The Future of Economics: The Arational and the Irrational

Back in 2000 The Economist ran an article titled “The Future of Economics” (4 March 2000, p. 80). It was largely a gloss on a symposium on the same from the Journal of Economic Perspectives (vol. 14, no. 1, Winter 2000). The authors acknowledged that economics was a faltering field. Setting aside the proposition that economics may simply have run it’s course and be into its dotage of diminishing returns, the article considers two possibilities for a way forward:

David Colander of Middlebury College, in an article that looks back on the present from an imagined 2050, blames the current discontent on the orthodox general-equilibrium model that underlies most of today’s economic theory. He favors a shift from the current approach, which has been called “loose-fitting positivism” (propose a model consistent with standard assumptions, then test it), to one based on “loose-fitting pragmatism” (forget about canonical principles, just search for patterns in the data).

Such an approach, he says, would be consistent with “the rise of complexity science within the scientific community generally.” Researchers sitting at their computers, subjecting data to a withering barrage of statistical analysis, would still hope to come up with laws of a sort, or regularities at any rate. But these “laws” would be regarded as provisional and ever-shifting: indeed, the claim is that changeless underlying patterns do not exist. Complex systems expand and evolve; even at the most fundamental level, these patterns are temporary. But whether this approach could still be called “economics” is debatable.

The second approach is much easier to reconcile with traditional methods. Its most celebrated exponent is Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, who has also written a paper for the symposium. Mr. Thaler agrees that the canonical principles of orthodox theory have led economics astray, but he believes these mistakes can be put right. He seeks, in other words, a tighter-fitting positivism. You improve the fit above all, he would argue, by putting a more realistic account of human cognition at the center of the theory.

Orthodox theory famously assumes that people are rational. In reality, they are not. On the other hand, they are not crazy, or crassly incompetent — in other words, their behavior is not random. If economics could try harder to recognize that people try to be rational, but in certain, often predictable, ways fail to be, the positivist approach would have a better foundation. In essence, what Mr. Thaler calls for is a marriage, or at least much closer cohabitation, between economics and psychology.

I have thought of this article frequently since reading it back in 2000 when it was first published. Given the spate of books along these lines, especially the second, I’d have to say that this was one of the more perspicacious articles that I’ve ever read.

The first approach is an example of Petabyte Age type thinking, eight years before Wired put it on the cover. But of course it is an idea that had to incubate in the rarified world of advanced theoreticians for years before any eruption into the popular conscience. The main offering in this area would be Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics (2005), though their book is not a fully atheoretic inquiry so much as putting of large questions to the test of large data sets. More to the topic would be Ian Ayres’s Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart (2007), though the fact that Mr. Ayres used the very methods he describes in his book to arrive upon a title casts a great deal of doubt on the soundness of said methods.

As for the build a better model of the economic corpuscles approach, it seems to have advanced along far enough that it is now also ready to be packaged up for mass consumption. And of course the psychologists have much more lucrative options in publishing than the mathematicians and computer scientists.

Judging by some of the key phrases in the Economist article (the predictably irrational stuff) I was pretty sure that they had in mind Dan Ariely’s thinking, published as Predictably Irrational (2008), but it turns out that Richard Thaler is, along with Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge (2008). Rounding out the most omnipresent trio is Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (2008). Also on the list of offerings along this line would be Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (2008) and Michael Shermer’s The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics (2007).

So that’s the future of economic study. Either a discounting of human rationality in favor of the system effect of irrationality or allowing rationality to drop out in favor of the system effect of economic thing-in-itself.

Patterned Lawlessness

Back in July Will Wilkinson made a point that I thought was interesting at the time, but that has stuck in my grey matter and is gradually working it’s way toward becoming a fundamental component of my worldview (“Note About Rational Scofflaws,” The Fly Bottle, 11 July 2008):

I wonder how many drivers exceed the speed limit basically whenever they judge that it won’t cause anybody any problems. I’d guess, approximately, all of them. Also, there are very clear laws about, say, using turn signals, or using turn signals when parallel parking (do you do this?), or not taking a right hand turn on red lights when it is marked, not double parking, even if you’re just going to be one minute while you fetch your latte. And so on. When’s the last time you jaywalked? Lunch? People are more or less rational and tend to respond to incentives, and therefore the roads are a zone of patterned lawlessness. We all know what infractions the cops care about — how much over the speed limit is too much over, etc. — and we tend to respond accordingly. We even tend to internalize and moralize the rules whose expected cost of violation is relatively high. It’s more efficient that way. And thus our huffing indignation is easily riled by those who face different incentives and so flout different rules than the ones we flout without reflection.

