Posts tagged with: economist

lego-people“Can you explain that important economic concept using Legos?”

Apparently, someone must have said that to Richard Reeves, an economist at the Brookings Institution economist, because he’s made a brief video using Legos to visualize social mobility.

There are two reasons I really appreciate this video. First, I love to see important economic issues explained in an accessible and entertaining manner. Second, as I’ve repeatedly said to anyone who will listen, social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than focusing income inequality, a topic that gets far too much attention nowadays.

The one drawback to the video is that it’s far too pessimistic. Yes, social mobility is still a huge problem. But the video makes clear, that social mobility is possible for almost all people. That has not been true for most of human history and it is not true in most parts of the world today.

Also, I am far less concerned with whether a person can go from the bottom quintile to the top as I am with going from the bottom quintile to the middle. Like many Americans, I was born in the bottom quintile and worked my way to the middle quintiles. The fact that I’m unlikely to ever join the top quintile is of absolutely no importance to may life. None at all. What we should care about is whether people can get out of poverty and flourish economically, not whether they can join Beyonce and Jay-Z in the billionaire’s club.

But those quibbles aside, I’m grateful this video is helping to spread the message about the importance of social mobility.

John Horvat II, author of Return to Order, recently interviewed Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, about a variety of topics, including: Gregg’s interest in economics, Becoming Europe, Thomas Piketty and his controversial Capital in the Twenty-First Century, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest threat to the American economy.

John Horvat: I have had the great pleasure of reading several of your books on economics. I suppose my first question is: how did you end up in the middle of the “dismal science?”

Dr. Gregg: I did some economic history as an undergraduate and for my graduate study, but it was really through studying natural law philosophy when doing my doctorate that I came to enter into some of the deeper background questions about the strengths and weaknesses of economics and economies. I was also very interested in the relationship between economics and culture – the latter being understood as the choices, beliefs, actions, values, and institutions that shape a society, including its economic arrangements. (more…)

cherrypieShould we always take the side of the individual consumer?

That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a recent post on “Amazon and the Cost of Consumerism.” It’s a good question, one that people have been asking for centuries. The best answer that has been provided—as is usually the case when it comes to economic questions—was provided by the nineteenth-century French journalist Frédéric Bastiat.

Bastiat argues, rather brilliantly, that,

consumption is the great end and purpose of political economy; that good and evil, morality and immorality, harmony and discord, everything finds its meaning in the consumer, for he represents mankind.

He summarizes his argument as follows:

There is a fundamental antagonism between the seller and the buyer.

The former wants the goods on the market to be scarce, in short supply, and expensive.

The latter wants them abundant, in plentiful supply, and cheap.

Our laws, which should at least be neutral, take the side of the seller against the buyer, of the producer against the consumer, of high prices against low prices, of scarcity against abundance.

They operate, if not intentionally, at least logically, on the assumption that a nation is rich when it is lacking in everything.

Bastiat uses this as the basis of his argument that the interests of the consumer, rather than the producer, align more closely with the interests of mankind (see addendum below for more on this reasoning). Producers want scarcity since it increases their profits. If they can’t produce scarcity in the market, they’ll seek out government protections that create artificial scarcity (which is why those who are pro-business are rarely pro-market).

Book publishers don’t like the fact that Amazon is reducing the scarcity of their product, because it lowers the cost. But what is the result from the consumer side? The lower prices allow consumers to consume more books than they otherwise would be able to afford.
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AHB with tank.jpgThe Great War began 100 years ago last week.

From an economic perspective (from Pulitzer Prize economist Liaquat Ahamed) the European nations paid for WWI not with taxes, but with massive debts financed largely by America. The warring nations could not pay their way out of debt so many resorted to the easier route: inflation. But that inflation destroyed the savings of the middle class and that did not make European nations more stable.

Germany finally defaulted on its war debts after the 1929 crash. The international financial system also collapsed. Of course, German people listened to Hitler’s ideas about blame and solutions, while France, half destroyed by the war, looked at Germany (where few battles were fought) and wanted the Germans to pay for that destruction. The Depression made each nation more economically isolated which added to the misery as trade shrank. Europe was ripe for WWII.

WWI could be taken as a lesson on the perils of excessive debt. Governments have discovered three nasty advantages:

  1. They can borrow beyond emergencies (war) to pay for anything.
  2. Government pensions (more debt) are excellent ways to buy votes with the vague idea that ‘future growth’ or ‘future generations’ will easily cover the massive pension obligations.
  3. Governments have more recently seen that they can lower interest rates and ‘print money’ without being held accountable as they will be bailed out by other countries through central banks which will do, as Mario Draghi famously said, “whatever it takes.” These financial gimmicks look like serious plans because the men wear suits and because their ideas work, at least until the office holders retire.

However, as with WWI debt and the Crash of 1929, a severe crisis will come and prove that these leaders (while possibly not as incompetent or corrupt as the political leaders of Detroit) were wrong.

milton_friedman2The Book: Milton Friedman: A concise guide to the ideas and influence of the free-market economist by Eamonn Butler

The Gist: As the subtitle suggests, this short book provides a concise overview of the ideas and influence of the late economist, Milton Friedman

The Quote: “[T]he supporters of tariffs treat it as self-evident that the creation of jobs is a desirable end, in and of itself, regardless of what the persons employed do. That is clearly wrong. If all we want are jobs, we can create any number—for example, have people dig holes and then fill them up again, or perform other useless tasks. Work is sometimes its own reward. Mostly, however, it is the price we pay to get the things we want. Our real objective is not just jobs but productive jobs–jobs that will mean more goods and services to consume.”

The Good: The book includes numerous direct quotes from Friedman . . .

The Blah: . . . but far too many of the quotes are taken from an interview in Playboy magazine rather than from Friedman’s own writings.

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“There is only one effective solution to world poverty,” says theologian Wayne Grudem in a recent lecture on his latest book, The Poverty of Nations, co-authored with economist Barry Asmus. That solution, he argues, is a rightly ordered free market, and such a solution, he goes further, is “consistent with the teachings of the Bible about productivity, property, government, and personal moral values.”

Watch the whole thing here:

Grudem’s primary question, “What causes wealth or poverty in the world?,” is not new, but he approaches it from a distinctly Christian perspective. Assessing the question from three distinct angles — a nation’s economic system, government, and cultural beliefs and values — Grudem and Asmus propose 79 factors that “will help nations escape from poverty and move toward prosperity.”  (more…)

A-College-Graduates-Guide-to-Starting-a-Career1Yesterday, Jordan Ballor explored the relationship between money and happiness, referring to money as “a good, but not a terminal good,” and pointing to Jesus’ reminder that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Over at Café Hayek, economist Russ Roberts offers a good companion to this, advising college graduates to have a healthy perspective about money and meaning when entering the job market:

Don’t take the job that pays the most money. Nothing wrong with money, but it’s the wrong criterion for choosing if you are fortunate to have a choice in this not-so-great job market. People often confuse economics with anything that is related to money as if the goal of economics is to make you rich. But the goal of economics is to help you get the most out of life. Money is part of that of course, but usually there are tradeoffs–the highest paying job has drawbacks. Don’t ignore those. So take the job that is the most rewarding in the fullest sense of the word. Sure, money matters. But so does how much you learn on the job, how much satisfaction it gives you and whether it lets you express your gifts. The ideal is to find a job you love that still lets you put food on the table and a roof over your head. You spend a lot of time at work. Don’t do something you hate or that deadens your soul just because it pays well.

Time is precious. One of the simplest but most important ideas of economics is the idea of opportunity cost–anything you do means not doing something else. Don’t spend all of your leisure on email and twitter and entertainment. Keep your brain growing. Listen to Planet Money. Read a novel. Take a cooking class or keep working at that musical instrument.

Of course, the Christian must be especially careful that this goal of “getting the most out of life” is properly grounded and directed. (more…)

Today at Ethika Politika, I explore the prospects for a renewed embrace of the Christian spiritual and ascetic tradition for ecumenical cooperation and the common good in my article “With Love as Our Byword.” As Roman Catholics anticipate the selection of a new pope, as an Orthodox Christian I hope that the great progress that has been made in ecumenical relations under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI will continue with the next Roman Pontiff.

In addition, I note the liturgical season: “The calling of Lent, for Christians of all traditions, reminds us of the ascetic heart of the Gospel way of life.” I continue to say,

Indeed, how many of our social problems today—poverty, violence, abortion, etc.—would benefit from such personal and relational love? We cannot view such problems with regard to statistics and policies alone (though we ought not to ignore them). On a much deeper level, they show us the suffering of persons in crisis who need the love of those who live a life of repentance from past sin and striving toward the likeness of God, the “way toward deification.”

I have commented in the past on the PowerBlog with regards to asceticism and the free society, but here I would like to explore the other side of the coin. We ought to embrace the radical way of love of the Christian tradition when it comes to the social problems of our day, but as I note above, we ought not, therefore, to ignore statistics and policies.

In his 1985 article, “Market Economy and Ethics,” then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality.” Heeding this warning means uniting good intentions and sound economics.

Failure to do so, despite having the right intentions and even the right morals, can lead to great error and unintended, harmful consequences. It reminds me of two passages from the readings for the past weekend’s Acton/Liberty Fund Liberty and Markets conference that I had the opportunity to attend. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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Tyler Cowen fielded an interesting topic on his blog last week, focusing on economists who are (or were) clergy.

There’s an interesting list, including notables like the Salamancans, Paul Heyne, and Heinrich Pesch. I didn’t realize that Kirzner is a rabbi. Malthus is named first, but as the initial comment on Cowen’s post notes, anytime you mention Malthus you should mention Anders Chydenius in the following breath.

How about Edmund Opitz of the Foundation for Economic Education, or even Rodger Charles, S.J., or James Schall? It depends largely on how narrowly you define being an “economist,” of course, as the inclusion of the Salamancan theologians indicates. Being a moral theologian who focuses on ethics and economics might not be enough to qualify. Does being a political philosopher/political economist count? But certainly A. M. C. Waterman should be noted.

And of course it also depends on how narrowly you define “clergy.” As Asher Meir notes in the post, how about non-ordained academic theologians, or economists with theological training (or theologians with economic training)? Then the list would start to get very long, indeed.

Any other names come to mind?

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Over at the Economix blog, University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mullin takes another look at some of the recent poverty numbers. He notes the traditional interpretation, that “the safety net did a great job: For every seven people who would have fallen into poverty, the social safety net caught six.”

But another interpretation might have a bit more going for it, actually, and fits in line with my previous analogy between a safety net as a trampoline vs. a foam pit:

Another interpretation is that the safety net has taken away incentives and serves as a penalty for earning incomes above the poverty line. For every seven persons who let their market income fall below the poverty line, only one of them will have to bear the consequence of a poverty living standard. The other six will have a living standard above poverty.

Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.

The conclusion ought to be that policies that provide incentives for people to not seek out work as vigorously as they otherwise might, even if such incentives are unintended consequences, are morally suspect and economically questionable.