Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Robert Murphy has a strong response to Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman

Austrian business cycle theory, specifically capital consumption effects.

And Tyler Cowen has the integrity and self-esteem to post it. Bob Murphy even comments on Tyler's post (scroll down). Here are some excerpts from Murphy's thought-provoking piece:
The basic Austrian story is that during the artificial boom, workers' labor and other resources get channeled into investment projects that aren't compatible with the overall level of real savings. Sooner or later, reality rears its ugly head, and the unsustainable projects have to be abandoned before completion. Entrepreneurs realize they were horribly mistaken during the boom, everybody feels poorer and slashes consumption, and many workers get thrown out of jobs until the production structure can be reconfigured in light of the revelation.

For Krugman, his argument relies on a static conception of income and spending. Just using that accounting tautology — without indexing for time — Krugman could also argue that real income can never change in an economy, even if the government announced that the most productive 10% of workers in every firm would be shot. (After all, total income would still equal total spending.)

As for Cowen, he seems to be assuming that "real income" is equivalent to "real consumption." I don't know what to say except, "No it isn't." If a worker gets a job in a silver mine and gets paid in ounces of silver that he stores in his basement, he can have very high "real wages" even if his consumption is very low.

Without further ado, let's examine a hypothetical island economy composed of 100 people, where the only consumption good is rolls of sushi. ... But alas, one day Paul Krugman washes onto the beach. After being revived, he surveys the humble economy and starts advising the islanders on how to raise their standard of living to American levels. He shows them the outboard motor (still full of gas) from his shipwreck, and they are intrigued. Being untrained in economics, they find his arguments irresistible and agree to follow his recommendations. ... (If the reader is curious, Krugman doesn't work in sushi production. He spends his days in a hammock, penning essays that blame the islanders' poverty on the stinginess of the coconut trees.)

Finally, we predict that during the period of transition, some islanders will have nothing to do. After all, there will already be the maximum needed for catching fish with the usable boats and nets, and there will already be the corresponding number of islanders devoted to rice collection and sushi rolling, given the small daily catch of fish.

People in grad school would sometimes ask me why I bothered with an "obsolete" school of thought. I didn't bother citing subjectivism, monetary theory, or even entrepreneurship, though those are all areas where the Austrian school is superior to the neoclassical mainstream. Nope, I would always say, "Their capital theory and business-cycle theory are the best I have found." Our current economic crisis — and the fact that Nobel laureates don't even understand what is happening — shows that I chose wisely.

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