect anyone else, so a player can know that defection will be a Pareto improvement. We might say that the problem of social evil is that the road to hell is paved with Pareto improvements. — Ted Poston, “Social Evil,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Volume 5

Poston’s “social evil” is what previous authors have called a social trap or, more famously, the tragedy of the commons.

A Pareto improvement is a change that makes at least one person better off without making anyone worse off. According to the standard fable, voluntary exchange results in a Pareto improvement because each party in the exchange gets something they wanted more than what they gave up for it.

A prisoner’s dilemma involves a situation where the individual payoff to each player for defection is better, regardless of whether the other player defects or co-operates but the collective payoff is maximized when both players co-operate.

In a large multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma game, defection by some players may have no effect on the other players’ outcomes, while defection by a large number of players may have catastrophic effects after some vaguely defined tipping point has been reached. Within limits, defections thus appear to result in a Pareto improvement, where some players are made better off and no one is made worse off.

In Fights, Games and Debates, Anatol Rapoport presented a production and exchange model that deserves to be much better known. It is a very elementary model and thus, as Rapoport warns repeatedly, the results should not be taken as a faithful depiction of what is likely to happen in reality. However, it offers some critical insights into “common sense” assumptions and specifically into the idea of Pareto improvement, which is also based on extreme simplification.

Rapoport’s production and exchange “society” consists of two people who each produce goods and exchange with each other a uniform, fixed ratio of their products. The individuals derive utility from the goods they produce and, presumably, can increase their utility by exchanging some of the goods they produce for the different goods their counterpart produces.

Effort to produce those goods, however, is a disutility. The utility from goods increases logarithmically as the quantity of goods increases but the disutility of effort increases in proportion to the amount of effort expended.

Agents in this model can only change their utility by increasing or decreasing their own effort and output. Thus, plotted on a graph, X can only move along the x-axis and Y can only move along the y-axis. Under the stipulated conditions, a stable equilibrium can only be achieved when the utility of the proportion retained by each producer is larger than the disutility of effort.That is to say, the proportion retained cannot be too small and the disutility of effort cannot be too large.

In the absence of a stable balance, any relaxation of effort by one of the agents will lead to parasitism by that agent as the other will immediately compensate by increasing effort, the first agent will slack off more to compensate for the increased effort of the other — and so on.

But even in the presence of a stable equilibrium, the total utility of the two agents, at the balance point, will be less than the total would be without exchange, as long as their production/effort decisions are guided solely by their own utility rather than by some agreement about how to link their production effort to achieve a “social optimum.” This outcome is contrary to the “common sense” interpretations of Pareto improvement and Pareto optimality. As Rapoport cites his mentor, Nicolas Rashevsky, it turns out that:

The only ‘ethics’ which leads to the attainment of maximum joint utility in the model of society we have considered is the ‘egalitarian ethic,’ in which the concern for self and for other are of equal weight.

It would be easy to dismiss Rapoport’s conclusion as pertaining only to very restrictive premises. This is a point that Rapoport reiterates throughout his exposition. But the objection applies equally to Pareto’s model.

Vilfredo Pareto is not readily perceived as a proponent of the egalitarian ethic. In his model, though, Rapoport unpacked a tacit premise of Pareto that rational agents would act “as if” guided by some unacknowledged intuition of linkage — one might even call this invisible intuition “moral sentiments.”

Furthermore, the restrictiveness of Rapoport’s assumptions may not be as unrealistic as it seems at first. The fixed ratios of exchange can be relaxed to merely widespread similarities in the ratios of exchange. The specification for a stable equilibrium that the proportion of an individual’s product exchanged does not exceed the proportion retained can be rationalized by the fact that there is a roughly equal number of hours of unpaid household work performed in the world as there are waged hours of labor. All this is before we move on to the issue of “multiplayer games” — of a society in which individual actions that ostensively do no harm may accumulate into “social evil.”

