Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pipe Dreams and Paradigms

On Democracy Now, December 12, 2014, Amy Goodman spoke with Sean Sweeney of the Cornell Global Labor Institute about claims that the Keystone XL pipeline would create 250,000 jobs. The transcript below is from the part of the interview that starts at around time 00:55 on the embedded video.


AMY GOODMAN: ...You have been involved at a high level when it comes to Keystone XL and providing the numbers for President Obama around it, is that right? 
SEAN SWEENEY: That’s correct, yes, the job figures. 
AMY GOODMAN: What have you found?
SEAN SWEENEY: Well, the jobs debate has been severely distorted by TransCanada Corporation and the American Petroleum Institute. They put forward numbers that really cannot stand up to serious scrutiny, based on normal research practices and methodologies. The numbers are far, far higher than it actually—real. The numbers submitted to the State Department were far, far lower. And this is borne out with the State Department’s environmental impact statement. 
AMY GOODMAN: Did you brief President Obama yourselves? 
SEAN SWEENEY: No, but we know that the president read the report — it was called "Pipe Dreams: Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost [by] the Construction of Keystone XL pipeline" — because he made reference to the figures. 
AMY GOODMAN: Because that is the issue that’s raised so often, that environmentalists are killing jobs by killing the Keystone XL. Explain how you arrive at your numbers. And how many jobs would be lost or gained? 
SEAN SWEENEY: Well, in many respects, the numbers were submitted by TransCanada to the State Department, and we simply interrogated the claims of the multiplier effect, which wonky researchers understand is the jobs that—indirect and induced jobs that would be created by a certain amount of dollars spent on a project. The numbers, you’ll notice, Amy, have not gone down with the jobs, even though the project is half-completed. So, the numbers that they originally claimed three years ago have not gone down at all, but at least—or almost half of the pipeline has actually been constructed. [emphasis added]
The point Sandwichman has been trying to make over the last couple of months -- beginning with this post on Public Works, Economic Stabilization and Cost-Benefit Sophistry -- is that secondary or indirect benefits have been excluded from cost-benefit analysis for public works projects. By itself, this exclusion introduces the possibility of undervaluing the benefits of public works projects. However, as the  Report of Panel of Consultants on Secondary or Indirect Benefits of Water-Use Projects makes clear, such indirect benefits are "so ramifying, involved and conjectural that the attempt to compute them... cannot properly be regarded as 'measurement'," (see also part 2).

So what are we left with? Exclusion of indirect benefits from cost benefit analysis of public works projects coupled with systematic exaggeration of indirect benefits from private investment. But wait. There's more. Those private investments have social costs that just happen to be estimated according to a formula that discounts future benefits and costs in addition to excluding secondary benefits from current carbon abatement. From "More than Meets the Eye: The Social Cost of Carbon in U.S. Climate Policy, in Plain English" by Ruth Greenspan Bell and Diane Callan:
In the calculation of costs, benefits, and the social cost of carbon, the choice of discount rate has enormous impact, influencing whether economists recommend to invest today or much later. From the policy perspective of the economists who value this calculation, the higher the discount rate, the less significant future costs become.
In 2010 the U.S government's Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon (IAWG) presented its estimate of the social cost of carbon "to allow agencies to incorporate the social benefits of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into cost-benefit analyses of regulatory actions that have small, or 'marginal,' impacts on cumulative global emissions." The IAWG's central estimate for the social cost of CO2 in 2010 was $21 in 2007 dollars, based on a 3% discount rate.

The D.I.C.E. are loaded. Not once. Not twice. But three times.

Monday, December 22, 2014

World is Going to Hell -- Send Money!

"Today, we're preparing for one of the toughest fights of our lives... but we can't do it without you."


Most of these incessant solicitations from "progressive organizations" skip the inbox and go directly to the trash folder. Enough of them slip through to leave a vague ambience of doom and desperation.

