“Economics” Category

Marcia Angell’s Mistaken View of Pharmaceutical Innovation

Alex Tabarrok responds to Marcia Angell’s claim on Econtalk that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t drive much innovation:

Notice that Angell first claims the pharmaceutical companies do almost no innovation then, when presented with a figure of $70 billion spent on R&D, she switches to an entirely different and irrelevant claim, namely that spending on marketing is even larger. Apple spends more on marketing than on R&D but this doesn’t make Apple any less innovative. Angell’s idea of splitting up company spending into a “budget” is also deeply confused. The budget metaphor suggests firms choose among R&D, marketing, profits and manufacturing costs just like a household chooses between fine dining or cable TV. In fact, if the marketing budget were cut, revenues would fall. Marketing drives sales and (expected) sales drives R&D. Angell is like the financial expert who recommends that a family save money by selling its car forgetting that without a car it makes it much harder to get to work.

And by the way, if you have any interest in the economy or economics, or public policy, I would highly recommend listening to Econtalk. It’s consistently interesting and, in many cases, insightful. You could do a lot worse for things to listen to while commuting.

December 3rd, 2012

Amazon Reshapes Computing

Great piece about Quentin Hardy about how Amazon’s web services have changed computing:

EdX, a global online education program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, had over 120,000 students taking a single class together on A.W.S. Over 185 United States government agencies run some part of their services on A.W.S. Millions of people in Africa shop for cars online, using cheap smartphones connected to A.W.S. servers located in California and Ireland.

“We are on a shift that is as momentous and as fundamental as the shift to the electrical grid,” said Andrew R. Jassy, the head of A.W.S. “It’s happening a lot faster than any of us thought.”

I think of this along the same lines as increasing automation in manufacturing. It’s eliminating a tremendous amount of jobs, but it’s also (1) allowing products and services to be created that never could have existed before, and (2) means that people who had to do low-meaning work like build and maintain servers for online services can now focus on making those services better or creating new ones entirely.

In the short term, it creates a tremendous amount of dislocation and economic difficulty for people who suddenly can’t be employed at wages they used to receive. In the long-term, though, we’re commoditizing and automating these kinds of repetitive work so people can be freed up to focus on creating. I believe we’re in the middle of a revolution as important as the movement from agriculture to manufacturing.

August 30th, 2012

Are we innovating outside of software and finance?

Dylan Matthews argues against Thiel’s thesis that innovation is only occurring in software and finance:

Generally, an industry is innovating if total factor productivity is going up, since that indicates that technology in that sector is improving.

But software and custom programming have innovated at roughly the same pace as manufacturing, trade and agriculture — the sectors Thiel alleges are banned from innovating. Information services actually wasn’t innovating until about 2000, when companies began to figure out how best to profit off this crazy Internet fad. Since then, it’s been innovating roughly as fast as manufacturing and other non-tech, non-finance sectors.

Good point, but of course this obscures something important. Productivity measures how good we are at converting labor and capital into goods and services, but it says nothing about how well we’re converting our labor and capital into new and better goods and services. Software and Internet services may not be improving productivity much, but I think there’s a very good argument that most of our gains in the last decade with software has been in making much better, much more useful devices, applications and services.

A programmer may only be marginally more productive in 2010 than they were in 2000, but they’re creating things like iOS, Yelp and Facebook. Whether it shows up in the statistics or not, there’s great gains there.

July 24th, 2012

Outlawed Everything to Do With Stuff

Peter Thiel offers his explanation for stagnation:

So, I think we’ve basically outlawed everything having to do with the world of stuff, and the only thing you’re allowed to do is in the world of bits. And that’s why we’ve had a lot of progress in computers and finance. Those were the two areas where there was enormous innovation in the last 40 years.  It looks like finance is in the process of getting outlawed. So, the only thing left at this point will be computers and if you’re a computer that’s good.

This is from a discussion (loosely used) between Thiel and Eric Schmidt at Fortune Brainstorm Tech earlier this month. Fascinating to read.

July 24th, 2012

Stories of Progress and Stagnation

Adam Gurri on stagnation:

Still, the productive capacity of these technologies was such that we coasted all the way into the 1970?s before the deadweight of government regulation and taxation slowed us down. Since then, our resources have shifted to developing technologies of resistance, which is why Brynjolfsson and McAfee see accelerating innovation. It is accelerating, but it’s accelerating in a very specific area because of how difficult it is to control that particular area.