In Beyond the Invisible Hand, Kaushik Basu examined the issue of outlawing yellow dog contracts, as the Norris-LaGuardia Act did in 1932:

It could he claimed that if one worker prefers to give up the right to join trade unions in order to get a certain job that demands this of workers, then this may be a Pareto improvement. But if such yellow dog contracts are made legal, then lots of firms will offer these contracts, and the terms for jobs without a yellow dog clause may deteriorate so much that those who are strongly averse to giving up the right to join unions will he worse off in this world.

Basu proceeds to consider labor standards in cases in which there are multiple equilibria. He asks, “Should the law be used to set a limit on the number of hours that a worker is allowed to work?” His answer — backed by reference to supporting empirical studies — would earn the scorn of economists who fancy a lump of labor behind every proposal for shorter hours:

A statutory limit on work hours can, by limiting the supply of labor, push up the hourly wage rate, and it is possible that at this higher wage rate people would not want to work that many hours. In other words, the labor market may have two or more equilibria, in which case banning the long work-hours equilibrium is fully compatible with a commitment to the Pareto principle.

Unpacking Pareto optimality and Pareto improvement, as Rapoport’s model of production and exchange does, undermines the premise of the road to hell being paved with Pareto improvements. If there is indeed a tacit moral sentiment, a secret egalitarian ethics at the heart of the Paretian idea, then any violation of trust will impose a loss of utility on everyone else — perhaps even on the violator. Those individuals gains through defecting were only “improvements” assuming an ethical vacuum. What is the point of building a road to a hell where one already is? In an ethical world, violations of trust are losses of utility.


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Worstall’s Malignant Lump

In an op-ed at the New York Times yesterday, Nick Hanauer and Robert Reich made the following observation:

In a cruel twist, the longer and harder we work for the same wage, the fewer jobs there are for others, the higher unemployment goes and the more we weaken our own bargaining power. That helps explain why over the last 30 years, corporate profits have doubled from about 6 percent of gross domestic product to about 12 percent, while wages have fallen by almost exactly the same amount.

According to Tim Worstall, Hanauer and Reich committed a lump-of-labor fallacy. Worstall objected specifically to their claim that raising the income cap for the overtime premium would force employers to either pay higher wages or hire more workers. Worstall’s objection is that the employer’s demand for labor will not remain the same if the cost of that labor goes up.

To be precise, Worstall’s assertion is one version of the fallacy claim complex. It happens to be the version refuted by Maurice Dobb in 1929. As Dobb pointed out, workers are concerned with how much compensation they receive in return for the amount of effort required of them and not simply in the aggregate amount of employment in the economy. Working longer hours for less pay is not a bonanza for the workers even if it does lead to more aggregate hours worked in the economy as a whole.

But again, Worstall’s fallacy claim is but one version of a complex of claims, some of which contradict each other. I addressed this perplexing proliferation of claims in my contribution to Working Time: International trends, theory and policy perspectives. Refute one of the bogus fallacy claims and a substitute will immediately pop-up to take its place!

It is not easy to unpack what is going on inside the fallacy claim because its persuasive strategy is based on a “house of mirrors” effect. Whether disingenuously or unwittingly, fallacy claimants commit yet another version of the fallacy they attribute to others. Their error, though, is embedded in the perfect competition, perfect information, full employment, ceteris paribus abstractions of the standard equilibrium model of supply and demand. The name given to this set of abstractions by those who mistake them for a description of reality is “economics.” When “economists” commit this vulgar error it is regarded by Worstall & Co. as an infallible maxim.

Now, it is conceivable that some of those accused of committing the lump-of-labor fallacy may indeed assume the proverbial “fixed amount of work to be done” or whatever. There can be bad arguments for a good cause. But, as A.C. Pigou pointed out in his refutation of the ubiquitous fallacy claim, “If it were a good ground for rejecting an opinion that many persons entertain it for bad reasons, there would, alas, be few current beliefs left standing!”

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