This morning on my ride to work I coasted through a stop sign in front of a police cruiser that was approaching from the road to my right. I gave a little embarrassed smile and a little wave. She made a little disapproving face and waved back. It’s anarchy I tell you. Anarchy! I got to work in four minutes.

I have always thought of anarchism as a proscriptivist political program. It’s never occurred to me to consider anarchism as a positivist description of what’s actually going on behind normal law-conforming behavior.

People have an imagination of the law as somehow an ultimately hard thing. We hear expressions like “the iron law of …” or we use the same word, “law,” in physics as we do in our social imaginings. By linking the law with morality and construing morality as partaking of the metaphysical, the associations flow back the other direction as well.

And reference to the law would serve as a good explanation in most instances. Why does everyone so assiduously follow the lines painted on the roads, or when they drive over them, do so in such a regular fashion? And thus we might explain the vast middle hump of the bell curve of driving behavior. But then someone swerves over the line into oncoming traffic. To account for all driving behavior — the outliers as well as the vast middle of the curve — another theory with more breadth is required.

I also like the way that this theory strips morality of its metaphysical pretensions, paints the metaphysics as mere rhetorical device, or sees the inclination to render our ordering prescripts as fundamental as merely a pragmatic shorthand, or as the ideological reification of particularly strong emotions. Really we just react in a pragmatic way to the incentives that we find around us. It should be noted that some of those incentives are natural and some institutional. This is perhaps part of the basis for distinction, a la Elliot Turiel, between prohibitions of morality and prohibitions of social convention.

Patterned lawlessness is also a description of affairs that comports with the existential account of law-conforming behavior. So entrenched is our notion of the law as somehow inviolable, or so cowed is our thinking by the high wall of consequence erected by the law that we are prone to see dictates of the law as things about which there simply is no other option but to do as we are told. Existentialism was born in part as a reaction to the horrors of amorality and unreason to which people were pushed at the behest of state bureaucracies in the Twentieth Century, namely the Somme, the Holocaust. Existentialism contains the admonition that at every moment we stand free to do otherwise, even where the law is concerned.

Federal Reserve Balance Sheet

Amid news that the Federal Reserve is establishing this multi-billion dollar line of credit, extended that many billion in overnight repurchase agreements, contributed $30 billion to the J.P. Morgan buyout of Bear Stearns and spending $83 billion for the purchase of A.I.G., the question lingering in the back of my mind is how is the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve looking right about now. The Federal Reserve doesn’t have unlimited resources at it’s disposal. It has about $800 billion in assets which only buys it a limited amount of credibility. It’s not all that much relative to the scale of modern financial flows.

Anyway, wonder and The Wall Street Journal will deliver (Blackstone, Brian, “U.S. Moves to Bolster Fed Balance Sheet,” 18 September 2008, p. A3 [subscription required]):

Federal Reserve assets, The Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2008

The Treasury, responding to worries that the Federal Reserve could be running out of financial ammunition to deal with the credit crisis, moved to reload the Fed’s gun with $100 billion worth of bullets.

The central bank’s bailouts of Bear Stearns and American International Group Inc., as well as lending programs created in the past year, are putting the Fed’s once-mighty balance sheet at risk. Financial markets have begun to fear that if nothing is done, the Fed might have trouble putting out fires in the future.

The Fed held close to $800 billion in Treasury securities a year ago. By last week, that had dwindled to just under $480 billion. The amount drops to less than $200 billion if the $200 billion pledged to the Term Securities Lending Facility — a Fed lending program created in March for investment banks — and the full $85 billion line to AIG are accounted for, Fed watchers say.

“The tally is so low that it is becoming imperative for the Fed to take actions to enlarge its balance sheet,” said Tony Crescenzi, a strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.

