Estonia’s Astonishing Development

by Andreas Hoffmann

Intellectual Takeout’s Luis Pablo has published a nice piece on Estonia’s astonishing development. You can find it here. He attributes this development to Estonia’s “market-oriented reforms” during the 1990s. Importantly, Estonia has sticked with the “market-oriented” approach. I suggest that this persistence might help explain why the country has fared better than most other countries following liberalization.

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Rigidity and Flexibility: Unions in the On-Demand Economy?

by Liya Palagashvili

A couple months ago, a judge ruled in favor of Seattle’s ordinance that will allow ridesharing drivers to engage in collective bargaining agreements. The ordinance has granted the labor union, Teamsters, the right to represent drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft. Under current U.S. labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRA) gives employees the right to unionize, but ridesharing drivers are legally classified as independent contractors, and thus outside of the purview of this legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has initiated litigation to challenge the validity of this ordinance on several grounds (e.g., preemption by NLRA, antitrust violations), though while in the appeals process, the city has begun to move forward to implement this first-in-the-nation law.

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COSMOS + TAXIS Issue on Jane Jacobs

by Sandy Ikeda

Jane Jacobs’ writings span several disciplines—including ethics and most especially economics—but she is best known for her contributions to and her critique of urban planning, design, and policy. Many of those whom she influenced in academia, policy, and activism took the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday in 2016 to celebrate those contributions through lectures, biographies, and various events and publications.

The current issue of COSMOS + TAXIS is offered in that same spirit. I am especially pleased that it includes the contributions of a diversity of scholars—with backgrounds in economics, urban policy, urban planning, geography, architectural history, and engineering—with a diversity of insights expressed from the perspectives of epistemology, intellectual history, spatial analysis, urban history, private cities, mercantilism, and of course spontaneous order; and ranging in approach from the theoretical to the historical to the applied. Indeed, we learn from Jacobs that from the diversity of the living city springs experiment, creativity, and surprise; and that pertains equally to the realm of living ideas. Read these pages and be surprised!


A Crisis in Economics?

by Mario Rizzo

Periodically, people warn about the “crisis in economics.” I have heard about several of these over my professional career. Somehow the mainstream or orthodox economists never seem to notice these crises or take them seriously. They continue doing what they were doing.

Today the crisis, if there is one, is due to behavioral economics. The traditional rationality assumptions of economics are under assault. Why should we care? After all, they were unrealistic in the first place. And yet they did lead us to some definite conclusions about a wide variety of matters regarding economic theory, applied economics, and policy economics. A consensus seemed to be forming that markets, if not efficient in the strong sense, were at least subject to strong corrective pressures. Now the collection of biases we have accumulated makes it seem like a miracle that markets work at all. We must now not only worry about market failure but we must think about “decisionmaking failure.” People cannot be relied upon to pursue their own interests effectively in matters from deciding how many potato chips to eat to whether to join an employer-sponsored retirement savings program. They might also choose the wrong bank account because of fees for add-on services (like overdraft protection) that are not made salient enough. People cannot be simply given information about the dangers of smoking; they must be subject to worse-case scenarios (biased in themselves) to offset other biases that plague decisionmaking. But many biases move in opposite directions. Others cannot be quantified very accurately. More importantly, biases are being sought. Many researchers stop when they have found one or more.

All this is fueled by several factors. Young economists want to make a name for themselves. The most direct way is to overturn some conventional wisdom. Much of that is based on models that assume agent rationality. So now we get results in public economics that if you don’t make sales taxes salient, that is, don’t add the tax on to the price label before checkout, the taxes will not have much of an effect on demand. When you do, demand for the product will fall. (I wonder what happens if tomorrow all price labels for all products include the tax – will the demand to hold money increase and a recession start?) Another factor is the demand for policy measures by politicians who need to keep providing services. If new (behavioral) problems can be found then new solutions can be proposed. This demand and incentive to respond to it must be great because even articles that are primarily theoretical have some discussion of the possible policy relevance of the model. A third factor is the decades-old mindset of fine-tuning. For example, in a world of scores of biases, all sorts of things can go wrong in financial markets. So why not have regulators with a broad mandate to curb systemically problematic behavior? There can be no end to the possible perverse biased behavior that these regulators need to monitor and control. The approach that Milton Friedman and others preferred was to establish clear general rules. Because behavioral biases are so contextual (that is, they come and go depending on the concrete details of the particular case) it is not feasible to rely simply on general rules.

