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The Great Growth Target Leak of 1961

In Doctor Strangelove, General Ripper explains to Captain Mandrake why Clemenceau’s dictum on war is now obsolete:

He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

Oddly enough, it was not generals who were at the forefront of strategic thinking but academics like Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling and Daniel Ellsberg. Meanwhile, liberal politicians had concluded that the economy was too important to be left to the economists — let alone to the unscripted dealings of consumers and producers. Soon after Kennedy’s inauguration, signs appeared in the Commerce Department asking, “What have you done for growth today?” [implicitly: ask not what growth can do for you…]

The American proposal of a coordinated decade growth target for the countries in the newly formed Organization for Economic Coordination and Development was controversial. The Secretary-General of the OECD, Thorkil Kristensen, the British, Canadian and Belgian delegations were skeptical. There had even been doubt raised in the U.S. Treasury Department about “the focus on GNP as a measure for progress and the propaganda value of a target below an unrealistic average growth rate of 5 percent annually” (Schmelzer, p. 175).
Nevertheless, the U.S. delegation was determined to announce an OECD growth target as a riposte to the Soviet Party Congress’s grandiose plans announced for 1970 and 1980. Somehow the proposal and opposition to it were leaked to the press. The Americans were widely suspected. As Matthias Schmelzer details The Hegemony of Growth (2016), the leak changed “the entire dynamic of this discussion”:

The entire dynamic of this discussion suddenly changed when OECD bureaucrats and delegates learned that immediately before the MCM [ministerial meeting] the US proposal to set a growth target had leaked to the press. First in the New York Times and then around the world, newspapers were analyzing the viability and hidden motives of the target and reported on the different views on the proposal among OECD member countries. In all articles the initiative was interpreted as a direct response to Khrushchev’s announcements, an allegation the US delegation denied. The press was generally skeptical, in particular in Europe, and argued that the proposal was unrealistic. Characteristically, the German business daily Handelsblatt stated that member states did “not at all command the necessary economic policy instruments to force onto their industry and agriculture a specific growth rate.” Furthermore, there was some fundamental critique. For example, John Allen complained in the Christian Science Monitor that the growth target set by the OECD could not be achieved because the US had “grown nearest the top of the tree.” Arguing that the richest nations have “the ‘worst’ growth rates” and that for America and Britain growth rates were bound to decline, he stated: “The United States already has run a race and won. It does not have to accept the challenge to the same race over again, against a fresh runner.” Instead, the US should focus on improving the quality of education and housing, on alleviating poverty, and aim “to lift the underdeveloped countries up to Western standards.” Irrespective of these more nuanced critiques, the prior leak of the US plans put immense pressure on OECD ministers. Although it was not stated explicitly in the debates, at least the German delegation seems to have interpreted the leak as an intentional act of the US delegation to get agreement on its “propagandistic” target. At the meeting the German Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard accordingly complained that it was “improper that Ministers should read in the newspapers of the previous day and the day before what they were to decide that day.”

It is interesting to note that within all the extensive discussions among OECD experts and the key economists from member countries, the idea that a distinction could be made between absolute and relative growth numbers, between the size of an increase of the economy and the rate of increase, had not been brought up. Although no one expected the US and Britain to grow at the same rate as Italy or Japan due to the possibilities for catch-up, the shared assumption was that given the right policies growth rates could be stabilized between 4 and 5 percent annually for all countries, irrespective how rich they were and how large their economies had already grown. The growth rate dominated economic policy debates in the 1960s, exponentiality was the implicit ideal, not linearity.

So that is how co-ordinated growth targeting first leapt onto the world stage — as a panacea propaganda stunt without the technical know-how for accurate forecasting, targeting or policy selection to meet the targets. By happenstance, the OECD countries came close to meeting their joint 1960s growth target. The econometric analysis and policy prescriptions came as an afterthought.

In terms of enshrining the hegemony of economic growth as a policy imperative, the OECD growth targeting has to be judged a success. What that means in terms of global financial stability, the demise of the Bretton Woods system, environmental and social impacts is another question. But what struck me as I was reading Schmelzer’s documentary account the 1961 decision is how much the concept of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targeting mimics the American proposal for economic growth targeting. This is not a good sign.

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Can John Cochrane and Jennifer Rubin handle the truth about the lump-of-labor fallacy?

