Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

The ‘laws of economics’ don’t exist

Zachary Karabell
Apr 11, 2013 11:49 UTC

In a world increasingly framed by economic debates, the phrase “the laws of economics” has become ever more prevalent. As the U.S. Senate prepares to unveil a new immigration bill, much of the discussion centers on the economics of illegal immigration and the incentives for employers to hire undocumented workers. Said a recent Barron’s article: “Immigration policy is a game governed by classic economic rules, especially by Say’s Law, which says supply creates its own demand … Whether the new applicants are seeking stoop-labor jobs in California’s Central Valley or high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley, the laws of economics dictate the outcome: more immigration.”

How about the war on drugs? Said one recent analysis: “We’re losing the war on drugs because it’s a war that defies the laws of economics. We might as well be fighting a war on gravity.”

And how about what history can tell us about our current policies? Said one recent review of Amity Shlaes’ biography of Calvin Coolidge, which makes the case for Coolidge as an exemplar of responsible economic policy:  “Our current political leadership ‑ and we who elect them ‑ are spending the country into ruin. The laws of man can be bent and broken; the laws of economics can not.”

This is just a smattering of examples over the past few weeks. Increasingly, our debates about – and our solutions to – pressing issues such as immigration, budgets and debt are framed in the context of all-powerful economic laws that dictate what is and is not possible. There’s just one slight problem: There are no laws of economics.

For sure, many economists and large parts of society believe there are. The high levels of anxiety about deficits and government debt, not just in the United States but throughout the euro zone and much of the world, stem from the belief that if central banks create too much money, it will inevitably lead to inflation. Why? Because the “laws of economics” say the supply of money will cause inflation if overall output stays the same. In the developed world, clearly, there has been an increase in money supply via the Federal Reserve, the Japanese Central Bank and to a lesser extent the European Central Bank, yet growth is minimal everywhere. While there is no statistically discernible inflation as of yet, the “laws” strongly indicate that there soon will be.

Fighting inflation. But where is it?

Zachary Karabell
Jan 18, 2013 19:08 UTC

Earlier this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly inflation report. The numbers came in at 1.7 percent a year for all items. Excluding the ever-volatile food and energy, it was 1.9 percent.

That’s about as low as inflation has been in the last 50 years.  Only 1986 (1.1 percent), 1998 and 2001 (1.6 percent), 2008 (0.1 percent) and 2010 (1.5 percent) have come in lower, and a few years in the mid-2000s registered the same.

The disappearance of inflation over the past 20 years, however, has barely dented the pervasive belief that inflation remains one of the greatest threats to economic stability. These convictions persist in spite of all evidence to the contrary: Inflation is nowhere visible. For many, that is just proof that we are living in a lull — a phony war soon to be disrupted when that age-old enemy reappears and wreaks havoc.

Who’s afraid of chained CPI?

Zachary Karabell
Dec 20, 2012 16:30 UTC

As the fiscal cliff talks evolve and devolve, the latest spat has been whether the arc of federal spending should be curtailed by changing the way that we assess costs. The proposal from the White House is to switch the way cost-of-living adjustments are made for Social Security benefits. Rather than pegging those to the Consumer Price Index as currently calculated, these would be pegged to a “chain-weighted” Consumer Price Index, which would save as much as $125 billion in additional benefits over the next decade.

Sounds wonky, and it is. But so is much of how the federal government accounts for spending, and these metrics intimately shape what we spend, how we spend, and how we think about the present and the future. The primary measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) uses a fixed basket of goods that resets periodically. Chained CPI uses a basket of goods that adjust more fluidly to account for what statisticians and economists call “the substitution effect.” A fixed basket of goods is easier to calculate: just define the basket and then measure the price changes. But in the real world, people don’t passively accept changing prices. They change their behavior. The price of gas goes up? People drive less; they carpool more; they buy more fuel-efficient cars and consume less gas. The price of a domestic flat screen television goes up? They buy a less expensive import. In short, people don’t necessarily bear rising costs passively; they react and shift to maintain their standard of living. The traditional CPI index doesn’t capture that.

For all its wonkiness, the proposal to change the benchmark used to determine Social Security and various other benefits has engendered attacks from all points on the political spectrum: the left assails it as a backdoor technicality that will increase burdens on the elderly and the less well-off; the right scoffs that Obama’s proposals don’t constitute true deficit or spending reduction but are simply accounting tricks, and the media treats it as politics as usual with the cynical corollary that because almost no one understands what these rules are, it makes it easier to enact them.

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