Not Rational Utility Maximisers

One cornerstone of neoclassical economic thought is the assumption in microeconomics (and microfounded macroeconomics) that humans behave as “rational utility maximisers”.

Yet this assumption is increasingly outdated. Empirical findings in behavioural economics show that the neoclassical assumption of utility maximisation has very little basis in reality.

First, it is crucial to define what we mean by utility maximisation. Paul Samuelson, one of the grandfathers of the neoclassical New Keynesian school defined consumer rationality as follows:

• Completeness — Given any 2 bundles of commodities A & B , the consumer can decide whether he prefers A to B (A≻B), B to A (B≻A), or is indifferent between them (B≈A).

• Transitivity — If (A≻B) and (B≻C) then (A≻C).

• Non-satiation — More is preferred to less.

• Convexity — Marginal utility falls as consumption of any good rises.

This definition remains dominant in neoclassical economics today.

Sippel (1997) tested whether consumers really adhered to these four rules. He gave his student test subjects a budget, and a set of eight priced commodities to spend their budget on:


This was repeated ten times, with ten different budget and price combinations. Sippel found that 11 out of 12 of his test subjects’ behaviour failed to meet Samuelson’s criteria for rational utility maximisation. Sippel repeated the experiment later with thirty test subjects, finding that 22 out of 30 did not meet Samuelson’s criteria. Sippel concluded:

We conclude that the evidence for the utility maximisation hypothesis is at best mixed. While there are subjects who appear to be optimising, the majority of them do not.

It is interesting that some individuals obey the rules set out by Samuelson, and that some don’t. Human behaviour is highly variable from individual to individual. If the hypothesis of utility maximisation is right about a subset of individuals, but wrong about much of the general population, then this underlines the variability of human behaviour. And different circumstances call for different decision-making frameworks — some individuals may act like rational utility maximisers under some sets of circumstances and not others. This is really an area that deserves much, much more empirical study.

The evidence so far suggests that humans are complex animals whose decisions are multi-dimensional. This could be because our brains have evolved to use different neuro-circuitry for different decisions. According to the behavioural economist Daniel McFadden:

Our brains seem to operate like committees, assigning some tasks to the limbic system, others to the frontal system. The “switchboard” does not seem to achieve complete, consistent communication between different parts of the brain. Pleasure and pain are experienced in the limbic system, but not on one fixed “utility” or “self-interest” scale. Pleasure and pain have distinct neural pathways, and these pathways adapt quickly to homeostasis, with sensation coming from changes rather than levels. Overall, presumably as a product of evolution, our brains are organized well enough to keep us alive, fed, reproducing, and responsive to but not overwhelmed by sensation, but they are not hedonometers.

All of this points to the idea that microeconomics needs a new framework based on neurological and behavioural evidence, not decades-old assumptions that are unsupported by empirical evidence.

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What is Profit?

In neoclassical macroeconomic models that assume perfect competition, there can in the long run be no such thing as profit — defined as revenue left over after all costs have been subtracted.

Clearly, in the real world where many businesses have lived and died profitably there is no such thing as perfect competition, and therefore the neoclassical models that treat profit as a short-run anomaly are working from an unrealistic assumption.

My definition of profit is that profit is what happens when a business’s input transactions are priced less than its output transactions. That is, the sum of the cost of a business’s inputs from those it buys is transacted for a lower price than the sum of those it sells its goods and services to. Because transactions are assumed to be voluntary — and when they are not voluntary, any residual gain is theft, not profit — and businesses are assumed to try to negotiate the best price in both inputs and outputs, any profit is due to those who purchase the business’s output valuing the output higher than those who sold the business its inputs. That an output or input transactor would accept a profit-creating price could be for any number of perceived reasons: convenience, or expertise, or prestige, or necessity, or even outright trickery. Their decision to accept the price is subject to their own subjective valuation, and it is the difference between prices that creates the profit.