It all started with those Reader's Digest "sweepstakes" didn't it? Then came Richard Viguerie and the reign of Robotype machine mail order conservatism.

Now everyone's doing it... doing it... doing it.

Sandwichman will MAKE THEM STOP! 

But I need your help...

Sunday, November 23, 2014

For the Euthanasia of Kaldor-Hicks/Cost-Benefit Pseudo-Science

J. R. Hicks "The Foundations of Welfare Economics" 1939:
"Positive economics can be, and ought to be, the same for all men; one's welfare economics will inevitably be different according as one is a liberal or a socialist, a nationalist or an internationalist, a christian or a pagan. 
"It cannot be denied that this latter view is in fact widely accepted. If it is intellectually valid, then of course it ought to be accepted; and I must admit that I should have subscribed to it myself not so long ago. But it is rather a dreadful thing to have to accept. No one will question the activity of some of our 'positivists' in the criticism of current institutions; but it can hardly be denied that their authority to advance such criticism qua economists is diminished by their abnegation, so that in other hands economic positivism might easily become an excuse for the shirking of live issues, very conducive to the euthanasia of our science
"Fortunately there is no need for us to accept it. The way is open for a theory of economic policy which is immune from the objections brought against previously existing theories..."
Just a small sample of the objections Kaldor-Hicks has been immune to over the years:
"...judged in relation to its basic objective of enabling economists to make welfare prescriptions without having to make value judgments and, in particular, interpersonal comparisons of utility, the New Welfare Economics must be considered a failure." 
"Pareto is sometimes credited with an early formulation of the ill-fated Hicks or Kaldor principles of hypothetical compensation." 
"The ethical appeal of this [compensation criterion] argument, however, is weak."  
"It turns out then that Mr. Kaldor's criterion in its most general sense has not eliminated the problem of interpersonal comparison of utility. It has only subjected utility to the measuring rod of money, a measuring rod which bends, stretches, and ultimately falls to pieces in our hands."
"...implicit assumptions about the numéraire good in the Kaldor–Hicks efficiency–equity analysis involve a 'same-yardstick' fallacy..."
"For sustainability science, the Kaldor–Hicks rule runs counter to both intra- and inter-generational concerns."
"Only later would it be realized that one did not know -- indeed, one could not know -- the value of production independent of the distribution of income and the associated price vector that provided the weights to the various physical quantities being produced."
"...in all of this prodigious elegance, rarely is there recognition that the Pareto test remains what it has always been -- an analytical construct (inconsistent and incoherent at that) with no special claim to legitimacy beyond the tautological domain out of which it
arose." 
"When the unweighted sum of net benefits from a project are used as a criterion of project evaluation, cost-benefit analysis may be sensitive to the choice of  numéraire . This is one reason, among others, why this criterion should not be used."
And yet:
"The Kaldor-Hicks criterion — a test of whether total social benefits exceed total social costs — is the theoretical foundation for the use of the analytical device known as benefit-cost (or net present value) analysis."
Not bad for an inconsistent, incoherent, ethically-weak, ill-fated tautological failure of a fallacy that should not be used!

Hicks was right. The Kaldor-Hicks theory is indeed "immune from objections."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

#NUM!éraire, Shmoo-méraire: Nature doesn't truck and barter

The commodity in terms of which the prices of all the others are expressed is the numéraire. -- Leon Walras, Elements of Pure Economics.
But the numéraire is a purely technical device, introduced simply for the purpose of making exchange values explicit. In no way does the introduction of a standard of value alter the fundamental nature of the economy in question. It remains a barter economy, since goods are exchanged solely for other goods. Andre Orlean, The Empire of Value.
In a previous post, Public Works, Economic Stabilization and Cost-Benefit Sophistry, the Sandwichman introduced David Ellerman's argument that the supposed efficiency/equity distinction underlying the Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion is a "same-yardstick" illusion created by the tautological use of a numéraire (or "standard commodity") to evaluate its own value. One oyster is worth exactly one oyster in oysters. Ellerman demonstrated that simply switching the numeraire could have the effect of reversing which outcome is held to be efficient.

