If we are faced with simple and limited choices, we may make careful decisions based on a number of criteria: in other words, we will identify various characterisitics we are looking for and see how well the various alternative products or activities meet our criteria. When we have lots of choice, however, we may be less careful or get confused.
In this Guardian podcast, the panelists discuss complex choices between many products and/or characteristics. Are people being ‘rational’ when making such choices? Is being less careful simply a rational use of scarce time? Do people really want lots of choice or would they prefer more limited choice? Can experiments where people are given choices help us to understand how people choose and how much choice businesses or government should give people? Then there is the question of producers/suppliers of products. Does choice promote competition and product development and is there an optimum amount of choice to achieve this?
The Business: Choice Guardian Podcasts, Sheena Iyengar, Julian Glover and Andrew Lilico in conversation with Aditya Chakrabortty (1/9/10)
- Are people ‘rational’ when they make choices? For what reasons may they not be rational?
- Can you make rational choices if your information is imperfect?
- Is there an optimum amount of choice and how would you set about establishing that optimum?
- How useful are experiments in understanding the process of choice? What are the weaknesses of such experiments?
- Should people be limited in the amount of choice they are given over medical treatment and schools?
- What are the advantages to other people of giving people more choice?
- How much does culture influence our attitudes towards choice?
Until the credit crunch and crash of 2008/9, there appeared to be a degree of consensus amongst economists about how economies worked. Agents were generally assumed to be rational and markets generally worked to balance demand and supply at both a micro and a macro level. Although economies were subject to fluctuations associated with the business cycle, these had become relatively mild given the role of central banks in targeting inflation and the general belief that we had seen the end of boom and bust.
True, markets were not perfect. There were problems of monopoly power and externalities. Also information was not perfect. But asymmetries of information were generally felt to be relatively unimportant in the information age with easy access to market data through the internet.
Then it all went wrong. With the exception of a few economists, people were caught unawares by the credit crunch. There was too little understanding of the complexities of securitisation and the leveraged risk in these pyramids of debt built on small foundations. And there was too little regard paid to the potentially destructive power of speculation and herd behaviour.
So how should economists model what has been happening over the past three years? Do we simply need to go back to Keynesian economics, which emphasised the importance of aggregate demand and the ability of economies to settle at a high unemployment equilibrium? Can the persistence of high unemployment in the USA and elsewhere be put down to a lack of demand or is the explanation to be found in hysteresis: the persistence of a problem after the initial cause has disappeared? Can failures of markets be incorporated into standard microeconomics?
Or do we need a new paradigm: one that emphasises the behaviour of economic agents and examines how people act when there are information asymmetries? These are the questions that are examined in the podcast below. It is an interview with Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz.
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Building blocks’ of a new economics BBC Today Programme (25/8/10)
Needed: a new economic paradigm Financial Times, Joseph Stiglitz (19/8/10)
Obama should get rid of Geithner, Summers Market Watch, Wall Street Journal, Darrell Delamaide (25/8/10)
This rebel’s heresy is not so earth-shaking Fund Strategy, Daniel Ben-Ami (23/8/10)
- What are Stiglitz’s criticisms of the economics profession in recent years?
- What, according to Stiglitz, should be the features of a new economic paradigm?
- Is such a paradigm new?
- Provide a critique of Stiglitz’s analysis.
- What do you understand by ‘behavioural economics’? Would a greater understanding of human behaviour by economists have helped avert the credit crunch and subsequent recession?
Both business and consumer confidence are affected by the state of the economy. A recession, or even a slowdown in the economy, will make people worried for their jobs and future incomes and hence cut back on spending and either save more or reduce their debts. Similarly firms are likely to cut back on investment if they are pessimistic about the future. But both consumer demand and investment are components of aggregate demand. A cut in aggregate demand will drive the economy further into recession and cause even greater pessimism. In other words, there is a feedback loop. Recession causes pessimism and hence a fall in aggregate demand, which, in turn, worsens the recession.
A similar process of feedback occurs in times of optimism. If the economy recovers, or is thought to be about to do so, the resulting optimism will cause people and firms to spend more. This rise in aggregate demand will help the process of recovery (see Accelerating the recession and Animal Spirits).
