HOW IDEOLOGY MASQUERADES AS IMPARTIAL ECONOMIC ANALYSIS

Editor’s note: Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson has been hugely influential in promoting his views from the day he published his economics textbook in 1948. He also penned a regular column in Newsweek magazine for fifteen years during the 1960’s.  Little wonder then, that Samuelson has been referred to by one economic historian as the “Father of Modern Economics.” Samuelson’s book is now in its 19th printing and has sold nearly four million copies in over forty languages. Generations of students, economic scholars, business men, and government officials have grown up with few counterpoint views of what makes the economy tick. Yet,  Samuelson’s belief that it is best for government to social engineer our society is still a prevalent view. He has, in fact, stated that “America spends too little rather than too much on government.” Samuelson’s ideological lens was simply too clouded to consider alternate views. Economist, Robert Nelson, after a thorough study of Samuelson’s work has come to the conclusion that “If economists have in the end been priests of a secular religion, the ‘theology’ of economics was particularly well expressed in [Samuelson’s textbook] Economics.”

It is a rare economist who doesn’t wear a mask of ideology. And, it is ideology that drives what the American lay public [and many who are otherwise sophisticated about business and finance] presumes is apolitical, clinical, and neutral economic analysis rendered for the betterment of our society. Alas, such is not the case as ideology is the predicate for much of what we understand to be dispassionate economic analysis. Ideology comes in many forms: as academic arrogance, institutional bias, or political partisanship. Maybe all of this makes sense if we view economics as more of a political ideology than an objective science. Still, Americans must be aware of the masquerade.

The “can’t fail” models of Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, Nobel Prize winning economists both, were the centerpiece of the hedge fund they, with others, founded as Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1994. The founders’ notoriety was based on the mathematical work they did, along with Fisher Black, to value the theoretical price of derivatives (the so-called Black-Scholes model). Big investment banks among them Merrill Lynch and UBS went for the bait with minimum $10 million investments. At the end of August 1997, the firm sported a capital base of $6.7 billion and the firm was rocking. Scarcely a year later, however, following the collapse of the Russian economy, LTCM was left with an almost worthless portfolio of assets. The firm, whose self-assessed risk of failure, had been calculated to be near zero had to be bailed out by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in league with fifteen banks as a way to avoid a contagion of the financial markets.

Some economic models are so narrowly framed [never mind that they lack empirical verifiability] that their applicability has little or no value in a real world context. The founders’ own post-mortem after the LTCM collapse was that their data base had not gone back far enough to pick up all historical market perturbations. So, their mathematical pyrotechnics were one-of-a-kind but their common sense was nil. Still, there is a bumper crop of economists, notwithstanding the debacle that was LTCM, whose elegant equations are believed by many to speak to science and truth in explaining some real world phenomenon. Worse, once a certain celebrity is achieved by the PhD economist doing the theorizing or the modeling, especially when abetted by a compliant academic or popular press, if not a Nobel committee, then the individual is venerated for his sagacity in areas far afield from his narrow-gauge expertise. This makes a burlesque of the field of economics and it should be seen as such by all Americans.

“THE CENTRAL PROBLEM OF DEPRESSION PREVENTION HAS BEEN SOLVED…”

The caption heading above was a prognostication voiced by the 1995 Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Lucas. In 2003, in his presidential address to the American Economic Association, Lucas further added that the problem, “…has in fact been solved for many decades.” Then, as if to double down on his incantation, in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, Lucas stated he was skeptical that the economy would slip into recession or that the subprime mortgage crisis was of any more general consequence. “If we have learned anything from the past 20 years,” said Lucas, “it is that there is a lot of stability built into the real economy.”

Eugene Fama, the Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2013 is the father of the efficient-market hypothesis. The hypothesis essentially argues that it is impossible to beat the market as all of the information that is available about a stock is already baked into the price. In essence, Fama was saying that stock picking was a dart throw. So far so good except that if you take Fama’s hypothesis to heart there is no place for regulations of any kind. How could there be when everything you need to know about a stock is already known? Fama’s influence was profound. It was no coincidence that in 2000 Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which, for all practical purposes, deregulated derivatives and credit default swaps. Bear Stearns, American International Group, and Lehman Brothers all collapsed as a direct result of a failure to regulate the derivatives market. That’s not all. When asked if his efficient market hypothesis applied to housing, Fama went on to explain that: “Housing markets are less liquid, but people are very careful when they buy houses. It’s typically the biggest investment they’re going to make, so they look around very carefully and they compare prices. The bidding process is very detailed.”