We do see welfare gains from innovation in the technologies of resistance, but they are not nearly as big as we could get with the technologies of control, were they not so bogged down with regulation. Resources are spent on creating robustness against control that would have otherwise been spent on maximizing pure economic growth, in the absence of efficiency-reducing regulation.

Software and finance.

(Via Tyler Cowen.)

July 24th, 2012

America’s Economic Debate Time Warp

Jeffrey Sachs on our increasingly irrelevant, theatrical debate over the economy:

America’s economic debate is stuck in a time warp. On the one side, Mitt Romney’s conservative advisors defend tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for the poor as if we hadn’t just lived through 30 years of failed Reaganomics. On the other side, Paul Krugman defends crude Keynesianism as if we’ve learned nothing in recent years about the severe limitations of short-term fiscal stimulus. Both sides merely raise their decibel levels at each announcement of bad news, as with last Friday’s data showing the failure of the US economy to generate sufficient new jobs in June.

Excellent article.

(Via Tyler Cowen.)

July 12th, 2012

Quantitative Easing

The Economist has an excellent look at quantitative easing:

THE conventional arms have run out. Central banks in America and Britain have long since pushed interest rates to close to zero. On July 5th the European Central Bank (ECB) joined them, slashing its rate on deposits to 0% and its main policy rate below 1%. A different sort of arsenal is now being deployed. Unconventional monetary policy covers everything from negative interest rates—now on offer in Denmark—to a change in inflation targets, but “quantitative easing” (QE), the creation of money to buy assets, has proved to be the most popular weapon of this crisis.

July 12th, 2012

Europe’s Dilemma is Financial, Not Fiscal

Arnold Kling:

Mauldin’s claim is that we are in what he calls the “endgame,” meaning that the Keynesian option of increasing government borrowing is no longer available to European countries. The only willing lenders are banks, which in turn need to be propped up, and ultimately they can only be propped up by printing money.

My take-away from Mauldin is that, contra the mainstream media narrative, the real dilemma in Europe is not fiscal–deciding whether to maintain government spending or not. The real dilemma is financial–whether to recognize losses and absorb defaults (by both governments and banks) or turn loose the monetary printing presses.

(Via Tyler Cowen.)

May 16th, 2012

What is austerity?

Tyler Cowen asks what the definition of “austerity” is, and sort of answers it:

I wonder if some Keynesians have in mind the baseline of “the expansionary policies which I think would be appropriate,” in which case doing less than the Keynesian optimum is always a form of austerity.

I have a more simple definition: it’s a word used to cast moral and emotional judgment on a set of policies without having to actually discuss what those policies are and whether they may be justified or have some basis.

May 14th, 2012

The Recovery

While the decrease in unemployment is encouraging, it isn’t reflected in GDP data. From the Economist:

This is hardly the unshackling of a Titan. As befits a recovery characterised by such fine gradations as the distinction between modest and moderate, there are a lot of caveats. For one, gross domestic product (GDP) does not look nearly as healthy as the jobs data imply. The drop in unemployment since August is on a scale that would normally be expected only if annualised growth were up to 5%, according to Ben Herzon of Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy. In fact GDP grew by only 3% (annualised) in the fourth quarter. It is tracking 1-2% in the current quarter. Most economists still expect growth this year of only about 2-2.5%. That is roughly the rate needed to keep unemployment stable; it is not enough to reduce it further.

We’re in much better shape than we have been since 2008, but the recovery is tenuous indeed.

March 16th, 2012

Stimulus Isn’t Quite What They Thought

Tyler Cowen:

Frankly, it is a bit of an embarrassment for many commentators that the (admittedly weak) recovery is coming right after the end of the fiscal stimulus. Of course this does not refute the standard account of fiscal policy, namely that it can work but is hard to pull off politically in a manner which contributes to sustainable growth. The correct answer for the timing of recovery, relative to the end of stimulus, is “confounding factors,” but that is exactly the point. The confounding factors are more important than we had thought, and the fiscal stimulus not quite as important as we had been led to believe. That is another point against the Old Keynesian view.

February 6th, 2012

Employment Rate Drops to 8.3 Percent

Good news: the unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in January from 8.5 percent in December 2011, and 243,000 jobs were added. Most importantly, the drop in the unemployment rate was not due to people dropping out of the jobs market, as it has been in prior months—it was due to people actually finding jobs.