Out of all this comes two problems. First, are they any general lessons we can teach Principles of Economics students or members of the general public? I still think we can teach basic concepts like opportunity cost – unless of course people fall victim to the “sunk costs fallacy” which behavioral economists say they do. Oh well. There must be something… Second, the normative standard of economists has not changed. The ideal is still neoclassically rational behavior. But now that behavior has become so seemingly preposterous that deviations from ideal behavior almost find themselves. Perspective is lost. We wonder how things can ever go right, even though “Paris gets fed.”

I am afraid that the days of the straightforward Economics in One Lesson of Henry Hazlitt or the direct implications of University Economics of Armen Alchian and William Allen are over. You can have almost any set of beliefs about how the economic world operates and have an economic theory to support it.

I do not suggest a solution. None is possible yet because not enough people have faced the problem squarely.

Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science

by Glen Whitman

Last year in this space, I posted the Call for Abstracts for a forthcoming book called Economics of the Undead. That project is now coming to fruition! The book will officially be published tomorrow; here’s the Amazon page, and here’s the Barnes & Noble page. (The Kindle version should also become available tomorrow.) If the brilliant title and fetching cover haven’t already convinced you to buy the book, then you should visit the official website, which includes the table of contents, chapter excerpts, a course guide, and even a blog.

I know that some economists, including some who might frequent this page, have a problem with the term “dismal science.” For that reason, I thought I should post the following passage from the book’s introduction:

But before you start sampling, let’s return for a moment to the subtitle of this book: “Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science.” In a book about the undead, we couldn’t resist the temptation to use the economics discipline’s most famous nickname. But while many people know economics as the dismal science, few know the true origin of that phrase. It came from Thomas Carlyle, another Scottish philosopher. And Carlyle was not denigrating economists for their (quite real) tendency to emphasize the limits of our resources and the barriers to remaking society as a fanciful utopia. No, Carlyle was criticizing economists for supporting the abolition of slavery! He was incensed by the optimism of economists like John Stuart Mill, who believed that people of African origin—like people of all races—were capable of governing themselves.

We tell this story because we think you’ll find, possibly to your surprise, that this book presents one of the more optimistic perspectives you’ll find on the undead threat. From Darwyyn Deyo and David T. Mitchell’s argument that we should trade with vampires instead of staking them; to Kyle Bishop, David Tufte, and Mary Jo Tufte’s suggestion that innovative humans might ultimately achieve victory over the zombie threat; to Brian Hollar’s discussion of how humans will seek prosperity even after a zombie apocalypse, a broad theme emerges: that humans—and maybe our recently dead brethren as well—have a vast capacity to cope with adversity and somehow make the world a better place.

(There’s also a citation to Levy and Peart in there, which I have omitted from this post.)

Economics Music Video Contest: Markets Promote Peace

by Edward Stringham

As a professor, I am a  fan of rigorous economic research, but I am also a fan of helping students learn about how important economics is in an engaging way. John Papola did an excellent job with the Keynes Versus Hayek music videos (especially the second one with yours truly), and over the past couple years I have had students make economics music videos. Think it is impossible to have music videos about Supply and Demand or Economic Value is Subjective? Think again! The results of the 2012 Supply and Demand Music Video Contest and the 2013 Economic Value is Subjective Video Contest have  been fantastic and have had more than 100,000 views on Youtube. See the winning entries below.

I am pleased to announce the 2014 Economics Music Video Contest on Markets Promote Peace. Winners get $2,500 and their professor gets $500. According to the great 19th century liberal, Richard Coben, markets help change a relationship between strangers from one of indifference, or even contempt, to one of mutual benefit. People who may not have cared about each other, now see the other party as an ally. Militarism, on the other hand, causes conflict. To Cobden an important, more humane, and more effective substitute for militarism in the international realm is the expansion of markets.

Continue reading about the contest here:

Winners of  the 2013 Value is Subjective Music Video Contest


Winners of the 2012 Supply and Demand Music Video Contest


A New Journal from The Ronald Coase Institute

by Mario Rizzo

Readers of this blog may be interested in learning that the awaited-and-hoped-for new journal is actually coming soon. It is a welcome change from the usual in economics today. I hope that Austrians might consider submitting articles of high quality. The following is taken from the website of the Ronald Coase Institute.

A New Journal Coming Soon
Man and the Economy: A Journal of the Coase Society
Editors: Ronald Coase & Ning Wang
Publisher: De Gruyter    Inaugural Issue: April 2014

From the editors:

We are pleased to announce that Man and the Economy will soon be launched. As revealed by its title, Man and the Economy commits to a particular viewpoint of economics: a study of man as he is and a study of the economy as actually exists. This is in sharp contrast to the prevailing view where the economic actor is treated as an atomized utility maximizer and the economy as an artifact of mechanical design, which misrepresents the character of man and the nature of the economy. Man and the Economy restores the economy as an open and evolving social organism of cooperation and competition.