Fama, the brilliant economist, obviously failed to incorporate the human factor into his equations. As it turned out, home owners bore a great deal of the responsibility for the subprime fiasco – lying about their incomes, while living beyond their means – but it is instructive to remember that mortgage brokers were incented to sell high-risk mortgages, and that mortgage underwriters processed applications without full documentation in order to handle ever-increasing volumes of loans. Lending institutions, for their part, packaged and sold these high-risk loans to oftentimes unwary investors.

David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, in 2005 published the awkwardly titled, Are You Missing the Real Estate Boom? The Boom Will not Bust and Why Property Values Will Continue to Climb through the End of the Decade – And How to Profit from Them.

Lereah, as others before him, was lionized by the media and his message became both ubiquitous and indisputable.

To be fair, not every economist failed to read the housing market tea leaves. Two are noteworthy:

  1. An economist who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid was Robert Shiller, Nobel Laureate with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen in 2013. Shiller argued of irrational markets – not of efficient ones as his co-Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama argued – and warned of a housing crash in 2006. Amazingly, Shiller also warned of a tech bubble just before the dot com fiasco.
  2. Raghuram Rajan, Professor at the University of Chicago was a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India as well as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund. Rajan is credited for his prescience, when in 2005 he warned about the growing risks in financial markets. For his insight, Rajan was called a Luddite and his warnings “misguided” by the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers.

“TEN THOUSAND WILL DIE PER YEAR DUE TO TAX REFORM”

The great British economist Lionel Charles Robbins laid much of the groundwork for economics as the study of scarcity in his seminal “An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science”  published in 1932. In that same essay, perhaps most notably, Robbins made clear that the job of the economist is to study what is and not what ought to be.

It is fair to say, however, that economists then and now have failed to heed that lesson [or have chosen to ignore it] and thus theorize, not necessarily in accordance with the facts, but in accordance with their own political worldview and predispositions.

Lawrence Summers did more than denigrate Raghuram Rajan as a modern day Luddite. The former President of Harvard University and Chief Economist at the World Bank while in a position of great influence and power during the 2008 meltdown argued against a cram down that would have allowed the courts to force banks to  reduce mortgage balances, cut interest rates or lengthen loan amortizations that would have helped millions of homeowners. Sadly, Summers’ signal policy achievement while in Washington was the aforementioned disaster known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

Summers is now on his high horse as an “intellectual” anti-Trump activist. When Summers proffers that ten thousand people will die as a result of the President’s tax reform package his rationale is couched in so many “what-ifs” as to be meaningless. And, when he tells CNN that the tax plan will make “middle class Americans poorer” he demonstrates that he is pseudoscientific as well as incapable of rising above petty political jealousies. Summers is not alone, however, as a contemporary big mouth and wrong-headed  economist.

“WE ARE LOOKING AT A GLOBAL RECESSION…”

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is not to be outdone for his caustic partisanship. In the aftermath of President Trump’s election Krugman assured his readers at the New York Times that the world’s stock markets would never recover. The election of such an “irresponsible, ignorant man,” said Krugman, would bring about the “the mother of all adverse effects” on the economy. “So, we are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight.” That is hardly an intelligent economic observation so much as it is unbridled animus toward the President.

The numbers, ruefully for Krugman and his acolytes, tell a different story from his apocalyptic view. Gross Domestic Product exceeded 3% during the second and third quarters of 2017.The unemployment rate at 4.1% is at a seventeen year low. Consumer confidence in November of 2017 is at a seventeen year high. The stock market has added over $5 trillion in wealth. And,  the number of Americans receiving employee bonuses, pay hikes, and increases in benefits now numbers in excess of 2,000,000.  Bumps in capital spending, and charitable contributions are also being announced by companies in reaction to President Trump’s December tax reform: AT&T, for one, has announced plans to spend an additional $1billion in capital spending in 2018; Comcast, has indicated it will spend $5 billion over the next five years; and Wells Fargo has announced that it will pump $400 million into community chests in 2018.

It is clear that Krugman’s bias is such that he would rather engineer the economy according to his predilections than simply study it and objectively report on it. His mantra has been for years that America’s apparent  economic success is due to the fact that “…our rich are much richer.” So much for the analytical prowess of a Nobel Laureate: a man whose ideology has an answer before a question has even been asked.

The Nobel committee’s vetting of Krugman’s work in economic geography was sloppy if not politically motivated. The field, including the mathematical elegance that is ascribed to Krugman, goes back for decades. What is worse, Krugman gives scant credit to those who preceded him. That is shameful.

Mathematical economist J. Barkley Rosser Jr., Professor of Economics at James Madison University, who has reviewed Krugman’s work has cited all of the previous relevant work which Krugman purposely ignored. Rosser concludes his review by stating that “if [Krugman] is indeed the emperor of the new economic geography, then he is an emperor who has no clothes.”

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