Daniel Lin will be teaching Intermediate Micro – Robert Clower would have told him to be happy about it

See this Facebook update from Daniel Lin who teaches at American University:

Just learned that the economics department has an urgent need for more Intermediate Micro classes in spring 2013. My Public Choice class has been cancelled, and I’ve been reassigned to Intermediate Micro. Disappointing. I’ll keep requesting it, and maybe it’ll happen in another semester.

I can understand Daniel’s hopes to teach Public Choice theory. It is a wonderful and interesting topic. In fact had I not been such a monetary theory nerd I would probably have been blogging about Public Choice theory. However, who can seriously imagine public choice theory without microeconomics?

What do we learn in microeconomics? We learn that individuals make choices. Microeconomics – or rather economics – is about choice. With choices comes benefits and costs. All choices come with costs. If I choose to do something I will not be able to do another thing. I can not write this post and sleep at the same time even though I badly needs sleep. It is the cost of writing the post. However, we can also deduct (we do that a lot in microeconomics – no fancy pancy econometrics here…) that my expected marginal utility of writing this post is higher than my expected marginal cost of doing it. The cost obviously include the opportunity cost of not sleeping.

In microeconomics we learn about comparative advantages, we learn about marginalism. We learn about Welfare Theory – Pareto Optimality. These are terribly important concepts. Unfortunately far too many economists soon forget about these concepts and then instead remembers rather misguided ideas that they learn in “traditional” macroeconomics. That is extremely unfortunate. Microeconomics is the foundation for our science. Economics without microeconomics is Marxism – or something worse.

And Daniel remember that no Public Choice theory is possible without microeconomics. Just imagine my favourite Public Choice model – William Niskanen’s Bureaucrat model. It is 100% microeconomics. We start out with an economic agent. The bureaucrat. He is maximizing utility. Niskanen assumed that what would give the  Bureaucrat maximum utility would be to maximize his institution’s budget. A quite fair assumption I think. Niskanen introduces asymmetrical information in his model. Something that might enter into Daniel’s class quite late in the semester, but nonetheless he will probably have to tell a story about peaches and lemons at some point during the semester. So Daniel have the fun of telling your students that when Joseph Stiglitz tells you why there is information problems in the market for used cars it also teaches us why the World Bank is an overblown bureaucracy.

However, it is not only Public Choice theory that is standing on the shoulders of Microeconomics. That is also the case for monetary theory – and of course macroeconomics. The problem with old-school keynesian macroeconomics – before the days of New Keynesian macroecomomics – was exactly that there was no microeconomic foundation for the “theory” and as a result the policy conclusions from old-school keynesian economics lead us to the insanities of price and wage controls and the idea of the fiscal multiplier (yes, Scott feel free to scream at the screen!).

I have earlier suggested that we can not teach macroeconomics with out starting with microeconomics. Or said in another way we start with microeconomics. In the most generalized form that is some kind of general equilibrium theory – a Walrasian economy.

Let imagine the simplest Walrasian economy. We got two goods A and B. The price of A is PA and the price of B is PB. The production of A and B is terms YA and YB. In the Walrasian economy there is no money. So it mean to buy something we will have to produce something. To buy A I must produce B. That is basically Say’s Law:


This is a recession free economy. Supply and demand will also be in equilibrium. There will never be an net excess supply of either A or B.

This is exactly how Robert Clower started out when he was teaching monetary theory. We have a Walrasian model of the world. What he then did was to introduce a third good called M. He would then set the price of M at 1. Then we have


Hence, we can buy the production of A and B for the production of M. We can also call M for money. Hence, the production of money – what we call the money supply – must equal the production. This is also what we know as the equation of exchange:


Where PY is an aggregation of the total production in the economy –  PA*YA+PB*YB. V is as we know money-velocity.

So Daniel, Robert Clower would tell you that if you don’t teach your students proper microeconomics how are we able to teach them about monetary policy?  And William Niskanen would equally tell you – with out microeconomics we will never be able to understand the behavior of bureaucrats.

And David Eagle would tell you that you would never figure out the optimal monetary policy rule without Welfare theory (John Taylor did you miss micro 101?) – as would I.

So Daniel go teach your students Intermediate Micro and make sure that they never forget that if they fail to understand Micro they will really never understand anything else. Not even why Sumo wrestlers cheat.


Central bank rituals and legitimacy

One of the most interesting aspects of US monetary policy since 2008 is that while Ben Bernanke certainly is not ignorant of economic history or monetary theory it seems like the Fed under his leadership has not responded nearly as aggressive to the crisis as one should have expected if one from reading Bernanke’s academic work. Furthermore, one can question why the Bank of Japan for more than a decade has failed to seriously address the deflationary pressures in the Japanese economy. Similarly why have central banks in for example the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Denmark maintained an unwavering support for keeping their currencies pegged to euro while the euro crisis has continued to escalate?

Scott Sumner has sometimes – I guess in frustration – suggested that central bankers are just stupid and this is the reason why mistaken monetary policies are continued for years. I on the other hand have suggested that one should look for a public choice based explanation for central bank behavior and that particularly William Nishanen’s Bureaucrat theory would be relevant. I have also suggested that the success of monetary policy during the Great Moderation has created a certain level of ignorance among policy makers and commentators about monetary policy.

However, there might be an additional explanation for the behavior of central bankers and that has to do with ensuring the the legitimacy of central banks (this could of course be said to be related to my Nishanenian explanation). I found a interesting discussion of this topic in a 1969 paper by Kenn Boulding – “The Legitimacy of Central Banks”.

Here is Boulding’s introduction:

The problem of legitimacy is one of the most neglected aspects of the study of social systems. There may be good reasons for this, for it is inevitably a hot subject. One can hardly discuss the legitimacy of anything without seeming to threaten it, for a great deal of legitimacy depends on things being taken for granted and not talked about at all. The more one looks at the dynamics of social systems, however, the more it becomes clear that the dynamics of legitimacy is one of the most important elements in the total long-run dynamics of society. It certainly ranks with such things as population and demographic movements, and even with technological change with which it is closely intertwined. Its importance can be seen in the remark that if a person or institution loses legitimacy it loses everything. It can no longer maintain itself in the social system. No amount of wealth, that is exchange capability, or power, that is, threat capability, can keep an institution alive if there is a widespread denial of the legitimacy of its role in society. This is because the performance of any continuous and repeated role requires an acceptance of its legitimacy on the part of those role occupants whose roles are related to it. A role in the social system is a focal point or node of inputs and outputs of many different kinds, the output of one role being the input of another. Inputs, therefore, depend on the willingness of other role occupants to give outputs, and they will not do this continuously unless there is legitimacy. Where people feel that certain outputs are illegitimate they will eventually find ways of stopping them. The corresponding inputs will likewise stop. To use a rather crude illustration, a bandit can take your money once, but anyone who wants to take it every week either has to be a landlord or a tax collector, or perhaps even a bank.

There are a considerable number of sources of legitimacy,and the functions which relate the determinants of legitimacy to its amount are extremely complex. They are certainly non-linear and they exhibit discontinuities which are to say the least disconcerting. Sometimes an institution, the legitimacy of which seems to be absolutely unques- tioned, collapses overnight. All of a sudden we reach some kind of a “cliff” in the legitimacy function and the institution suddenly becomes illegitimate. The same thing perhaps can even happen the other way, in which institutions quite suddenly become legitimate after having been illegitimate, A good example of the former is the collapse of the monarchy, beginning in the 17th century. The legitimacy of monarchy survived the Cromwellian war in England, largely because an ancient legitimacy is like a capital stock, it takes a great deal of spending before it can be exhausted. At the time of Louis XIV in the following century one might have thought that the legitimacy of monarchy was absolutely unquestioned and secure. In the following century, however, it collapsed everywhere and the only monarchs who survived were those who abandoned their power and became symbols of legitimacy, like the British, Dutch and Scandinavian monarchs. On the other side, abortion has been an institution which has been regarded as highly illegitimate and now in the face of the population problem seems to be acquiring a quite sudden legitimacy.

Sorry for the long quote, but Boulding’s discussion seem highly relevant for central banks and their behavior during the present crisis. Today (nearly) nobody dare suggesting that we could do without central banks. Take Denmark. In Denmark there is massive public support for the rather irrational institution of monarchy and only few Danes would seriously question the legitimacy of the monarchy. However, even fewer Danes would question the legitimacy of the Danish central bank. However, as history has shown support for institutions can disappear overnight. It is therefore, in the institutional interests of Kings (in the case of Denmark the Queen) and central bankers to insure that their legitimacy is maintained. Obviously we don’t have only to talk about the legitimacy of the central bank but also for example the legitimacy of certain policy rules for example inflation targeting or a fixed exchange rate regime.

Boulding discusses a number of sources of legitimacy:

The first consists of the payoffs of the institution in question:

If an institution provides good terms of trade with those who are related to it, up to a point this contributes to its legitimacy, especially in the long run. The case is clearer on the negative side. An institution which has very poor payoffs, demands a great deal of input from other people and gives very little output to them, is likely to have its legitimacy eventually eroded on this account. 

Therefore, a central bank which fails to “deliver” will eventually become illegitimate. The same can be said for a policy rule like inflation targeting. If inflation targeting stops working (as certainly is the case for example in the euro zone) then public support for it will  be eroded and sooner or later the central bank will have to give it up. However, the central bank is crucially dependent on the legitimacy and it therefore also be in the central bank’s bureaucratic interest to continue to claim that “everything is fine” despite this is in clearly conflict with reality. As Boulding explain: “therefore, a strong tendency to “throw good money after bad” and to continue making sacrifices for some institution, even after some possibly expected long-run payoffs have failed to materialize.”