The economy does seem to be gaining some momentum, and while it’s still not strong (and we have a huge hole to climb out of), that’s absolutely good news. Hopefully Europe can remain stable enough to allow the economy to strengthen.

February 3rd, 2012

Tim Ricchuiti’s Reply

Tim Ricchuiti takes exception with my characterization of Greece, Italy and Spain’s problem as being too much debt:

Not quite. It’s not the heavy weight of debt (as Krugman has posted about at length the past week, most notably in this column) that’s causing European nations to struggle. What’s causing those nations to struggle is their inability (until recently) to finance that debt at any sort of tenable rate (7% or under). The reason those governments couldn’t finance their debt is that investors don’t want to purchase debt that might not be paid back. The reason the debt might not be paid back is that, unlike the case of the United States, Great Britain, Finland, and various developing nations, European countries like Spain, Italy, and yes, Greece, can’t print their own money (their own money being Euros). Therefore, they’re at risk of not being able to pay back their Euro-denominated debt. The United States, on the other hand, will never be unable to print dollars, and will always be able to pay back its dollar-denominated debt.

Greece and Italy used substantial amounts of debt to sustain their welfare states, and while their economies are doing reasonably well, there’s no problem—they can roll over their debt before it comes due at similar interest rates and everything works out fine. The problem they now face is their economies are not doing well at all, tax revenue has decreased, and thus their deficits have shot up as they continue to fund their expensive government programs.

As their deficits have continued to grow, and their debt has continued to grow as a percentage of GDP, investors became afraid that they would not be able to pay their debt. Which is why, as Tim says, investors would not purchase their new debt at a sustainable rate: because their debt burden is too high.

Tim argues that this is only a problem because Greece and Italy are on the euro—rather than their own currency—they cannot “print” more money, that is, devalue their currency so the past debts are worth less now than they were then and are thus more affordable to pay.1 Tim further argues that the U.S. will never have this problem, because since we do control our own currency, and our debt is denominated in our currency, we can inflate our currency to reduce the magnitude of our debts.

That’s perfectly accurate, but that does not happen in a vacuum. Everything else is not held equal. Investors will factor the risk of intentional inflation into their investments, and expect higher interest rates for future debts, too. Perhaps Greece and Italy (and the U.S., if we don’t right our ship in the interim) will leave the euro, re-denominate their debt, and pay their existing debt of a smaller magnitude. But what happens when Greece and Italy go back to those same investors, who just received substantially less than they were supposed to from their debt, and ask them to purchase their new debt? It’s going to be expensive, and unless Greece’s and Italy’s economies begin growing strongly, they’ll have the same problem all over again.

I never intended “…the heavy weight of their debt” to be a conclusive summation of Italy and Greece’s problems. Their problem is a confluence of a very poor economy, low tax revenues as a result, and debt used to finance an expensive welfare state. It’s but a piece. A very large, very heavy, piece.

  1. Let’s set aside normative criticisms of this, which are substantial—”inflating” your currency for the purpose of making past debts more affordable is essentially stealing from creditors, because in real terms, they receive less than they were supposed to. []
January 6th, 2012

The Missing Middle

Edward Luce:

In the words of David Autor, a leading labour economist at Harvard University, the labour force is suffering from a growing “missing middle”.

In short, the middle-skilled jobs that once formed the ballast of the world’s wealthiest middle class are disappearing. They are being supplanted by relatively low-skilled (and low-paid) jobs that cannot be replaced either by new technology or by offshoring – such as home nursing and landscape gardening. Jobs are also being created for the highly skilled, notably in science, engineering and management.

December 11th, 2011

Europe’s Fundamental Problem

Austan Goolsbee:

Certainly the countries of Southern Europe must rein in excess. In the long run, however, even the deepest of cuts won’t suffice. Southern Europe needs to grow or it will never control its debt levels. But with the euro zone keeping Southern Europe uncompetitive, the region’s growth prospects will remain dismal.

Northern Europe has fueled its growth through exports. It has run huge trade imbalances, the most extreme of which with these same Southern European countries now in peril. Productivity rose dramatically compared to the South, but the currency did not.

Europe’s problem isn’t just debt. The problem is Northern and Southern European nations are very different economically. Germany’s workers are highly productive and their economy relies on exports as a result, while Southern nations are not productive and thus cannot use exports to grow their economy. If they were not a part of the euro, they could devalue their currency to make their exports less expensive (and more competitive), but they aren’t, so they can’t. Their only way is to increase productivity.

December 9th, 2011