An open letter to John Cochrane and Jennifer Rubin

Dear John Cochrane and Jennifer Rubin,

I read with interest your column, Jennifer, which led me to your chapter, John, in Blueprint for America on trade and immigration. I have studied the history of the lump-of-labor fallacy claim for nearly 20 years and have have published several articles dealing with that history. I have to wonder if there is any other assertion that has endured for so long, produced so little evidence, ignored all refutation and enjoyed so much authoritative consensus as the lump-of-labor fallacy claim.

Let me repeat, so as not to be misunderstood: I am talking about the bogus fallacy claim and not the fallacy itself. The claim consists of two parts, one of which is self-evidently true and the other of which is not proven. The self-evident part is that there is not a fixed amount of work to be done. The unproven part is that belief to the contrary — that there is only so much work to be done — is the driving force or the “idea behind” opposition to some policies and support for others.

Not proven is an understatement. In my research of 236 years of the fallacy claim, I have come across very few examples of claimants offering any evidence whatsoever for the existence of the belief. In a virtuoso display of circular reasoning, support for or opposition to particular policies is offered as prima facie evidence for the fallacious belief, which is then posited as the motive for support or opposition to those particular policies.

The claim has been refuted definitively by several economists, including A. C. Pigou and Maurice Dobb, but claimants have never addressed or even acknowledged those counter-arguments. Last month, Omar al-Ubaydli of George Mason University and the Mercatus Center attributed advocacy for shorter hours of work to belief in the lump-of-labor fallacy. I subsequently invited Omar to an ethical debate on the substance of the fallacy claim. I would like to extend the same invitation to John Cochrane. Here is an overview of my exchange with Omar.

A few days ago, in an interview in Foreign Affairs, Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative member of parliament in U.K. made some very perceptive remarks about whether people’s perceptions were driven by belief in a lump-of-labor or by other perceptions, regardless of whether those perceptions are accurate:

A lot of clever people talk about the “lump of labor fallacy” and all the rest of it, but there are lots of different economic theories involved. But the perception was what drove the politics, not the economic theory. In large parts of rural England—a town like Boston, which your own town of Boston is named after—the perception was that things were changing, life wasn’t getting better for quote-unquote indigenous people, and they voted against that.

The perception that “life is not getting better” is subjective and is in comparison to some retrospective expectation — life has not improved “as much as I thought it would.” Economists are saying a rather astonishing thing when they “view with contempt” the presumably rational economic actors’ satisfaction and expectations. They are claiming that subjective utility is wrong. Think about that.


Tom Walker [Sandwichman]

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It’s An Idea (not all) Economists View With Contempt…

As the derisive name suggests, it’s an idea economists view with contempt, yet the fallacy makes a comeback whenever the economy is sluggish. — Paul Krugman

Professor Krugman is currently “Distinguished Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center, at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.” Janet Gornick is the Director of the Luxembourg Income Study. The following excerpt is from Peter Frase and Janet Gornick, “The Time Divide in Cross-National Perspective: The Work Week, Gender and Education in 17 Countries.”  (Dec. 2009) Working Paper No. 526 in the Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper Series:

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“Why Are Voters Ignoring Experts?”

That is the question Jean Pisani-Ferry asks at Project Syndicate. In the wake of the Brexit vote there is a veritable chorus of experts and economists asking the same question. One explanation I don’t expect to see very often is that the supposed experts systematically ignore their own critical literature. Hubris.

Professor Pisani-Ferry inadvertently presents an example when he suggests that economists should “move beyond the (generally correct) observation” that “if a policy decision leads to aggregate gains, losers can in principle be compensated.” This is not a “generally correct” observation. It is, in the words of I. M. D. Little “unacceptable nonsense.”

This “compensation principle” — also known as the Kaldor-Hicks criterion — has been thoroughly refuted. I have documented the embarrassing career of this supposed principle in several posts over the last two years at EconoSpeak. Here are links to four of those posts:

Public Works, Economic Stabilization and Cost-Benefit Sophistry
#NUM!éraire, Shmoo-méraire: Nature doesn’t truck and barter
For the Euthanasia of Kaldor-Hicks/Cost-Benefit Pseudo-Science
Cost-benefit analysis as “unacceptable nonsense”

Opposed to the critical literature is simply a game of make believe. Let’s pretend those fatal criticisms don’t exist or that we didn’t see them or that they’re not all that important or that we can continue to use the fundamentally flawed criterion “until something better comes along.” This is not good enough. For a single economist to not know about the invalidity of the compensation principle would be malpractice. For the professional consensus to tolerate and even promote such malpractice is malfeasance.