This discrepancy is not some curious foible of arcane economic theory. The Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion is "the theoretical foundation for the use of the analytical device known as benefit-cost (or net present value) analysis" (emphasis added, Stavins 2007)

Ellerman documented the numéraire illusion (or fallacy) in a working paper dated ten years ago. Since then, he has presented several versions of his refutation of Kaldor-Hicks. According to Google Scholar, there has been one non-self citation -- in a 2014 Masters thesis -- of the five versions listed in Google Scholar.

There is a long and futile history of pointing out flaws in Kaldor-Hicks. In their 1978 review of the Kaldor-Hicks inspired "New Welfare Economics," Chipman and Moore declared it a failure, "...judged in relation to its basic objective of enabling economists to make welfare prescriptions without having to make value judgments and, in particular, interpersonal comparisons of utility." They concluded their review with the following assessment:
After 35 years of technical discussions, we are forced to come back to Robbins' 1932 position. We cannot make policy recommendations except on the basis of value judgments, and these value judgments should be made explicit... When all is said and done, the New Welfare Economics has succeeded in replacing the utilitarian smoke-screen [of technical jargon] by a still thicker and more terrifying smoke-screen of its own.
Thirty-six years on, that thicker, more terrifying smoke-screen prevails.

In a paper published in 1997. Kjell Arne Brekke presented an analysis that highlighted a different aspect of the importance to the outcome of cost-benefit analysis of the choice of numéraire. Brekke showed that, when public goods are involved, the sign (plus or minus) of the sum of net benefits is not independent of the choice of numéraire.

Brekke's discussion is marred by the peculiar conclusion that "[t]he choice of money as numéraire is systematically favourable to those who value money the least, relative to alternative numéraire." "Why do money and not environmental units as numéraire favour the environmentalist?" Brekke asked. His answer confuses the result of incoherent calculations with actual outcomes:
The net benefits of the project is positive for the environmentalist. If this net benefit is expressed in money terms, then it becomes a large number because money is of low value to the environmentalist. However, if the net benefit is expressed in environmental quality units, then the net benefit would be a small number, since environmental quality is important to the environmentalist.
Contrary to what Brekke argued, the choice of numéraire makes no difference to the net benefits from a project -- it only changes how those benefits are represented. In fact, by (mis)representing an environmentally-harmful project as unduly financially-beneficial, such "positive" results would support a decision that is less favourable to the environmentalist. Brekke also crucially misstated the Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion as "the winners should compensate the losers."

In a commentary on Brekke's article, Jean Drèze acknowledged that "Brekke’s interpretation of his own result is indeed somewhat misleading" but argued none-the-less that these lapses shouldn't detract from the important insight that, "[w]hen the unweighted sum of net benefits from a project are used as a criterion of project evaluation, cost-benefit analysis may be sensitive to the choice of numéraire." With regard to the ethical status of the [Kaldor-Hicks] compensation criterion, Drèze observed that "[i]f compensation is only hypothetical, it is irrelevant. If it is actual, it should be counted as part of the project, which becomes a Pareto-improving project so that its desirability is not an issue." In a passage, Drèze speculated on the reasons for the persistence of the ethically vacuous, analytically incoherent "aggregate benefit criterion" (ABC) touted by the compensation criterion:
In short, Brekke’s analysis does highlight a major problem with the ABC criterion, which adds to its other theoretical flaws. In the light of these flaws, it may be asked why the ABC criterion is so widely used in practice. Several possible reasons come to mind. First, the practitioners may not appreciate these flaws. Second, they may be aware of them, but use the ABC criterion for convenience. Third, they may be reluctant to contemplate the value judgments involved in choosing distributional weights. Fourth, they may hold the normative view that marginal social utilities are equal in terms of their chosen numéraire. Fifth, they may simply be siding with the rich.
Drèze missed a sixth possible reason: acknowledging these iatrogenic flaws in the aggregate benefit criterion may have profound implications for the theoretical foundations of neoclassical economics that can't be papered over with distributional weights, as Drèze seems to think, or by reversion to an "actual" Pareto-improving standard instead of a hypothetical one. To put it bluntly, all the stuff and nonsense about numéraires proceeds from the a priori assumption of a barter economy -- that "goods are exchanged solely for other goods."