Professor Ronald Coase was editor of the Journal of Law and Economics(JLE) for 18 years. During his editorship, LJE not only became a distinct journal, but also helped to create a new field of study, law and economics. Man and the Economy aims to do to economics what JLE has done to law and economics. Professor Coase serves as founding editor of the new journal. Dr. Ning Wang, who has been working with Professor Coase since 1998, will serve as managing co-editor. They are joined by two associate editors, Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago and Guang-zhen Sun of the University of Macau, along with a distinguished editorial board made up of economists, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, and legal scholars from all over the world.

Man and the Economy starts in 2014 and publishes two issues a year in the first three years. It welcomes empirical (historical, qualitative, statistical, experimental) investigations and theoretical explorations that shed light on how the economy works and how it changes over time. We are committed to making Man and the Economy international and interdisciplinary.

We are keen to publish articles that examine how the emerging market economy works and evolves in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe as well as contributions by non-economists that focus on the working of the economy. Man and the Economy acceptsOriginal Articles (regular research papers), Research Notes (interesting ideas and findings not fully developed), Voices from the Field(contributions from practitioners in the business and policy community that are of interest to students of the economy), Marketplace for Ideas (interviews with leading scholars and other game-changers in the field), Wisdom of the Past (insights on man and the economy that have been largely forgotten), and Letters from Readers.

We aim to makeMan and the Economy the equivalent of Nature or Science in social sciences, read by and with contribution from the concerned public, policy-makers, business and legal professionals, as well as academics who look up to economics as a study of man as he is and of the economy as it actually exists in the real world.

Remembering Armen Alchian

by Jerry O’Driscoll

Earlier this year, we lost one of the greatest economists of this century, UCLAs Armen Alchian, who died at age 98. David Henderson wrote a wonderful appreciation of him for the Wall Street Journal.

Alchian taught at UCLA from the early 1950s until his retirement in the 1990s. Few men have put their stamp on a department as he did. Milton Friedman comes to mind at Chicago. Alchian taught the economic way of thinking, and his approach permeated the course offerings by almost all the other professors. If you took macro from Axel Leijonhufvud, you got a dose of Alchian’s micro. In monetary classes, works like Alchian’s “Why Money” were topics of discussion.  Alchian’s analysis of price searching behavior was background in all the courses.

Liberty Fund published a two-volume collection of his writings. I can obviously touch on only a few issues.

One of Alchian’s greatest contributions was to the theory of market pricing. Continue reading

Ignorant Survey from Chicago-Booth?

By Mario Rizzo

The Chicago-Booth IMG Forum asks their favorite economists two questions. Let us examine them.

Question A:

Raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour would make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment.

Why was the word “noticeably” added to the question rather than some specific quantitative amount?  In other words, the question could have been phrased: “Would it increase unemployment among low-skilled works by approximately 5 percentage points or less?”  I realize that economists would get nervous about mentioning a specific number. But (1) That would reveal the true difficulties in economics of making quantitative predictions and hence tradeoffs; (2) It would take the subjectivity out of the word “noticeable.”  Noticeable for whom, and by what standard?  Noticeable to the public or to the policy maker or to the economist or to the low skilled workers or to union members?

Question B:

The distortionary costs of raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour and indexing it to inflation are sufficiently small compared with the benefits to low-skilled workers who can find employment that this would be a desirable policy.

There is a lot here. Let us first separate the raising of the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour from the indexing (one could favor the former but not the latter). Continue reading

James M. Buchanan: A Preliminary Appreciation

by Mario Rizzo

The great economist James M. Buchanan died today at 93. I am still too stunned to write a proper appreciation of his tremendous contributions to economics and, indeed, to moral philosophy.

Buchanan won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1986. But even this does not capture his greatness. There have been many Nobel prizes in Economics since 1969, the year they were initiated. (In my view there have been too many.) Many of these prize winners will be long forgotten and even viewed with puzzlement by future generations, but this prize will stand out. Continue reading


by Mario Rizzo

I have very little to say directly about this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. I do not know whether the seemingly-technical contributions of Alvin E. Roth and Lloyd S. Shapley rise to the level of a Nobel Prize. However, I am mindful that the Nobel Committee has to give the award every year. They also have to show some diversity in the fields they recognize. But their issues are not mine. I have said to friends more than once that the prize in economics ought to be given every other year. I think there have been too many Nobel Prizes and too few really game-changing fundamental contributions.