The following article by Robert Shiller, co-author of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, looks at the swing from pessimism to optimism over the past few months.
An Echo Chamber of Boom and Bust: Robert Schiller New York Times (29/8/09)
Efficient Market Hypothesis: True “Villain” of the Financial Crisis? The Market Oracle (26/8/09)
Monthly confidence indicators for the EU can be found at:
Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series European Commission Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. (Each of the ‘en’ cells links to a zipped Excel file.)
- Explain why “confidence has rebounded so quickly in so many places” in recent weeks.
- Is Robert Shiller’s explanation of feedback loops consistent with the accelerator theory?
- In what circumstances do business and consumer psychology result in destabilising speculation and what causes turning points in the process? Why may such turning points be difficult to predict?
- Examine the monthly Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) for the UK from the ‘Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series’ link above. You will need to refer to the final column in the Excel ESI Monthly worksheet (Column GV). Chart the movements in this indicator over the past three years. Also chart the quarterly growth in UK GDP over the same time period. You can find data from Economic and Labour Market Review (ONS), Data tables, Table 1.01, Column YBEZ. Is ESI a leading or a lagging indicator of GDP?
- What implications does Shiller’s analysis have for the management of the economy?
- Why may stock market movements not be a ‘random walk’?
Whilst some economists predicted the banking crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent global recession, many did not. Was this a failure of macroeconomics, or at least of certain macroeconomic schools of thought, such as New Classical economics? Or was it a failure to apply the subject with sufficient wisdom? Should the subject be radically rethought, or can it simply be amended to take into account aspects of behavioural economics and a better understanding of systemic risk?
The four linked articles below from The Economist look at the debate and at the whole state of macroeconomics. The other articles pick up some of the issues.
Will the ‘crisis in macroeconomics’ lead to a stronger subject, more able to explain economies in crisis and not just when they are working well? Will a new consensus emerge or will economists remain divided, not only about the correct analysis of how economies work at a macro level, but also about how to tackle crises such as the present recession?
What went wrong with economics The Economist (16/7/09)
The other-worldly philosophers The Economist (16/7/09)
Efficiency and beyond The Economist (16/7/09)
In defence of the dismal science The Economist (6/8/09)
How to rebuild a shamed subject Financial Times (5/8/09)
What is the point of economists? Financial Times – Arena (28/7/09)
Macroeconomic Models Wall Street Pit (23/7/09)
Macroeconomics: Economics is in crisis – it is time for a profound revamp Business Day (27/7/09)
- Distinguish between ‘freshwater’, ‘saltwater’ and ‘brackish’ macroeconomics.
- Explain why economists differ over the efficacy of fiscal policy in times of recession. To what extent does the debate hinge on the size of the multiplier?
- Why is the potential for macroeconomics higher now than prior to the recession?
- What is meant by the ‘efficient market hypothesis’? How did inefficiencies in financial markets contribute to the banking crisis and recession?
- Should economists predict the future, or should they confine themselves to explaining the present and past?
Imagine putting together a dream team of economists to tackle the current recession. Who would you choose? Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor considers this game of ‘fantasy economics’ in the linked article below. In the process, he makes a number of criticisms of economists for saying little about what caused the current crisis and how such crises could be avoided in the future.
As students studying economics you might want to defend economists against this attack. After all, virtually every time you turn on the radio or television or open a paper, there are economists explaining what has happened and what should be done about it. So see if you can mount a defence against this attack – and maybe put together your own dream team of economists!
It’s a funny old game: where is the dream team of economists to tackle the slump? Guardian (1/6/09)
Profiles of many the economists referred to in Larry Elliott’s article can be found at the History of Economic Thought website. You can access this from the Sloman Hot Links tab above and then click on site C18.
- Explain why economies with deregulated financial markets are likely to experience macroeconomic instability (‘boom-bust cycles’).
- What are the benefits of studying perfectly competitive markets and general equilibrium theory?
- Write a brief defence of the use of mathematics in economics.
- Does experimental economics allow economists to take a ‘more nuanced and relevant approach’ to studying economic behaviour and devising appropriate policy?