As Orlean puts it, Leon Walras's numéraire "is a purely technical device..." What "counts" is not money but some presumably intrinsic value that is held to inhere in the goods themselves -- "behind the veil of money," so to speak. "Real money," Orlean continues, "money that 'not only supplies a unit of account but also actually circulates and in addition functions as ‘a store of value'—does not exist." The incoherence of the aggregate benefit criterion and its corollary of hypothetical compensation is a symptom of the fundamental incoherence of the barter metaphor. "The most serious challenge that the existence of money poses to the theorist," according to Hahn (1982), "is this":
...the best developed model of the economy cannot find room for it. The best developed model is, of course, the Arrow-Debreu version of Walrasian general equilibrium. A world in which all conceivable contingent future contracts are possible neither needs nor wants intrinsically worthless money.
One has to wonder, though, just what is "best developed" about a model of the economy that can't find room for the existence of money. In his review of Hahn, Minsky referred to that model more bluntly as "rubbish that prevents the flowering of new theory."

Of Sealing Wax and Cell Phones...


Arguing against perfect foresight is as embarrassing as it is futile. To borrow Robert Solow's image, it's like debating cavalry tactics at the Battle of Austerlitz with a lunatic who thinks he's Napoleon Bonaparte. But the hypothetical prescience of the numéraire is both fundamental and lethal to the Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion. The mix of commodities available in the future will be radically different than the commodities available today, just as today's commodities are radically different from those of fifty or a hundred years ago.

Without perfect foresight (and without money -- real money) prices in a barter economy existing sometime in the future would be incommensurable with prices in a barter economy today. There could be no "standard commodity," no numéraire. The question of the choice of numéraire would be moot because there are no candidates to choose from.

With perfect foresight, however, market actors would know whether or not compensation is/was/will be paid to the losers in a "potential" Pareto improvement. In other words, the addition of the word "potential" makes the phrase an oxymoron that violates the model's specifications.

No doubt Cost-Benefit Analysis gets around this dilemma by smuggling in a "common-sense" notion that money is nevertheless performing its magic in spite of the value theoretical "rigor" that has banished that supposedly illusory veil. With such a hybrid of theoretical abstraction and absent-minded distraction, neoclassical value theory gets to barter off its cake and eat it too.

Try not to think of an elephant. Money is essential to a market economy. "Market economies based on barter are inconceivable..." Andre Orlean argues in "Money: Instrument of Exchange or Social Institution of Value?" That "inconceivable" must be taken literally. The attempt to conceive of a market economy based on barter flounders on the shoals of cognitive dissonance. "Don't think of money," the theory commands. But you think of money. As Hyman Minsky wrote 30 years ago, "the Emperor of today's theory, the Arrow-Debreu version of Walrasian general equilibrium, has no clothes."

The Kaldor-Hicks compensation criterion proclaims that we can all get richer by laundering the Emperor's invisible new clothes.
*****
In 1952 the Bureau of the Budget, in a Budget Circular [A-47] that neither required nor invited formal review and approval by the Congress, nailed this emphasis into national policy, adopting it as the standard by which the Bureau would review agency projects to determine their standing in the President's program. And soon thereafter agency planning manuals were revised, where necessary, to reflect this Budget Circular. In this way benefits to all became virtually restricted to benefits that increase national product. The federal bureaucrats, it should be noted, were not acting in a vacuum; they were reflecting the doctrines of the new welfare economics which has focused entirely on economic efficiency.
***** 
When all is said and done, the New Welfare Economics has succeeded in replacing the utilitarian smoke-screen by a still thicker and more terrifying smoke-screen of its own.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Climate Catastrophe, the Numéraire, and a Smokescreen of Technical Jargon

I invite the reader to connect the dots and be horrified. If I tried to explain my interpretation of the passages below and the documents they come from you might not believe me, you may not want to grasp what I am trying to tell you.