My reactions here are different. Today’s New York Times has an interesting article on the prize. The first point that interests me:

Al [Roth] has spent the last 30 years trying to make economics more like an engineering discipline,” said Parag Pathak, an economics professor at M.I.T. who has worked on school-matching systems with Mr. Roth. “The idea is to try to diagnose why resource allocation systems are not working, and how they can be engineered to produce something better.”

I have no problem with better matching techniques for students applying to medical school or trying to get into certain popular courses and so forth. But I do object to the project of making economics more like engineering. Economics was born of the desire to elaborate and explain the spontaneous ordering of the market. It also tries to explain the conditions under which that ordering process may break down in markets. Markets generally coordinate but sometimes they may not. Let’s find out when, why, and how. It is very, very, important to understand – for both students and practitioners of economics alike – that markets are not like bridges. So I do not want an engineer teaching economics.

The second point has more to do with the impact of constructivist matching schemes on public policy. As a second best, where markets do not operate, they may improve things. However, this takes the spotlight off where it should be: permitting markets where they are forbidden. Or, perhaps, stated more “moderately” encouraging the discussion of a greater role for markets – as in human organs. Even Iran permits a market in kidneys, after all.

Nevertheless, I am amused by all the flurry of activity designed to show how wise and interesting the choice for this year’s economics Nobel is. Sometimes it is not.

Top Young Economists Consider Their Future

by Roger Koppl

Ali Wyne of the big think  blog “Power Games”  recently posted an interesting set of comments on the theme “Empirics and Psychology: Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists Discuss Where Their Field Is Going.”  George Mason’s own Peter Leeson  was among the eight “top young economists” sharing their views.

Over at New APPS, the philosopher Eric Schliesser  summarizes the eight comments. “Bottom line: due to low cost computing and a data rich environment the future of economics is data-mining (this was clear from at least four of the comments). This is especially so because the young stars have lost faith in homo economicus (due to behavioral work and the crisis).”

Eric’s summary seems about right to me. There were eight fine minds sharing eight different visions, but two related themes dominated the comments. 1) The old rationality assumption is in trouble and we don’t quite know what to do about it. 2) Economics should be more data-driven now that we have what William Brock has labeled “dirt-cheap computing.” Continue reading

Elinor Ostrom, RIP

by Mario Rizzo

This will not be a review of her scholarly contributions. I have already made some attempt at that in a post shortly after her richly-deserved Nobel prize in economics. And I also link an announcement of her death here. 

I met Professor Ostrom at a celebration of her work at GMU after she won the prize. I was fortunate enough to be invited to dinner with her and just a few other people afterwards. I was so positively impressed by her, first, as a human being. She was kind, funny and liked a good scotch. (I stuck with the wine.) As a scholar, she was not only brilliant but she was non-dogmatic about methods, willing to learn from others, and had a wonderful combination of humility and self-confidence. She knew how important a good story is to the advancement of science, and not just heuristically.

She and Peter Boettke apparently “clicked” academically. After all, he saw her importance and published a book about her work before the Nobel Committee recognized her (and 99% of all economists ever heard of her!).

At the end of obituaries it is customary to say “she will be missed.” But, really, this time she will be missed by more than her family and friends, but by all of those who learned from her writings or from her in person. We carry on —  impoverished by her death, enriched by her life.

Supply and Demand in Music

by Edward Peter Stringham*

Many economists are criticized for being unable to communicate their ideas in am intelligible and non-boring way. How many people, for example, jump to listen about a debate about the Austrian theory of the business cycle? It turns out quite a lot. John Papola and Russ Roberts demonstrated to the world that lots people will actually listen to an economics discussion if presented in an interesting way.  Their videos recently surpassed 4.5. million views. They did an amazing job especially with their good casting decisions for the reporter at the end of the second video.

This year I decided to run a video contest for students to create music videos that help illustrate the laws of supply and demand. Continue reading

Chicago and Vienna

by Jerry O’Driscoll

In the last two days, two prominent economists have asked me essentially the same question: what is the difference between Chicago and Austrian economics? It is interesting that both asked, particularly since one has a Ph.D from Chicago.

The second economist asked me specifically if Armen Alchian wasn’t really an Austrian. I’ll respond as I did to him. I learned most of my Austrian economics in the UCLA graduate economics program. (At that time, UCLA was known as Chicago West.) I was never an Alchian student, but one read lots of Alchian anyway. And his influence pervaded the department. It was obvious to me that Mises had influenced Alchian. Also Hayek, as is made clear in a video of Alchian interviewing Hayek.