When the Fed lends money to a financial institution, it usually sells an asset such as Treasurys separately in the market and absorbs the cash created by the loan. The goal is to keep a proper level of money flowing through the financial system. If the Fed were to run too low on Treasurys to conduct these operations, it could lose its ability to drain money from the banking system and control inflation.

On Wednesday, the Treasury announced a temporary program to bolster the Fed’s balance sheet and sold $40 billion in 35-day Treasury bills. It announced later in the day that it would hold two additional auctions of Treasury bills on Thursday totaling $60 billion. In effect, Treasury is auctioning off more securities than are needed to fund the federal government, and carrying out the draining function in place of the Fed. The cash from the Treasury’s sales is parked at the Fed.

Of course the government has infinite money, but it comes at a cost. As long as the Fed coffers are topped off, Chairman Bernanke is his own man. But already Federal Reserve assets are approaching levels where he will increasingly be at the behest of Treasury Secretary Paulson and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank.

Et Tu, T-Bills?

The yield on Treasury bonds went negative yesterday for the first time in history. Investors are so desperate to avoid risk that they would rather a known small loss than lend to an unknown. Reuters has considerably more information on the state of public sector debt risks and they make it sound much worse than the passing reference in the Financial Times (Siew, Walden, “S&P Says Pressure Building on U.S. ‘AAA’ Rating,” 17 September 2008):

Pressure is building on the pristine triple-A rating of the United States following a federal bailout of American International Group Inc., the chairman of Standard & Poor’s sovereign ratings committee said Wednesday.

The cost of insuring 10-year U.S. Treasury debt against default rose Wednesday to a record high, a day after the government rescued insurer AIG with an $85-million loan. …

Ten-year credit default swaps, or CDS, on Treasury debt widened three basis points to 26 basis points, according to data from CMA DataVision. This means it costs $26,000 per year to insure $10-million of U.S. Treasury debt against default.

Five-year credit default swaps on Treasury debt were steady at 21.5 basis points. That compares to 9.8 basis points on German five-year CDS and 13.2 basis points on German 10-year CDS, CMA said.

A graph of various CDS rates would be a visual of the rise and fall of the great powers.

Capitalist Systematics and Individual Freedom

In his economic speech on Monday Senator McCain had the following to say about the present financial crisis:

The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people.

Then on Tuesday morning he said to Joe Scarborough:

Wall Street has betrayed us. They’ve broken the social contract between capitalism and the average citizen and the worker. … This is a result of excess and greed and corruption. And that’s exactly what is plaguing Americans today.

I imagine that a lot of people would call me a leftist and a socialist, but from these two comments it seems to me that John McCain must have a pretty contorted idea of what exactly capitalism is underneath the rhetorical hood.

What’s happening on Wall Street isn’t a corruption of capitalism. It’s not that people are angles and in capitalism we’ve finally found an economic system equal to ourselves. The genius of capitalism is that people are greedy, self-interested wretches and capitalism is a system that channels their greed into social good. What’s wrong with what’s going on with the financial system in recent weeks is not that financiers are greedy, or even excessively greedy, but that the system is rigged wrong.

When Democrats call for a new regulatory regime, this is what they are calling for: a different arrangement of the system. Different prohibitions, different incentives, different inducements. It’s the Nudge approach. Align the incentives right and then laissez faire.

The alternative to systematic change is the reengineering of the human heart. And proposals to change the hearts of men are not very conservative. This is why capitalism and liberalism are so closely conjoined. Capitalism is indifferent to the characteristics of the corpuscles that comprise the system. It is the economic system most compatible with self-determination because it doesn’t require people of any particular character to function. It’s even sufficiently robust as to be compatible with extremes of behavior. Other systems less fault-tolerant and rely for their sustainability on the virtue of their participants. As such other systems maintain an interest in the condition of the souls of their members. Some see this as a virtue of these alternate systems.

Recent weeks don’t argue my case very well. It would seem that capitalism is in fact not very robust and in need of quite a bit of extra-systematic shoring up. But that’s owing to fifteen years of willful neglect. Professed admiration for capitalism on the right is not so compatible with the sustainability of capitalism. If you get the system right, you don’t have to worry about the character of the people.