Mistakes have been made. A mistake. A monumental error. The error has been detected but the magnitude of its consequences is incomprehensible... inconceivable. Nothing will be done to correct the error because there is too much at stake in admitting that public goods are different than private goods -- that the sign (plus or minus) of the sum of net benefits from a mixture of private and public goods is not independent of the choice of numéraire. This was the intuition behind John Kenneth Galbraith's observation, more than half a century ago, that "in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway."
"In all cases, therefore, where a certain policy leads to an increase in physical productivity, and thus of aggregate real income, the economist's case for the policy is quite unaffected by the question of the comparability of individual satisfactions; since in all such cases it is possible to make everybody better off than before, or at any rate to make some people better off without making anybody worse off." – Nicholas Kaldor, 1939.
 *****
"When all is said and done, the New Welfare Economics has succeeded in replacing the utilitarian smoke-screen [of technical jargon] by a still thicker and more terrifying smoke-screen of its own." – John Chipman and James Moore, 1978.
 *****
"The ethical appeal of this [compensation criterion] argument, however, is weak. If compensation is only hypothetical, it is irrelevant. If it is actual, it should be counted as part of the project… In the light of these flaws, it may be asked why the ABC [aggregate benefit] criterion is so widely used in practice. Several possible reasons come to mind. First, the practitioners may not appreciate these flaws. Second, they may be aware of them, but use the ABC criterion for convenience. Third, they may be reluctant to contemplate the value judgements involved in choosing distributional weights. Fourth, they may hold the normative view that marginal social utilities are equal in terms of their chosen numéraire. Fifth, they may simply be siding with the rich." -- Jean Drèze, 1998.
 *****
"Some people, on the one hand, want to make recommendations, and others  want to be told, without the responsibility of deciding for themselves, what is the best thing to do. If they are told without its becoming too obvious that they are being told, so much the better. It is, in fact, attractive to  some people to have a theory which tells them what is the best thing to do." – I.M.D. Little, 1949.
***** 
"...it has become the norm for BCA [benefit-cost analysis] 'to focus on efficiency' and to compare a dollar of costs with a dollar of gains at a one-to-one exchange rate—no matter who is gaining or losing—which in practice amounts to setting η equal to zero. 
Although distributional weights are seldom used in practice, there is one big exception, where distributional weights turn up under another name: discounting! By setting η higher than zero, distributional weights are in fact applied to future generations." – Thomas Sterner and U. Martin Persson, 2008.
*****
"The numéraire matters in cost-benefit analysis." Kjell Arne Brekke, Journal of Public Economics (1997) 64: pp.117–123.

Abstract: The choice of numéraire is shown to be important in cost-benefit analysis. When a public good is involved, individual consumers" marginal rates of substitution will generally differ. Thus, the less valuable the numéraire is to a person, the higher the number required to express his net benefit, and the more will his interest weigh in the total sum. The choice of money as numéraire is systematically favourable to those who value money the least, relative to alternative numéraires.

*****

"On a fallacy in the Kaldor–Hicks efficiency–equity analysis." David Ellerman, Constitutional Political Economy (2014) 25: pp. 125–136.