People ignore experts because the experts have been systematically misleading them about what the benefits of policies are likely to be.

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“If, as a result of Brexit, the economy crashes it will not vindicate the economists, it will simply illustrate once more their failure.” — Ann Pettifor

You can see immigrants. You can’t see NAIRU or flexible labor market policies. Most people wouldn’t know a NAIRU from a Nehru jacket and have probably never heard of flexible labor market policies.

There is a simple logic behind the “growth through austerity” policies beloved by Cameron and Osborne: “wages are too damn high.” But there is also a more technical-sounding  obfuscation. This more convoluted explanation is that there is a long-run, “natural” rate of unemployment that is unaffected by aggregate demand, therefore fiscal stimulus will result in inflation. Thus the only non-inflationary way to reduce unemployment is to fine tune this hypothetical natural rate by removing labor market rigidities.

Sounds plausible? What it means in practice is “wages are too damn high.” In the 19th century, this superstition was known as the wages-fund doctrine. Also known as this magazine of untruth.

Another euphemism for these “flexible labor market policies” (i.e., “wages are too damn high.”) is “structural reforms.” In a press release from the  Center for Economic and Policy Research, Mark Weisbrot pointed out the connection between Brexit and these so-called structural reforms:

“While the movement in the UK to leave the EU had right-wing, anti-immigrant and xenophobic leaders, in most of Europe that is not the driving force of the massive loss of confidence in European institutions. The driving force in most of the European Union is the profound and unnecessary economic failure of Europe, and especially the Eurozone, since the world financial crisis and recession.

“It has cost European citizens millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in lost income, and is sacrificing a generation of youth at the altar of fiscal consolidation and ‘structural reforms.’ It has delivered an overall unemployment rate in Europe that is twice the level of the United States; more than seven years of depression in Greece; more than 20 percent unemployment in Spain, and long-term stagnation in Italy. In recent weeks French workers have been fighting against ‘structural reforms’ that seek to undermine employment protections and the ability of organized labor to bargain collectively.”

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The Iatrogenic and Incoherent “Theory” of Flexibility

In its report on “The long-term decline in prime-age male labor force participation,” President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers writes:

Conventional economic theory posits that more ‘flexible’ labor markets—where it is easier to hire and fire workers—facilitate matches between employers and individuals who want to work. Yet despite having among the most flexible labor markets in the OECD—with low levels of labor market regulation and employment protections, a low minimum cost of labor, and low rates of collective bargaining coverage—the United States has one of the lowest prime-age male labor force participation rates of OECD member countries.

Although it has indeed become conventional, the ‘flexible’ labor markets mantra is not a theory. It is dogma. An article of faith. The theory behind the nostrum of flexible labor markets is Milton Friedman’s natural rate theory of unemployment, which, as Jamie Galbraith pointed out twenty years ago, was constructed by adding expectations to the empirical Philips Curve observation of a relationship between unemployment and inflation:

The Phillips curve had always been a purely empirical relation, patched into IS-LM Keynesianism to relieve that model’s lack of a theory of inflation. Friedman supplied no theory for a short-run Phillips curve, yet he affirmed that such a relation would “always” exist. And Friedman’s argument depends on it. If the Phillips relation fails empirically— that is, if levels of unemployment do not in fact predict the rate of inflation in the short run—then the construct of the natural rate of unemployment also loses meaning.

Galbraith’s evisceration of the natural rate theory and NAIRU is incisive, persuasive and accessible. Read it.

At the other end of the flexibility spectrum, intellectually, is Layard, Nickell and Jackman’s Unemployment: Macroeconomic Performance and the Labour Market. In their influential textbook, Layard et al. grafted the dubious NAIRU concept onto the archaic lump-of-labor fallacy claim to create their own chimera hybrid, the LUMP-OF-OUTPUT FALLACY.

Galbraith’s “Time to Ditch NAIRU” has 293 citations on Google Scholar. Layard et al’s “Unemployment” has 5824.

To appreciate the pretzel logic of Layard et al., one has to first understand that the old fallacy claim is essentially an inversion of the “supply creates its own demand” nutshell known as Say’s Law. Jamie’s dad, John Kenneth Galbraith, had argued back in 1975 that Say’s Law had “sank without trace” after Keynes had shown that interest “was not the price people were paid to save… [but] what was paid to overcome their liquidity preference” and thus a fall in interest rates might encourage cash hoarding rather than investment, resulting in a shortfall of purchasing power.