Marx and Lenin represented this idea as surplus value; that businesses make a profit by extracting uncompensated labour value out of their workers. But why not the other transactors? In my view, profit is derived from the sum of the business’s transactions with all of its transactors: consumers, supplies, labour (etc). Workers (etc) cannot extract a greater share of the firm’s revenue than they can negotiate, and at various points in history (including the present day) the working class seems to have had little real leverage for negotiation.

In my view, any model that attempts to represent real world markets should begin from the historical fact of profit and loss, and the historical fact of a disequilibrium between input transactions and output transactions.

Is it Always a Good Time to Own Gold?

Is it always a good time to own gold?

Absolutely not. A portfolio in the S&P 500 or Treasuries in 1973 has returned a much higher rate than gold bought that year — even if gold raced ahead up ’til 1980, and is racing ahead again now. We know that throughout history gold has sustained its purchasing power, and fiat currency has lost its purchasing power. But we also know that stocks have grown their purchasing power.

But gold continues to rise — so what makes gold different right now? Well, from a technical perspective, America and the West are in a secular bear market:

But a technical perspective doesn’t really give enough political and economic background to explain why we are where we are.

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Empiricism in Economics

It has long been held that there are two kinds of economics:

  1. Rationalist economics: starting out with theses about philosophy, money and reality (etc) and using logic and reason to reach conclusions about the present and predictions about the future.
  2. Empiricist economics: starting out with data and creating mathematical models representing these data, and using these models to reach conclusions about the present, and predictions about the future.

In traditional circles, the first class tends to include the various schools of Austrian and Marxian economics, and the second class tends to include the various schools of Keynesian and Monetarist economics.

Today, I want to put an entirely new spin on empiricism in economics, by focussing away from modelling. The process of mathematical modelling is just as rationalist as using logic and reason.


Economies are nonlinear systems.

From Wikipedia:

In mathematics, a nonlinear system is a system which is not linear, that is, a system which does not satisfy the superposition principle, or whose output is not directly proportional to its input. 

Effectively, a nonlinear system is one in which mathematical modelling mostly does not work. This, in a nutshell, is the reason why professional economists within the academic system, at the Federal Reserve, and within the IMF and the World Bank are often so desperately incorrect with their predictions, as we have seen so many times in the last few years. 

This is because nonlinearity is a direct result of incomplete information. Any map or model built will not be an exact replica of reality, and as Benoit Mandelbrot showed tiny divergences in an unmodelled (or unknown) variable can result in a humungous variation in the output of the system (i.e., the economy).

So in dealing with nonlinearity the model always fails — sometimes by a fraction, and sometimes by a huge amount.  The notion of accurate modelling was famously taken to a logical conclusion by the writer Jorge Luis Borges in On Exactitude in Science:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coin- cided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

So if accurate modelling in complex dynamical systems such as economies is effectively impossible without mapping every input what hope can there be for empiricism in economics?

We have to approach it from another angle: if it is impossible to model economies in a laboratory, through equations, or in a supercomputer, the real world must be the testing-ground for ideas.

Actors in economies should be free to experiment. Good ideas should be free to succeed, and bad ones to fail. The role of the government should be to provide a level playing field for experimentalism (and enough of a safety net for when experiments go wrong) — not pick winners or “manage the economy”. People with ideas must be able to access capital so that those ideas can be tested in the market place. If experiments go badly, that is no bad thing: it just means that another idea, or system, or structure needs to be tested. People should be free to go bankrupt and start all over again with a different mindset and different idea.

The corporatist model that most nations around the world have adopted, or fallen into (i.e. “capitalism” led by governments and large corporations) is nothing like this. Small businesses struggle to access capital. Young men and women are thrown onto the scrapheap of unemployment without a chance to develop skills, or entrepreneurial ideas, or even sell their labour, and pushed into leeching off the wealth of the nation through welfare. Large banks and corporations whose business models have failed are routinely declared “infrastructurally important” or “too big to fail” and bailed out to leech off the nation.

This is not empiricism. This is a disaster. To restore society, we must restore empiricism into economies.

No QE3 (Yet)

So Bernanke announced a twist operation, shifting the weight of bonds toward the long-end of the maturity spectrum, and a program to roll maturing mortgage backed securities. This means that the Fed’s balance sheet will remain largely unchanged — in other words, very bloated.