Abstract: This paper shows that implicit assumptions about the numéraire good in the Kaldor–Hicks efficiency–equity analysis involve a 'same-yardstick' fallacy (a fallacy pointed out by Paul Samuelson in another context). These results have negative implications for cost-benefit analysis, the wealth-maximization approach to law and economics, and other parts of applied welfare economics—as well as for the whole vision of economics based on the 'production and distribution of social wealth,'
*****
In 1952 the Bureau of the Budget, in a Budget Circular [A-47] that neither required nor invited formal review and approval by the Congress, nailed this emphasis into national policy, adopting it as the standard by which the Bureau would review agency projects to determine their standing in the President's program. And soon thereafter agency planning manuals were revised, where necessary, to reflect this Budget Circular. In this way benefits to all became virtually restricted to benefits that increase national product. The federal bureaucrats, it should be noted, were not acting in a vacuum; they were reflecting the doctrines of the new welfare economics which has focused entirely on economic efficiency." – Arthur Maass, 1966.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Remedies Are Made of This... (cornmeal and potatoes edition)

"Mayor Wood of New York in 1857 suggested employing on public works everybody who would work, payment to be made one-quarter in cash and the balance in cornmeal and potatoes." -- Otto T. Mallery, "The Long Range Planning of Public Works," chapter XIV of Business Cycles and Unemployment, President's Conference on Unemployment, 1923.
Chapter XIX of John Maurice Clark's Studies in the Economics of Overhead Costs contains a section on "Remedies for the Business Cycle," in which Clark anticipated his later, much more extensive discussion in Planning for Public Works:
"For filling up the hollows [of the business cycle], the most positive and definite prescription is that government should plan an elastic schedule for public works of a postponable sort, and should save certain works to be prosecuted only in time of depression and unemployment, or prosecute the entire program more actively at such times."
Two years before Clark's book on overhead costs was published, President Warren G. Harding's Conference on Unemployment convened to consider how to relieve unemployment resulting from the 1921 depression. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover chaired the conference. Philadelphia playground pioneer Otto T. Mallery wrote the chapter on public works for the National Bureau of Economic Research's report to the conference.

After citing the opinion of the Minority Report of the 1909 Royal Commission on Poor Laws and Relief of Distress that "it is now administratively possible, if it is sincerely wished to do so, to remedy most of the evils of unemployment..." Mallery concluded his chapter with the observation that "flexible distribution of public works merits careful consideration as a factor in limiting the swing of the industrial pendulum and in lessening the shocks of unemployment." Thus was optimism kindled for combatting what John R Commons reckoned to be "the greatest defect of our capitalistic system, its inability to furnish security of the job."

Ninety-some odd years later and how are those "remedies for the business cycle" working out? This is not to suggest that the various remedies proposed in 1923 by the President's Conference -- unemployment insurance, counter-cyclical spending on public works, improved economic statistics, responsive monetary policy -- were inappropriate or ill-conceived. The conference report may even be viewed  as somewhat of a blueprint for the New Deal.

As time went by "various kinds of remedies" were replaced by aggregate demand management which was superseded by "real business cycle" focus on the supply side. Jean-Baptiste Say was rehabilitated. "If labour markets were allowed to function freely," the supply-side ideology claimed, "protracted unemployment would be cured automatically." In other words, the cure for unemployment is... unemployment.