So, at one end of their graft Layard et al. were resuscitating the old dogma that Keynes had supposedly “brought to an end.” At the other end of the graft was Friedman’s tweaking of an atheoretical empirical observation — the Philips Curve — that was  “patched into IS-LM Keynesianism to relieve that model’s lack of a theory of inflation. (James Tobin once elegantly described the Phillips curve as a set of empirical observations in search of theory, like Pirandello characters in search of a plot.)” And let’s not even get started with IS-LMist fundamentalism.

Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” quip about the Soviet Union has nothing on Layard et al.’s antithetical and anachronistic graft on a tweak of an atheoretical patch on an unsatisfactory “attempt to reduce the General Theory to a system of equilibrium,” as Joan Robinson described IS-LM “Keynesianism”:

Whenever equilibrium theory is breached, economists rush like bees whose comb has been broken to patch up the damage. J. R. Hicks was one of the first, with his IS-LM, to try to reduce the General Theory to a system of equilibrium. This had a wide success and has distorted teaching for many generations of students. Hicks used to be fond of quoting a letter from Keynes which, because of its friendly tone, seemed to approve of IS-LM, but it contained a clear objection to a system that leaves out expectations of the future from the inducement to invest.

And by “expectations,” Keynes clearly had in mind uncertainty, not honeycomb equilibrium.

So that’s the tangled ‘theory’ behind ‘flexible’ labor market policy prescriptions. A regurgitated dog’s breakfast of contradiction and amnesia.

Layard et al.’s lump-of-output fallacy flexibility chimera thus resembles a sort of a theoretical ouroboros chicken-snake swallowing its own entrails:

To many people, shorter working hours and early retirement appear to be common-sense solutions for unemployment. But they are not, because they are not based on any coherent theory of what determines unemployment. The only theory behind them is the lump-of-output theory: output is a given. In this section we have shown that output is unlikely to remain constant.

This is simply FALSE. Shorter working hours is based on the same theory as full employment fiscal policy: Keynes’s theory. But don’t take my word for it. In an April 1945 letter to T.S. Eliot, Keynes wrote:

The full employment policy by means of investment is only one particular application of an intellectual theorem. You can produce the result just as well by consuming more or working less. Personally I regard the investment policy as first aid. In U.S. it almost certainly will not do the trick. Less work is the ultimate solution.


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Is “Political Correctness” to Blame for Orlando Massacre?

Well, well, the dear old National Rifled Assholeciation has weighed in with its theory. Assault weapons don’t kill people, “political correctness” does.

“The National Rifle Association (NRA) on Tuesday defended gun rights, two days after a gunman killed 49 people and left 53 others injured at a gay nightclub in Orlando,” Jesse Byrnes at The Hill reports:

“In the aftermath of this terrorist attack, President Obama and Hillary Clinton renewed calls for more gun control, including a ban on whole categories of semi-automatic firearms,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in a USA Today op-ed.

“They are desperate to create the illusion that they’re doing something to protect us because their policies can’t and won’t keep us safe. This transparent head-fake should scare every American, because it will do nothing to prevent the next attack,” he said.

Cox said “political correctness” allowed for the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history to take place, noting that the FBI had interviewed the shooter multiple times since 2013 and that he maintained a government-approved security license.

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s political correctness prevented anything from being done about it,” Cox wrote.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who the NRA has endorsed, also attacked “political correctness” in a speech following the shooting.

So what exactly is the connection between “political correctness” and mass murder? Let’s ask an expert: mass murderer Anders Breivik (the following is reposted from EconoSpeak, August 2015)

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Dear Omar al-Ubaydli:


Yes, Omar, I would be delighted to elaborate. Thank you for asking.

The point I am trying to make was stated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” The truth of that maxim is illustrated by the claim, in your counterpoint to Dean Baker, that “proponents of work-sharing believe an economy requires a fixed amount of work to be performed by a limited number of people.”

Not only is that assertion untrue, but it has been repeated ad nauseum for two hundred and thirty-six years without any effort by claimants to ascertain what “proponents of work-sharing” (etc.) actually believe.

Not only is the claim unfounded, but it has been refuted half a dozen times or more by notable economists. Those rebuttals have never been addressed by the antagonists who repeat and repeat the fixed amount of work mantra.

Not only is the claim untrue and unfounded, but it is rote — a monotonous, mechanical repetition of the same catchwords and phrases that have been recited a thousand time over the span of more than two centuries.

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