The second source of legitimacy is age. The Danish monarchy’s legitimacy certainly has a lot to do with the fact that it has been around forever and the same goes for the legitimacy of many central banks. The Federal Reserve will have been around for a 100 years next year. In Denmark the present exchange rate regime has more or less been in place since 1982. Similarly, New Zealand was the first country introduce inflation targeting in 1988. There is no doubt that age provide significant legitimacy to different monetary regimes around the world and the despite of the seriousness of the crisis few well-established monetary regimes have really got under pressure.

The third source of legitimacy is mystery. In the words of Boulding: “Something which is not understood but which is dimly perceived as obscurely grand and magnificent, acquires an aura of legitimacy in the minds of those who do not understand it. The temples and impressive ceremonies of religion, the “state” of kings, the mystique of the brass hat and the military leader, the sanctity of priesthoods of all kinds and even the mystery of science and the laboratory are all related to this aspect of legitimacy”

This I think makes a lot of sense in the case of monetary institutions. Few people understand monetary theory and central banks are generally perceived as very complicated and even mysteries by most ordinary people. The mystery can only be maintained through the “temples”, “ceremonies” and the “brass hat”. Just think of a rate announcement from the ECB. There is a lot of ceremony to that. The same phrases are repeated again an again – and the central bankers all look the same in their dark suits and white shirts and ties (I look like that everyday as well – even though I occasionally would wear a bow-tie and probably are more comfortable with colours than most central bankers are…) As part of maintaining the mystery central bankers of course will also be careful in not questioning these rituals.

A forth source of legitimacy consists of the alliance of an institution with other legitimacies. Boulding terms this the “the legitimacy syndrome”. Just think of the relationship between the ECB and the European Commission. The languages and thinking of the two institutions are very similar. Think of now Prime Minister Mario Monti in Italy – he might as well have been ECB chief instead of the other Mario (Draghi). The thinking, the appearance and the norms very much seem to be the same. There are also strong alliances between central banks in different countries – one central bank would very rarely criticize another central bank. The Swedish Riksbank with its flexible inflation targeting and floating exchange rate regime would be very careful in for example avoiding saying anything bad about the Danish fixed exchange regime.

Concluding, the survival of monetary regimes crucially dependents on the legitimacy of these regimes. This legitimacy can be maintained in many ways by central banks. Among these are the need for mystery and alliances with other legitimate institutions. I think that this should be kept in mind when we are discussing why central banks fail to do the “right thing”.

Kenneth Boulding end his paper with a warning to central banks and it rings as true today as it did in 1969:

“I am pretty certain, however, that whatever mutation may supplant the existing system has not yet been made, but if the legitimacy of the system rests firmly on its payoffs then the social invention which will supplant it, if it ever comes, should be welcomed with joy rather than fear. It is only what I do not now mind calling the fraudulent legitimacies which fear competition.”

What can Niskanan teach us about central bank bureaucrats?

 Numerous studies have shown that prediction markets performs remarkably well. For example prediction markets consistently beats opinion polls in predicting the outcome of elections. In general the wisdom of crowds is an extremely powerful tool for forecasting and there no doubt the markets are the best aggregators of information known to man.

Market Monetarists advocate using the power of prediction markets to guide monetary policy. Scott Sumner of course is advocating using NGDP futures in the implementation of monetary policy (as do I). Furthermore, I have advocated that central banks replace their internal macroeconomic forecasts with prediction markets and also that central banks could use Robin Hanson-style prediction markets to choose between different policy instruments in the implementation of monetary policy.

The advantages of using prediction markets are in my view so obvious that one can only wonder why prediction markets are not used more by policy makers – not only in monetary policy, but just think about the endless discussions about “climate change”. Why have policy makers not set-up prediction markets for the outcome of different “climate initiatives”? I think the explanation have to be found in public choice theory.

William Niskanen argues forcefully in his classic book on “Bureaucracy and Representative Government” (1971) that bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us – their actions are determined by what is in their own self-interest. Niskanen claims – and I think he is more or less right (I used to be civil servant) – that that implies that bureaucrats are maximizing budgets.

So how do bureaucrats maximize their department budgets? Well, it’s really simply – they use asymmetrical information. Take what is now called the Department of Homeland Security in the US. The job of the Department of Homeland Security’s is to monitor the risk of terror attacks on the US and implement policies to reduce the threat against “homeland security” (whatever that is…). If the Department of Homeland Security can convince the US taxpayers that the US faces a massive terror threat then the department is more likely to get allocated more funds. So if the Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats want to maximize their budget then it just have to convince the American public that the US faces a very large terror threat.

