Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Offer and Söderberg on the real-world consequences of economics–and the Nobel Prize

Offer and SoderbergThe Nobel Prize in Economics arose during a changing time for the world’s markets. Was this a coincidence? Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg say no. In  The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn, Offer and Söderberg detail  how the prize, which was first awarded to economists Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frisch in 1969, was created by the Swedish central bank to enhance the central bank authority and the prestige of market-friendly economics. Offer and Söderberg have taken some time to answer questions about the origins of this esteemed prize and how it emerged from a conflict between central bank orthodoxy and social democracy.

What is the core argument of this book?

AO & GS: Since the 1970s, academic economics and social democracy have disputed how society should be managed. The challenge is those parts of the life cycle when people have little market power, the contingencies of motherhood, education, illness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Economics claims that it is best to buy protection in financial markets, by means of saving, borrowing and insurance. This is backed up by the supposed authority of science, symbolized by the Nobel Prize in Economics. It is also the objective of business and finance in their quest to capture profit from everybody’s income streams. Social democracy deals with dependency by means of transfers from producers to dependents, providing education, healthcare, pensions, physical infrastructure and culture, and pooling the individual risks by means of taxation and transfers. We question the claims of economics to impartiality and superior reason.

Why does the Prize in Economics matter?

AO & GS: Nobel prize-winners provide a high-quality sample of economics. The prize has a halo that makes economics credible to the wider public, for policies which are often inimical to the public interest. It arose out of the long conflict between the interests of the wealthy in stable prices, and of everyone else in social and material improvement. Between the wars, this conflict became focused in central banks, which became a brake on social democracy. After the Second World War, the Swedish Central Bank clashed repeatedly with the social democratic government over financing the welfare state, and extracted the prize as a concession. The prize was then captured by conservative Swedish economists, who used it to provide credibility for sustained resistance to social democracy. This story shows how ideas and arguments work through society and politics, and how the prestige of science has been mobilised for political ends.

Who is this book for?

AO & GS: It enlarges understanding of economic and social development with a wealth of new findings that will engage students and academics in economics, social science, and history. This includes the two-thirds of economists who hold onto social-democratic values, at odds with their professional indoctrination. Policy makers in government, business, finance, and voluntary organizations may find that the concepts on which they rely are not well founded. The argument is written to be attractive to read for anyone interested in current affairs, economic policy, and the future of society, all over the world.

After the financial crisis many new books have criticized mainstream economics. How is this book different?

AO & GS: One rebuttal by economists is that critics have no alternative to offer. But economics is not in fact hegemonic: public policy is dominated by a pervasive, pragmatic and effective system of social democracy which allocates about 30 percent of GDP in most advanced countries (lower in the USA due to a private health system). ‘It works in practice, but will it work in theory?’ is the challenge of economics. It imagines a world of self-interested, rational persons whose choices scale up to a benign equilibrium, as if by an invisible hand. But this vision is arbitrary, difficult to apply, and not even consistent. Economics has turned its back to social democracy, and has also missed the buildup to the recent financial crisis.

Many Americans regard social democracy as something exclusively European. Why should Americans be interested?

AO & GS: This is delusive, like the tea party member who asked the government to take its hands off his medicare. The United States deploys a broad range of social democratic arrangements: free public schools up to eighteen, a public higher education system; health services for the indigent, the old, and military veterans; unemployment benefits, some income and disability support, and a reasonable system of old-age pensions (social security). Much of its other spending (fiscal and other subsidies, especially the mortgage interest offset against tax) is regressive and misdirected. Americans are becoming aware of the cost of their dysfunctional and expensive medical system. Educational debt is a crisis in the making. Private retirement arrangements are failing. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, has mounted a formidable challenge in the Democratic primaries. The other candidates have joined him in advocating more social security and free higher education; like the tea party member, the supporters of Trump are also responding to the weakness of American social democracy.

Many commentators in Europe are discussing the crisis of social democracy in terms of lack of vision and declining support. What do you think is the future of social democracy and how must it adapt to survive and flourish in the future?

AO & GS: The problems of social democracy arise partly from its success. It developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for male manual wage-earners, and was difficult to adapt to a more diverse, educated, and affluent society, and to service economies that employ men and women in almost equal proportions. Social democracy is still the bedrock of personal security. Its objectives and methods are not fully understood by its practitioners and advocates, and hardly at all by those who benefit. Centre-left politicians, beguiled by market rhetoric, have not served it well. The values of reciprocity and solidarity underpin social democracy: they are more attractive ethically than unbridled greed, but also more effective and efficient. The ‘market turn’ held out the prospect of moving beyond social democracy to private ‘nest egg’ provision for economic security. Home ownership promised wealth for everybody. Driven by easy credit and mounting debt, this seemed to work for a while but has now built up inequality, social exclusion and financial crisis. The advocates of self-regulating markets did not anticipate such a precarious outcome.

Avner Offer is Chichele Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. He is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the British Academy.  His books include The Challenge of AffluenceGabriel Söderberg is a researcher in the Department of Economic History at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. The two recently collaborated on the book The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn.