Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Had I not received a letter from John Kenneth Galbraith dated July 7th 1983, I would not have perhaps chosen a career in Economics. Just the previous summer, the school library of St. Paul’s at Darjeeling acquired a new collection of books that included two books by John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967). The astringent wit and elegant iconoclasm of John Kenneth Galbraith bewitched me in those years and this triggered a chain of correspondence between Cambridge and Darjeeling. I became a Galbraith aficionado early in life and began to read and collect everything that Galbraith wrote and lectured. I was disillusioned later in graduate school when I found the mainstream of academic Economics neoclassical and Samuelsonian that formed the basis of all higher education in Economics.
John Kenneth Galbraith personified through his life and work what Keynes called “a master economist.” A master economist who, according to Keynes (1933) “possessed a rare combination of gifts...” and could be “a mathematician, historian, statesman and philosopher in some degree.” John lived a complete and fulfilled life. He worked in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, served as ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration, turned down Lyndon B. Johnson's offer of the directorship of the Peace Corps, and as a self-described ''independent operator at the guerrilla level of American politics" played notable roles in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. He was also one of the first and most vocal opponents of US involvement in Vietnam. According to John’s neighbor Anne Bernays, ''He was an incredibly smart man. He knew everything, he remembered everything, and he got you on everything. He always had the last word, but in a wonderful way." John was that Harvard economist, who revised each of his books at least five times and was as much a man of letters as a social scientist. John’s style of writing was rigorously burnished and was reminiscent of the 18th century Enlightenment philosophe. He was a thinker as devoted to crafting pellucid prose as shaping public policy. John titled his autobiography A Life in Our Times (1981) and his political career was encapsulated in his Annals of an Abiding Liberal (1979).
John enjoyed a lasting association with the Kennedy family. He was John Kennedy’s tutor at the Winthrop house in Harvard. He was a pillar of the New Frontier, and his presence did much to lend its academic cachet to John Kennedy’s administration. At the 1956 democratic national convention, Kennedy had narrowly lost the vice-presidential nomination, a loss owing to a stand on agricultural price supports John had warned against. Afterward, Kennedy told him, ''I don't want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you, John. And I don't want much to hear about it from you either."
As a reward for his work during the 1960 campaign, President Kennedy sent John to India to understand the mind of the Harrow educated Kashmiri Brahmin elite that was Jawaharlal Nehru. ''The job of an American ambassador," he later explained, ''is to maintain civil communication with the government to which he is accredited and, to the extent that personality allows, to personify the majesty and dignity of the United States. No one should suppose that this is either intellectually or physically taxing." Indeed, John managed to write no fewer than four books while in India: The Scotch (1964), Economic Development (1962), Ambassador's Journal (1969), and the first of his three novels, The McLandress Dimension (1963), which he published under the pseudonym Mark Epernay. He also began work on Indian Painting (1968). ''It is my only writing to which, to my knowledge, no one has ever taken serious exception" wrote John.
During the '50s John published a number of books: American Capitalism (1952) and A Theory of Price Control (1952), The Great Crash (1955), which one reviewer called the ''wittiest book ever written by a professional economist," and The Affluent Society (1958). The latter, with its critique of a consumer-driven economy of excess, made him a celebrity. It was translated into a dozen languages and went on to sell some 1.5 million copies. It also added a new phrase to the language, "the conventional wisdom," which John spent the rest of his life subverting. Two of John’s favorite novelists, Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh, had a more discernible effect on his work than any economist did. Their wit, clarity, and keen eye were qualities he prized highly -- and consistently demonstrated throughout his own work.
In 1967, John published what he considered to be his most important book, The New Industrial State(1967). It, too, was an international bestseller, with its examination of ''the economic, political, and social theory of that part of the economy by now preempted by the large corporations." Along with The Affluent Society (1958), it formed a trilogy completed in 1973 with publication of Economics and the Public Purpose(1973). His worldliness and wide-ranging interests put him at odds with the ever-increasing specialization of contemporary economics. He received his colleagues' highest honor in 1971, being named president of the American Economic Association, but his fondness for the generalizing epigram and distaste for quantification meant his greatest following was among lay readers rather than fellow economists. Even more than John Maynard Keynes, it was Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) a classic amalgam of social science and social criticism, who provided John with his model: the economist as social critic. I must admit that I was profoundly influenced and indoctrinated by this model of an economist as a social critic, a reason that led me to James M. Buchanan’s Public Choice and Amartya Sen and Abraham Bergson’s Social Choice as my primary fields of graduate study in Economics.
John once wrote, ''I never imagined that there was any point to being an economist if no one was aware of what you were thinking" (1968). Many years later when I am running for the Mayor of my hometown in a part of the world where President Kennedy once sent John to represent his country, I am reminded of John and his role of an economist as a social critic. A role that I hope to play as well as I learnt from him as a reader and an aficionado.
Friday, December 28, 2007
In the second half of the 20th century, the Virginia school of political economy has emerged as an important research program that explores the boundary between law, economics and politics. Although that research program is now carried out by many prominent economists and political scientists around the world, the work and personality of James Buchanan has always played an important role in its development, and in its appeal. http://rdc1.net/forthcoming/jmbvap.pdf
"Buchanan's book, The Calculus of Consent (1962), co-authored with Gordon Tullock, is considered one of the classic works that founded the discipline of public choice, a melding of economics and political science. In particular (1962, p. v), the book is about the political organization of a free society. But its method, conceptual apparatus, and analytics "are derived, essentially, from the discipline that has as its subject the economic organization of such a society."
The Calculus of Consent argues that government decisions are part of the economy, not exogenous factors. Therefore, methods of collective decisions must be studied as part of the study of the public sector. Calculus further describes the constitution as the line that is drawn between private and collective action. Public choice is then divided between pre- and post-constitutional phases.
Buchanan has also written extensively on the theory of the fiscal constitution. His work The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution (with Geoffrey Brennan) was ground breaking on how fiscal decisions are made. Buchanan's writings have also challenged traditional assumptions about the role of self interest in political decision making.
Public Choice theory has evolved into two branches — a normative branch which attempts to derive principles of an appropriately organized set of public decisions, and a positivist branch which attempts to develop predictive theories of behavior.
Major Works of James M. Buchanan
The Pure Theory of Public Finance: A suggested approach", 1949, JPE
"Individual Choice in Voting and the Market", 1954, JPE
"Social Choice in Voting and Free Markets", 1954, JPE
Public Principles of Public Debt, 1958.
"Positive Economics, Welfare Economics and Political Economy", 1959, J Law Econ
Fiscal Theory and Political Economy, 1960.
"Externality", with W.C. Stubblebine, 1962, Economica
The Calculus of Consent: Logical foundations for constitutional democracy, with G. Tullock, 1962.
"What Should Economists Do?", 1964, Southern EJ
"Ethical Rules, Expected Values and Large Numbers", 1965, Ethics
"Economics and Its Scientific Neighbors", 1966, in Krupp, editor, Structure of Economic Science
Public Finance in Democratic Process: Fiscal institutions and democratic choice, 1967.
Demand and Supply of Public Goods, 1968.
"An Economist's Approach to Scientific Politics", 1968, in Parsons, editor, Perspectives in the Study of Politics.
Cost and Choice: An inquiry into economic theory, 1969.
"Is Economics the Science of Choice?", 1969, in Streissler, editor, Roads to Freedom
"Notes for an Economic Theory of Socialism", 1970, Public Choice
Academia in Anarchy, with N.Devletoglou, 1971.
"Equality as Fact and Norm", 1971, Ethics
"Before Public Choice", 1973, in Tullock, editor, Explorations in the Theory of Anarchy
The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, 1975.
"Public Finance and Public Choice", 1975, National Tax Journal
"A Contractarian Paradigm for Applying Economic Theory", 1975, AER
"Barro on the Ricardian Equivalence Theorem", 1976, JPE
"Methods and Morals in Economics", 1976, in Breit and Culbertson, editors, Science and Ceremony
Democracy in Deficit: the political legacy of Lord Keynes, with R.E. Wagner, 1977.
"Markets, States and the Extent of Morals", 1978, AER
Freedom in Constitutional Contract, 1978.
What Should Economists Do?, 1979.
The Power to Tax: the analytical foundations of a fiscal constitution, with G. Brennan, 1980.
"The Homogenization of Heterogeneous Inputs", with R.D. Tollison, 1981, AER
"The Domain of Subjective Economics: Between predictive science and moral philosophy", 1982, in Kirzner, editor, Method, Process and Austrian Economics
"Order Defined in the Process of Emergence", 1982, Literature of Liberty
The Reason of Rules: constitutional political economy with G. Brennan, 1985.
Liberty, Market and the State, 1986.
"The Constitution of Economic Policy", 1987, AER
Economics: between predictive science and moral philosophy, with G. Brennan, 1988.
Explorations in Constitutional Economics, 1989.
The Economics and Ethics of Constitutional Order, 1991.
"From the Inside Looking Out", 1991, in Szenberg, editor, Eminent Economists
Better than Ploughing and other personal essays. 1992
"Economic freedom and competitive federalism: prospects for the new century", 1996, Nobelists for the Future
"Generalized Increasing Returns, Euler's Theorem, and Competitive Equilibrium" with Yong J. Yoon, 1999, HOPE
Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, 1999
Friday, December 7, 2007
Dr. Milgrom is an expert in game theory, specifically auction theory and pricing strategies. He is also the co-discoverer of the no-trade theorem with Nancy Stokey, and the co-founder of three companies: Market Design, which consults on the design of auction markets, Spectrum Exchange, which facilitates the exchange of radio spectrum toward those who will get the best use out of it, and Perfect Commerce, which provides support for electronic commerce.
Paul Milgrom and the Masterclass of Auction theorists
Major Works of Paul Milgrom:
Milgrom, Paul (1979). The Structure of Information in Competitive Bidding. New York: Garland Press. (Ph.D. Dissertation)
Milgrom, Paul (1979). "A Convergence Theorem for Competitive Bidding with Differential Information". Econometrica 47: 679-88.
Milgrom, Paul (1981). "Good News and Bad News: Representation Theorems and Applications". Bell Journal of Economics 12: 380-91.
Milgrom, Paul and John Roberts (1982). "Limit Pricing and Entry Under Incomplete Information: An Equilibrium Analysis". Econometrica 50: 443-59.
Milgrom, Paul and John Roberts (1982). "Predation, Reputation, and Entry Deterrence". Journal of Economic Theory 27: 280-312.
Milgrom, Paul and John Roberts (1990). "The Economics of Modern Manufacturing: Technology, Strategy and Organization". American Economic Review 80(3): 511-28.
Milgrom, Paul and Nancy Stokey (1982). "Information, Trade and Common Knowledge". Journal of Economic Theory 26: 17-27.
Milgrom, Paul and Robert Weber (1982). "The Value of Information in a Sealed Bid Auction". Journal of Mathematical Economics 10: 105-14.
Milgrom, Paul and Robert Weber (1982). "A Theory of Auctions and Competitive Bidding". Econometrica 50: 1089-1122.
Milgrom, Paul and Robert Weber (1985). "Distributional Strategies for Games with Incomplete Information". Mathematics of Operations Research 10: 619-32.
Milgrom, Paul (2004). Putting Auction Theory to Work. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-53672-3.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Friday, November 9, 2007
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," wrote Hunter S. Thompson (1971). Bono's visit to the Economics department at MIT surrouded by eminent economists Bengt Holmstrom and Abhijit Banerjee is just another instance where the weird rock star might have turned into a pro of development economics. Are we to expect a nobel prize for Bono for his promotion of development agendas at the grassroots level any time soon? Can MIT endorse him for such a prize? Is such a prize likely after the former U.S. vice president Al Gore received one for a similar type of contribution? Is the Economics Nobel Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize increasingly overlapping? If "Development is Freedom" as Sen has suggested (Sen, 2001), are we to expect that freedom to be our new Economic Imperialism? (Lazear, 1999) Is that good news for our profession?
(Photo courtesy: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT)
Thursday, November 8, 2007
The Nobel Peace Prize is often a prize for courage. When we think of the prize we think of Andrei Sakharov in banishment, or Nelson Mandela in his South African prison. This year's prize is for a different kind of bravery, the bravery it takes to believe in an idea and to pursue it. Dr. Yunus literally put his money, as the American expression goes, where his mouth is. In 1976, he lent 27 of his own dollars (which must have been a significant part of his professor's salary then) to 42 poor borrowers.
It probably took even more intellectual courage, and the clarity he is famous for, to take the next step-to draw the right lesson from the fact that they all paid it back. Not the lesson that a more vain man might have drawn, that they were responding to his unexpected munificence-of course they were-but the much more important fact, that even the very poor can take a loan and repay it, when it makes sense for them to do so. You can lend to the poor, just like you can lend to any one else, and like everyone else, how easily you can get them to pay it back depends, in part, on their incentives. The promise of a future loan does make it easier to collect, especially with the poor who often have no one else who would lend to them. But you also need to do your due diligence: make sure that the borrowers are really in it for the long-haul, keep an eye on them to make sure that things are not going too far wrong, prod them a little when they are late. Like any other banker.
What makes lending to the poor harder is simply the fact that they borrow so little-a loan of a few thousand Takas is a sizeable loan for them. In part this is due to their own diffidence (what would I do with so much money?), but it is also because lenders worry about how someone would react if he were handed much more money than he has ever had. Would she know how to use it responsibly? Or, would it be just too tempting to take and run?
The trouble is, even though they borrow very little, much of the work the lender has to do to be able to lend to them - the so-called transactions costs - finding out where they live, what they do, what business they are in, collecting the money, etc-is not that different from what is involved in making a bigger loan. This is why most lenders do not want to lend to them, and when they do lend, the interest rate they charge tends to be very high.
Yunus' great practical insight was that the challenge was to get the transactions costs down. This he made his life's work. This is why Grameen has the weekly meetings with multiple groups (so that a single loan officer can collect from many people at the same time), the group loans (so that all the members have a stake in making sure that the others pay), the attempts to standardize the loans (eliminates the need to make a lot of calculations). All the group activities, like the chanting of the four principles, feed into this as well (though they may also be important for other reasons): By helping to build a Grameen identity, they help to mitigate the usual adversarial relationship between the borrower and the lender.
None of this was obvious in 1976. I am not quite of the Dr. Yunus' generation, but I am old enough to remember what most economists were talking about then: It was socialism versus capitalism, the inevitability of the revolution, the miracle of the market, big questions that could be endlessly debated. To walk away from all that and to bury yourself in the nitty-gritty details of how best to lend a few Taka to a few desperately poor women, must have taken enormous courage. When everyone else was busy changing the system, what he was trying to do must have felt utterly trivial at times. It must have taken a lot to keep going. We are grateful that he did.
The early efforts, as he describes in his book, did not always go well. Sometimes the group size was too large; sometimes the loan size was wrong. It took a lot of experimentation, and willingness to learn from mistakes to get there. But they got there. The Grameen Bank now charges a maximum of 10 percent per year, conventionally calculated, compared to interest rates of 50% or more that money-lenders and other private bankers charge the poor.
The size of that gap, reflects in part the benefits of even small reductions in transactions cost: One insight from the recent work on the economic theory is that reductions in transactions costs come with what economists call a multiplier-one fall in transactions costs creates another. This is because the initial fall in transactions cost made it possible for Grameen to cut its interest rates; but a lower interest rate makes it less likely that a borrower would want to default, which makes life easier for the lender and reduces transactions costs further, which allows Grameen to cut the interest rate more and so on. This is probably one reason why Grameen can offer loans that are so much cheaper than the market.
The other reason is of course, subsidies. Grameen gets a substantial amount of subsidies from donors, which it can pass it on to its borrowers in the form of an interest rate that is below what it costs to deliver the loan. From the point of view of the relation between the borrower and lender, it does not matter whether the cut in the interest rate comes from a lowered transactions cost or a subsidy. Both set off the multiplier, so that the fall in the interest rate can be much bigger than what one would have otherwise anticipated (say based on the size of the subsidy).
For this reason, subsidies given to micro-credit organizations can be a very effective way of helping the poor, as long as it does not undermine the professionalism of the organization that is doing the lending. This is why Dr. Yunus has always resisted the almost religious opposition to all subsidies one often comes across in the Microfinance community, especially outside South Asia. The argument that is usually made is that the reliance on subsidies will limit the ability of these organizations to grow, which might have been true had it not been for Dr. Yunus' almost magical ability to get the world to see micro-credit as he sees it.
Indeed the danger at this point is that the world may be all too persuaded. Donors love it, and expect it to do miracles; I have even heard how it will help with AIDS in Africa (it might, because anything that brings hope might help, but it hardly seems an open and shut case). Yet we still do not have a scientific evaluation of the impact of micro-credit even on simple outcomes like family earnings-the early attempts to do impact evaluations have had obvious flaws, and together fall well short of a ringing endorsement. Several evaluations that should be much more credible are under way now, but it will, be some years before we start sorting out real sense of how what micro-credit can and cannot do. In the meanwhile all we really know is that it has logic in its favor, and the felt experience of many honest and clear-sighted men like Dr. Yunus.
Dr. Yunus knows the dangers of inflated expectations. This summer, when we were fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours listening to him in his office in Dhaka, he talked animatedly about the many things that still needed to be done: Bigger loans that allow businesses to grow, ways to help talented children of the poor to go college, something to help those who are too poor even to get micro-credit, and many others. Some of those have been launched already-the rest are on the anvil. They are experiments, he said-the search for better answers continues. A brave man with the will to keep trying: congratulations to him.