Showing posts from August, 2016

Maslow's hierarchy of money

A new study shows that the form of shadow "money" used in US prisons is changing. For many years it has been cigarettes (tobacco), and to a lesser extent stamps and envelopes. But now it seems the popularity of these in the prison black economy is declining - in favour of food. Specifically, Ramen noodles, a high-calorie, substantial foodstuff.

Without examining the reasons for this change, it would be easy to assume that this is a matter of relative scarcity. Perhaps Ramen noodles are cheaper and more widely available than cigarettes, so inmates are turning to them because they are easier to obtain. If so, then Gresham's Law tells us that Ramen noodles would eventually become the principal medium of exchange. Cigarettes would gradually disappear from circulation, becoming an increasingly expensive store of value.

Of course, rich prisoners might worry that lack of demand for cigarettes would reduce their value - after all, if you can't sell your ciggies, you might a…

The art of economics

Collected here are my posts about the changing nature of economics. Olivier Blanchard says "there is room for art as well as science". In these posts, I develop the concept of economics as art: vague, conceptual, imaginative, complex, and subjective. In other words - human.

I should make it clear that I am mainly talking about macroeconomics, although microeconomics is also changing for other reasons.

The problem of mathematics
When the Nile floods fail
The failure of macroeconomics
The necessary arrogance of elites
Spurious precision
No, please don't show me your model

No, please don't show me your model

Unsurprisingly, on my post "The Art of Economics", which attempted to put the mathematical models beloved of mainstream economics firmly in their place, is a comment defending mainstream mathematical models. Here it is, in part:
Secondly, you definitely don't need obscure heterodox models to predict a financial crisis. I've cited it before, but for instance Kiyotaki-Moore basically sketches out how a crisis like this can occur. There are actually plenty of examples of perfectly fine mainstream papers on this topic. And it wasn't just heterodox economists that predicted it. People like Dean Baker, Roubini or even Krugman didn't exactly rely on post-Keynesian or Minskyian economics, their logic was fairly straight forward. Stiglitz has some great models on bank failure, which are essentially mainstream info-asymmetry economics. I also think Minsky is useful but not that useful, and it's not especially scientific. He doesn't really have any kind of mode…

Spurious precision

Over at Bloomberg View, Noah Smith has a pop at what he calls “heterodox economics”. By this he means the new ideas in economic thinking that have sprung up since the 2008 financial crisis but so far haven’t made it into mainstream economic journals.

Noah starts by admitting that mainstream economics abjectly failed to predict the crisis and gave little or no guidance on how to deal with it. Because of this, according to Noah, “many people have looked around for an alternative paradigm -- a new way of thinking about macroeconomics that would have allowed us to avoid the pitfalls of the Great Recession.”

Indeed they have.  Though some of the ideas are not so new – Hyman Minsky’s “Financial Instability Hypothesis”, for example, dates back to 1992.

According to Noah, the search for alternative thinking inevitably attracted people who – for whatever reason – “felt shut out” of the mainstream. And as an example of one of these so-called “heterodox” economists, he cites me. Here’s Noah&#…

Birth of a bank

I have been following with some amusement the death and resurrection of the Bitfinex exchange. Bitfinex was forced to suspend trading after losing nearly 120,000 BTC in a hacking on 2nd August. But instead of going into liquidation, as we might expect, it reinvented itself - as a bank.

Bitfinex had been doing bank-like things ever since its creation in 2012. It accepted deposits from some of its customers, and lent out those deposits to other customers - with the depositors' permission, of course. However, as long as customers controlled their own wallets, and default by a borrower rebounded directly back to the lender, Bitfinex could simply call itself an exchange, or a peer-to-peer lending platform.

Bitfinex kept customer money in individual wallets under lock and key - three keys, to be precise. Two of the three keys were needed for funds to be moved from the account (or two of three digital signatures, if you prefer).

One key was held by Bitfinex, and a second was held by a t…