But in the immediate term there will be no QE3, no drop on interest in excess reserves, no purchases of equities, commercial paper, foreign debt or any of the wackier theories about Bernanke surprising the economy into recovery. What does this mean for projections on the US economy? Very little — without an artificial updraft of stimulus, and with the ongoing global pressures, it seems inevitable that equities — Bernanke’s metric of choice — will sooner or later end up in the ditch by the wayside.

From the Guardian:

The Fed said the economy faced “significant downside risks”; one of those risks being the volatility in financial markets around the world. US stock markets reacted badly to the move. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 283.82 points, or 2.49%, at 1124.84. The Dow has fallen two of the last three trading days following fears that Europe’s financial woes will spread to the US.

As I wrote last month:

Bernanke’s policy since 2007 as Governor of the Federal Reserve has been to pump money to reflate the rest of the economy to catch up with swollen debts acquired during the bubble — debts, especially in real estate, that would otherwise be defaulted upon as post-crash deflation took hold, leading to bank failures, credit retraction and a huge deflationary spiral to the bottom. That was his thesis in 1983 in regard to the 1930s, and he has been particularly lucky (or unlucky) to be able to test his thesis through policy. The real question is — what is supporting asset prices now? Is it real, new organic growth in America? No — growth is low, stagnant, and led by corporate profits, not small business or industrial output. Is it a booming real estate sector? No — confidence and prices are as low as 2009. Is it lower dependence on foreign oil, and a booming energy sector? No — America is more dependent on Arab oil than at any time in history, and the Arabs are wealthier than ever. Is it deeper, wider and burgeoning consumer demand? No — consumer demand for all but the rich is stagnant, burnt out by crippling food and fuel inflation, and rampant unemployment especially among the young.

He will print eventually — perhaps not this week or month, but he will — no matter how clear Wen Jiabao has been that QE3 should not happen.

Some interesting commentary comes from Peter Tchir of TF Market Advisors

Disappointment With The Fed

There are lots of things out there that once they have been done, can never be undone. Ben just disappointed the market for the first time. Whether he knew it or not he failed to beat expectations. He has been so good at managing expectations and using that as a policy tool he lost sight of how far ahead of itself the market had gotten. Everyone expected twist and seriously, what’s a 100 billion in size between friends in this crazy market.

He downgraded the economy but didn’t use that as an excuse to do more. There was no new, ingenious idea. If anything they tried to clarify the commitment to hold rates low til 2013 is dependent on economic conditions remaining weak.  Yet there were still 3 dissenters.

Ben has been a fan of making markets dance to his tune based on expectations. By disappointing some people I expect his ability to keep the market up by talking will be reduced as investors will need to see action rather than being told vaguely that there could be action. That will take time to play out and even I have to admit he gave us something today, just not enough.

The conclusion is very simple: intervention breeds expectation of more intervention, which breeds dependency.

The Great Hunger

What is the real problem with the global economy? The traditional academic position, espoused by Paul Krugman, Christina Romer and most the White House and Federal Reserve is that this ever since 2007 we have experienced a series of severe negative demand shocks — starting with the bursting of the housing bubble, the sub-prime bubble, the implosion of AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, and continuing through the European debt crisis, various natural disasters and geopolitical upheavals — which first brought us into crisis, and have since imperilled any nascent recovery. The staunchest view – pushed especially by Krugman — is that the only way to reverse the effects of these demand shocks is through massive stimulus, to create a multiplier effect and raise aggregate demand.

But I believe that simply juicing the wheels of the economy with more money is simplistic, frivolous and mechanistic. We have to understand that the negative demand shocks are not simply bad luck or statistical noise, but instead reflect the reality of severe underlying structural problems. And without solving the underlying problems, a stimulus will keep things ticking over for months or years, until the same problems rear their head again down the road.

So the dissenting view, as posited by myself among others, is as follows:

Those troubles are non-monetary — they are systemic and infrastructural: military overspending, political corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, the derivatives-industrial complex, food and fuel inflation and so forth.

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