Ninety-one years ago, Commons summed up the then prevailing interpretations of unemployment:
The older economists held that the elasticity of modern business was provided for in the rise and fall of prices through the law of supply and demand. But they assumed that everybody was employed all the time and that all commodities were on the markets and were being bought and sold all the time. If commodities in some directions were abundant then their prices would fall, which meant that the prices of other commodities would rise Then the disparity would equalize itself by capital and labor shifting from the low-priced and over-supplied industries to the high-priced and undersupplied industries. The rise and fall of prices through oscillations of demand and supply made the system elastic and harmonious. 
Seventy years ago Karl Marx came upon the scene with exactly the opposite interpretation. He rejected the law of demand and supply, with its oscillation of prices, and held that the elasticity of modem capitalism is found in the reserve army of the unemployed: Just as modern business must have a reserve fund in the banks and a reserve stock of goods on the shelves and in the warehouses, in order to provide for elasticity, so it must have a reserve army of that other commodity, labor, which it can draw upon in periods of prosperity and then throw upon its own resources in periods of adversity. 
It was seventy years ago, also, that modem trade-unionism started in England and America. It started on the same hypothesis of unemployment, but it retained the economist's doctrine of demand and supply. There is not enough work to go around [!], because the wage fund is limited, and therefore the workman must string out his job; must go slow; must restrict output; must limit apprenticeship, must shorten the hours, in order to take up the slack of the unemployed. 
This theory is not peculiar to labor unions. It is the common conviction of all wage-earners, burned into them by experience. Willing, ready and able to work, needing the work for themselves and families, there is no demand for their work. Trade unionists differ from unorganized labor in that they have power to put into effect what the others would do if they could. 
And who shall say that they are not right? Two years ago business men, newspapers, intellectuals, were calling upon the laborers to work harder; their efficiency had fallen off a third or a half; they were stringing out the jobs. Then suddenly several millions of them were laid off by the employers. They had produced too much. The employers now began to restrict output. Where labor restricted output in 1919 and 1920 in order to raise wages and prolong jobs, employers restrict output in 1921 in order to keep up prices and keep down wages.
The Marxian and trade-unionist critiques and prescriptions have been vanquished. Keynesian advocates of aggregate demand management are reduced to kibitzing from the sidelines. The "older economists" are back in the saddle. Everything old is new again. 

Or is it?
There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
All you need is growth
All you need is growth
All you need is growth, growth
Growth is all you need
Is growth "all you need"? One hundred and five years ago, a Royal Commission minority surmised, "it is now administratively possible, if it is sincerely wished to do so, to remedy most of the evils of unemployment,.."

If it is sincerely wished to do so.

Those who insist there are no "limits to growth" seem to forget that the evils of unemployment have not been remedied -- even though it was believed by some, over a century ago, that it was administratively possible to do so. If, in more than one hundred years, unemployment could neither be remedied administratively nor "decoupled" from economic growth, what foundation does one have for faith that economic growth can be "decoupled" from carbon dioxide emissions or other natural resources and ecological impacts?

Or was that transition too sudden? What I am saying -- and have been saying all along -- is that there are not one but two couplings implicated in the environment/economy nexus. To say that GDP growth can be decoupled from natural resource consumption is to speculate about only one of those couplings. We have no data from the future that can confirm or deny such speculation.

We do, however, have data on the persistence of business cycle fluctuations that result in unemployment. Remedies for climate change face precisely the same political and ideological barriers as do remedies for the business cycle. There is no reason on earth that one would be given a free pass while the other is held hostage to rapacity.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Opportunity Costs and Secondary Benefits of Class Struggle

"Many difficult conceptual issues such as externalities, consumer surplus, opportunity costs, and secondary benefits that had troubled earlier practitioners were resolved and other unresolved issues, such as the discount rate, were at least clarified." -- Maynard M. Hufschmidt, "Benefit-Cost Analysis 1933-1985"
And they all lived happily ever after... (in the Cost-Benefit fairy tale, that is).

What are secondary benefits? What are opportunity costs? How did the difficult issues get resolved? And who cares?

What if I told you -- just for argument's sake, mind you -- that "secondary benefits" was a cipher for "wages of labor" and that "opportunity costs" was code for "return on investment"? What if I pointed out that the "difficult issues" were "resolved" by declaring that wages were of little concern to public policy making but that profits were paramount? Would you care about secondary benefits, opportunity costs and how those difficult issues were resolved?

Economists generally don't. At least not until now anyway.

The Sandwichman has scheduled an EconoSpeak blog post for Wednesday, November 5, titled "Unemployment, Interest and the Social Cost of Carbon" that doesn't quite go as far as the "what if" scenarios above [pssst: sneak preview at Ecological Headstand]. It explores highlights of the untold story of CBA from the New Deal to today's climate change policy "Integrated Assessment Models."

But keep those "what if" scenarios in mind. Cost-Benefit Analysis is about class struggle, the rules for conducting that struggle and which class makes the rules.