The average US taxpayer does not really have a large incentive to go out and find out how big the terror threat really is and remember as Bryan Caplan tells us that voters tend to be rationally irrational (they don’t really have an incentive to be rational in terms of political issues) and as a consequence the average US taxpayer would happily accept any assessment made by the Department of Homeland Security about the level of the terror threat. Hence, if the Department of Homeland Security overestimates the terror threat it will be able to increase its budget and as the Department has superior knowledge of the real threat level it can easily to do so. This of course is just an example and I have no clue whether the authorities are overestimating the terror threat (I am sure my US readers will be happy to tell me if this is the case).

Hence, a bureaucrat can according to Niskanen’s theory maximize its budgets by using asymmetrical information. However, there is a way around this and reduce the power of bureaucrats. It is really simple – we just introduce prediction markets.

Lets say that we set up one prediction market asking the following question: “Will more people die in terror attacks than in will die in drowning accidents in the US in 2012?”  – Then this “terror/drowning”-prediction could be used to allocate funds to the Department of Homeland Security. My guess is that we would be looking at major budget cuts at the Department of Homeland Security. What do you think?

Anyway, my concern is not really the Department of Homeland Security, but rather monetary policy. If you think that the bureaucrats at the US Department of Homeland Security would use asymmetrical information to increase their budgets what do you think central banks around the world would do? Why would you expect central bank’s to pursue any given economic target in the conduct of monetary policy? And why would you trust the central banks to produce unbiased forecasts etc.?

Why is it for example that the Federal Reserve is so reluctant to formulate a clear nominal target? Could it be that it would not be in the bureaucratic interest of the institution? Could it be that central bank bureaucrats are afraid that they would be held accountable if they miss their target?

I don’t know if it is so, but if not then why not just formulate a clear and measurable nominal target? For example a target to increase nominal GDP by 10% by the end of 2013? And why not then use the opportunity to set up a NGDP futures markets? And why not let prediction markets take care of the Fed’s forecasts?

I am not saying that Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are Niskanen style bureaucrats, but if they want to prove that they are not then I am sure that Scott Sumner or Robin Hanson will be happy to advise them on setting up a NGDP futures market (or any other prediction market).

Of course the US Congress (or whoever is in charge) could also just regulate the FOMC member’s salaries based on their ability to hit a given target…

PS The so-called Policy Analysis Market (PAM) actually was meant to be used to among other thing assess the global terror threat. The project was shot down after political criticism of the project.

PPS our friend Scott Sumner is not all about monetary policy – he has also done research on how to use Prediction Markets to Guide Global Warming Policy.

PPS George Selgin would of course tell us that there is an even better solution to the “central-bankers-as-budget-maximizing-bureaucrats”-problem…

Tim Lee – Market Monetarist

Timothy B. Lee at the Cato Institute has a couple of interesting comments out on US monetary policy – they are at the core very much Market Monetarist.

Here is a few recommendations:

Fighting the Last Monetary War (Happy to see Tim is reading Friedman’s Money Mischief – one of my favourite books)
More on Nominal Sales and Monetary Policy (happy to see a tribute to William Niskanen’s monetary policy views)
Beckworth, Ponnuru and Niskanen on Monetary Policy (Tim, you make us proud…)

Most Market Monetarists talk about NGDP level targeting, but I guess people like Beckworth and Woolsey would prefer targeting “nominal final sales to domestic purchasers” as William Niskanen suggested. I have sympathy for that as well – especially if I think of none-US monetary policy then a target on what I would call final domestic spending would be appropriate. Furthermore, final sales was also Clark Warburton’s prefered measure for Py and given I think Warburton is the most underappreciated monetarist ever it is only natural for me to advocate to use final sales rather NGDP as a measure of Py.

Anyway, nice to see a Cato scholar on board. The Cato Institute has been at the forefront of “policy development” in the US for decades and it’s annual monetary conference continues to be hugely influential on US and global thinking about monetary policy and theory so it is truly great that Tim is spreading the message from William Niskanen.

William Niskanen 1933-2011

William Niskanen passed away on October 26. I have always admired Niskanen a lot. He was a champion of liberty and a great economist.

Any student of Public Choice theory would know Niskanen’s classic Bureaucracy and Representative Government from 1971 and I still think of this as his greatest contribution to economic theory. However, as Bill Woolsey reminds us William Niskanen was also a long time proponent of nominal income targeting.

Niskanen first advocated nominal income targeting or rather targeting of nominal spending in his 1992 paper “Political Guidance on Monetary Policy”. Niskanen later elaborated on the subject in his 2001 paper “A test of the Demand Rule” and further in his 2002 paper “On the Death of the Phillips Curve”.

Marcus Nunes has an insight comment on “A test of the Demand Rule” here.

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