Sunday, August 27, 2017

A random physicist takes on economics

Jason Smith, a random physicist, has a new book out where he takes aim at some of the core foundations of microeconomics. I encourage every economist out there to open their mind, read it, and genuinely consider the implications of this new approach.

Go get it now. It only costs a few bucks.

So what do I think? His approach is exactly what economics needs - a set of fresh eyes on the basics.[1]

The book is, fundamentally, an introduction to Smith's new view of what I would call ‘microeconomics as the emergent characteristic of random agents in constrained situations’. Or, more simply put, why you don’t need rational decision-makers for a useful economic theory that makes good predictions.

To get some sense of why this is important, economists are often criticised for getting the big picture stuff of macroeconomics wrong, like missing the financial crisis. But in reality, the economic micro-level stuff, about responding to relative prices, making choices based on incomes and preferences, is also a failure built on an elaborate, but highly questionable, theoretical structure.

Smith says that this theoretical structure is unnecessary. In fact, he says, people acting randomly within their budget will have the emergent property of behaving ‘as if’ they comply with the rational economic model. That is, humans are irrational at the individual level, but the fact that our choices are constrained by our incomes means that in aggregate, the average behaviour responds to external changes in a similar manner to that of the mythical rational person.

To get a feeling for this, consider the graph below from one of Smith's favourite economics paper by Gary Becker, which made similar points. For those who haven't guessed what it shows, the X and Y axes are the amount of consumption of two goods, and the lines C-D and A-B are the budget constraints (i.e. how much of each good, or combination of goods, can be bought) at two different sets of relative prices. The line C-D has a lower price of good Y, and a higher price of good X, than the line A-B.

The point C is the centre of the triangle A-B-0. So if people consume randomly within that budget constraint at those prices, the average person will consume a combination of goods near point C. When the budget constraint changes to C-D, the new centre point is C'. This shift, from C to C', is very similar to the shift p to p', which is what would be expected under the standard theory utility maximisation.

Just taking the average of random choices within the budget constraint predicts the same patterns as utility maximisation, without requiring any knowledge of individual behaviour. When the price of good Y declines, people consume more of it, and vice-versa for good X, whether people act randomly or as utility maximisers.

Smith's (and Becker's) simpler approach reframes traditional micro-level topics as the emergent behaviour they are, and leaves the quirky patterns within individual choices to the realm of psychology. This approach makes perfect sense to me.

However, I highly doubt that this idea will be picked up in a hurry by the economics profession for a couple of main reasons. First, it gives away the big prize of economics-- utility and social welfare. If people just behave randomly at an individual level, it breaks the important link between individual choices, higher utility, and social welfare, which forms the backbone of economic thinking, and gives the profession the claim to power in political debates. No longer will economists be the only ones to proclaim that they know the secrets to a better (or higher utility/welfare) society. In fact, they will have to admit that they don’t.

Second, it removes the ability to blame bad choices by individuals as the cause of their economic destiny. If our theory of microeconomics is that people behave randomly within constraints, then to improve outcomes for certain groups of people, we need to change the nature of their constraints, not their decisions. These constraints could be income, wealth, social status and relationships, etc. Solutions to inequality, to homelessness, and other social problems are immediately redirected by this theory back to society at large, and the rules and systems we put in place to create constraints on individuals.

I highly recommend the read. When I finished the book, however, my mind was racing with more ways in which this approach could be applied in more ways across economic topics.

Finally, if you want to read more, you can read Smith's more detailed and technical attempt at piecing together this new approach here.

fn.[1] As a brief disclaimer, I have followed the author's terrific blog for quite a while. I make a point of keeping an eye on original thinkers in general, and he certainly is one, though I’ve never met Smith in person.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Economic bandits

Get the book via 

A string of successful Game of Mates speaking events has happened recently -- in Kuranda, Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne. I can't take all the credit. But, James, our bandit in the Game of Mates, can. He has been extremely active all across the land and people are starting to notice.

One issue that has repeatedly come up at these events is the rise of 'strategic representation' of the economic benefits of major projects in planning applications. For example, a land subdivision proposal might include plans for a new university campus, eco-tourism facilities, and more, in order to be able to claim the project will generate billions of dollars of economic benefits to the region. But the reality is often that these additional facilities are completely infeasible and will never happen. They are just included in the application to beef up the claimed merits of the project, for there is no obligation from the approval to follow through with the full extent of the proposal.

The same happens with applications for new mines. Miners often propose unrealistically high volumes of production to be able to exaggerate the scale and intensity of investment in the local area, along with inflated estimates of royalty revenues to State governments.

One solution to this problem is to make planning approvals an obligation, not an option. At present, miners are granted a right to mine up to a particular volume of minerals or energy resources, but with no obligation to do so. Instead, approvals could carry the obligation to deliver what was proposed within a reasonable timeframe or pay penalties and risk losing the option to ask for future approvals.

In the ACT, when land is sold to private developers for a particular purpose, like a residential apartment complex, they must deliver a development that complies within two years or face penalties, including the possibility of the land reverting back to public ownership.

In mining, to determine whether a proposal is exaggerated, rules that oblige application to pay their estimated royalties up front could be enacted, perhaps with a discount. If the project seems feasible, banks and other financiers would be willing to lend this amount to cover the royalties. If the project is unviable and exaggerated, no one will be will to be part of this financing effort.

The solutions are clear once we understand the core economic issues at play.
In other news, on 12th August I will be attending 'Love Your Bookshop Day' at Avid Reader in West End (Brisbane), so please come along to that event if you can.

Lastly, I will be a keynote speaker at The Australia Institute's Accountability and Law Conference in Canberra on 17th August. There is a group of very esteemed legal experts attending, as well as political representatives. All in all, it should be a very interesting event. The event website is here.