Hayek’s classic essays on prices and information were on various reading lists at UCLA. Continue reading

No Way to Escape for the Swiss National Bank

by Andreas Hoffmann and Gunther Schnabl

It came as a surprise to many: the Swiss National Bank announced an exchange rate target. Accordingly, the Swiss franc will be held above the level of 1.20 francs per euro. Switzerland gives up a part of its sovereignty, when the ECB makes bad press in buying trash-rated euro area government bonds to support unsustainable national budgets.

But, particularly in an environment of global excess liquidity originating in too-easy monetary policies in major advanced economies, small open economies have incentives to stabilize exchange rates. Continue reading

Stark quits ECB

by Andreas Hoffmann

This is good news for inflationists.

I am shocked that Jürgen Stark quit his job at the European Central Bank. Usually it is a good thing when central bankers quit their job – or at least it does not make a difference. But Jürgen Stark is known as an inflation hawk. Jürgen Stark – like the Mark writes Die Welt.

In my opinion, the main difference between the ECB and the Fed is that the ECB has people like Stark. Unfortunately, there are only a few.

He is opposed to cheap money policies. A while ago, he openly warned of rolling bubbles caused by too low interest rates in the media. Thus, he suggested a timely turn-around in interest rate policy. Recently he voted against further bond purchases of the ECB. More on this recent event can be found here.

Coming shortly after Axel Weber resigned due to his disagreement with Trichet’s policies, Europe’s anti-inflation block is now shattered. Something terrible must be going on at the ECB. I wonder where the ECB is heading?

“A Divine Miracle”

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

In the August 24th Wall Street Journal, Harvard Professor Robert Barro penned a hard-hitting op ed: “Keynesian Economics vs. Regular Economics.” He contrasts the lessons of standard economics with some of the unsubstantiated claims of Keynesian economics. He zeroes in on the idea that transfer payments provide economic stimulus.

Transfer payments in the guise of food stamps, unemployment benefits, and income redistribution generally have been the centerpiece of this administration’s policy to stimulate the economy. Barro quotes Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s claim that the multiplier effect of food stamps is close to 2.

Trouble is, as Barro notes, “there is zero evidence that deficit-financed transfers raise GDP and employment – not to mention evidence for a multiplier of two.” Continue reading

What is Economics Today?

by Mario Rizzo

I was recently at the Summer University in Aix-en-Provence. I heard more than once about the need to educate people in economics in order to get better public policy.

My purpose in this post is not to go over the issue of the relative power of ideas about the “general welfare” as compared to special interests in determining public policy. Instead, I want to raise the question of whether today’s economics is homogeneous enough to teach basic lessons about the desirability of free markets. Let us put aside the old socialism and central planning issue. We can say that “economics” defeated that. Continue reading

Politically Feasible

by Mario Rizzo

Many years ago, the distinguished economist, William H. Hutt, wrote a pamphlet called “Politically Impossible?” He argued that economists should not seek political relevance by proposing only those policies that they perceive as politically possible, practical or feasible. They should speak truth to power, so to say, and advocate those policies that they perceive to be in the “public interest.” (Interestingly, it is often considered a key element of the economic rationality of agents to be able to distinguish the desirable from the feasible.) Continue reading

Austrian Law and Economics: The Definitive Collection

by Mario Rizzo

Edward Elgar has announced the publication of a two-volume collection of Austrian law and economics articles. The marks the first definitive collection of articles in this field. It is a book for your university or public library. Please recommend it! 


Edited by Mario J. Rizzo, Department of Economics, New York University, US

August 2011 1,488 pp Hardback 978 1 84542 753 5 Regular Price $790.00  Web Price $711.00 

The use of economics to study law was pioneered by the Austrian School of Economics. The nineteenth century founders of the school believed that economics could contribute to understanding the spontaneous development of common law as well as the nature of legal rights. For this insightful two-volume collection Mario Rizzo has selected key papers from today’s vibrant Austrian School, focusing on the study of property, market-chosen law, slippery-slope analysis, entrepreneurship, institutions, decentralized social knowledge, and the evolution of legal institutions.
These volumes represent the cutting-edge Austrian contributions to economics and will be an essential reference source for both students and researchers. Continue reading

How to Teach the History of Economic Thought

by Gene Callahan

I was recently asked about a good textbook to use in teaching the history of economic thought. Well, last year I had used William Barber’s book, and found it wholly adequate. But as I was teaching the course, I became somewhat uneasy about the textbook approach. I started to feel I was giving what Michael Oakeshott referred to as a “museum tour” of that history: “Over there, on your left, is Aristotle… he held exchange should take place when values exchanged are equal. There, on the right, is Adam Smith. Do you see the extensive division of labor in his diorama? Just past him is David Ricardo…” Continue reading