But this is one of the things that’s distinct about Senator McCain. He isn’t that into leaving people alone. He’s a proponent of a particular type of civic virtue and is interested in cajoling people, even cajoling them rather convulsively, into demonstrating his brand thereof. And on the right more generally opposition to business regulation is so inflexible that social engineering is the acceptable alternative.

Not So Fast on the Moral Hazard

Last week American International Group requested assistance in the amount of $40 billion from the Federal Reserve. This was rejected only to have A.I.G. come back with a second request, this time for $75 billion. Over the weekend the Federal Reserve and the Treasury decided to let Lehman Brothers fail. On Monday and today the editorial pages were full of adulation about the reinstantiation of the rule of moral hazard. “If Lehman is able to liquidate without a panic … the benefits would include the reassertion of ‘moral hazard’ on Wall Street.” (“Wall Street Reckoning,” The Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2008, p. A22) “It was a brave decision. By abandoning Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old piece of Wall Street furniture, and refusing to remove their hands from their pockets when Merrill Lynch came calling, Hank Paulson, US Treasury secretary, and Tim Geithner, governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had one of the busiest weekends of dispassion on record.” (Persaud, Avinash, “Lehman Had to Fall to Save the Financial System,” Financial Times, 16 September 2008, p. 13).

But then on midday Monday, New York state started waiving insurance regulations to allow A.I.G. to make a complex set of financial transfers to try to gather up enough collateral to cover it’s debts at a downgraded credit rating. At midday today when it started to look like a private bailout package being negotiated between J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs was faltering, the Federal Reserve stepped in to assist in the negotiations. Then it appeared that the Federal Reserve would be playing a key role in the package, but Fed spokesman was declining comment. Now, late this evening the Federal Reserve is announcing that it’s not going to be facilitating a private loan to, but outright buying a controlling interest in A.I.G. (de la Merced, Michael J. and Eric Dash, “Fed Readies A.I.G. Loan of $85 Billion for an 80% Stake,” The New York Times, 16 September 2008):

In an extraordinary turn, the Federal Reserve was close to a deal Tuesday night to take a nearly 80 percent stake in the troubled giant insurance company, the American International Group, in exchange for an $85 billion loan, according to people briefed on the negotiations.

In return, the Fed will receive warrants, which give it an ownership stake. All of A.I.G.’s assets will be pledged to secure the loan, these people said.

The Fed’s action was disclosed after Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and Ben S. Bernanke, president of the Federal Reserve, went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to meet with House and Senate leaders. Mr. Paulson called the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, about 5 p.m. and asked for a meeting in the Senate leader’s office, which began about 6:30 p.m.

The Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase had been trying to arrange a $75 billion loan for A.I.G. to stave off the financial crisis caused by complex debt securities and credit default swaps. The Federal Reserve stepped in after it became clear Tuesday afternoon that the banking consortium would not be able to complete the deal.

Extraordinary indeed! It would seem that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury aren’t so bullish on moral hazard after all.

The Other D-Word: Default

How bad is the current spate of financial upheavals (the federally backed buyout of Bear Stearns, the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the hasty buyout of Merrill Lynch, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the impending joint federal-private bailout of American International Group)? In trying to explain the seeming double standard in the actions taken by the federal government in response to Bear Stearns back in March and Lehman Brothers this past weekend, today’s Financial Times Comment & Analysis section includes the following tidbit as one of a number of explanations (Persaud, Avinash, “Lehman Had to Fall to Save the Financial System,” 16 September 2008):

Third, there was an alarming factor not present at the time of Bear Stearns’ collapse that argued strongly against new government guarantees. Since the August rescue of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, credit markets have begun to price in the possibility of a default by the US government. The implied probability remains a fraction of 1 per cent but it is an unprecedented development.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. It could be just an investors’ parlor game, like the market on Hollywood has-been career comebacks. Or it could just go to show that unhinged paranoiacs aren’t confined to remote cabins. Some work in the bowels of high finance as well. After the past few months it would hardly be the first sign of a less than steady hand on the till. But there it is. The possibility of a default by the U.S. government has gone from beyond the pale to remote.