Category Archives: Commentary

Greg Mankiw Forgot What He Teaches

By James Kwak

I’ve written several times about what I call the Economics 101 ideology: the overuse of a few simplified concepts from an introductory course to make sweeping policy recommendations (while branding any opponents as ignorant simpletons). The most common way that first-year economics is misused in the public sphere is ignoring assumptions. For example, most arguments for financial deregulation are ultimately based on the idea that transactions between rational actors with perfect information are always good for both sides — and most of the people making those arguments have forgotten that people are not rational and do not have perfect information.

Mark Buchanan and Noah Smith have both called out Greg Mankiw for a different and more pernicious way of misusing first-year economics: simply ignoring what it teaches — or, in this case, what Mankiw himself teaches. At issue is Mankiw’s Times column claiming that all economists agree on the overall benefits of free trade, so everyone should be in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other trade agreements.

Read more at Medium.

The Dysfunctions of Sodor Railways

By James Kwak

The neolithic political ideology of Thomas and Friends is so overbearing and obvious that it’s not worth writing about (except in parody, which I won’t attempt here). Duncan Weldon has taken up the more interesting question of what Thomas, Percy, and their friends can tell us about the economy of Sodor, that strange island trapped somewhere off the coast of Great Britain and in a weird time warp that vaguely resembles the mid-twentieth century.

Like Duncan, I have watched plenty of Thomas videos, in my case in the company of my three-year-old son Henry. One thing that has often struck me about Sodor Railways is the vast amount of excess capacity. The most common plotline goes like this: Some engine has a job to do. However, said engine chooses to do something else out of vanity, unwillingness to go out in bad weather, curiosity, or something similar. Late in the episode, either the engine realizes the error of his ways and does his job, or some other engine does it for him. In either case, the original engine learns his lesson: that it is best to be Really Useful and not to cause Confusion and Delay. (Only, he never really learns the lesson — see the next episode.)

Read more at Medium.

Say It Ain’t So, Ben

By James Kwak

Is it the money?

No.

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, the man who saved the global economy, is becoming an adviser for Citadel, a hedge fund management company. Bernanke will provide advice to Citadel’s fund managers and will also meet with its clients (that is, the limited partners who invest in those funds).

It’s easy to see why Citadel wants Bernanke. He’s a smart man. He knows the inner workings of the world’s central banks as well as anyone. Although he won’t be a registered lobbyist, he can pick up the phone and get anyone in the world to answer, if he wants to. And, perhaps most importantly for the bottom line, the wow factor of having Bernanke meet with investors will help immeasurably with sales — bringing investments in the door.

The bigger question, as always, is why Bernanke wants Citadel.

Read more at Medium.

No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets

By Simon Johnson

The political debate about finance in the US is often cast as markets versus regulation, as if “more regulation” means the efficiency of private sector decisions will necessarily be impeded or distorted. But this is the wrong way to think about the real policy choices that – like it or not – are now being made. The question is actually what kind of markets do you want: fair and well-functioning, with widely shared benefits; or deceptive, dangerous, and favoring just a relatively few powerful people?

In a speech on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) laid out a vision for better financial markets. This is not a left-wing or pro-big government agenda. Senator Warren’s proposals are, first and foremost, pro-market. She wants – and we should all want – financial firms and markets that work for customers, that encourage innovation, and that do not build up massive risks which can threaten the financial system and bring down the economy. Continue reading

It Can Wait. Really.: The Real Solution to Notification Overload

By James Kwak

Beeping iPads! Buzzing phones! Zapping watches! Soon, apparently, we won’t be able to complete a thought without being interrupted by some “intelligent” piece of technology.

The solution, according to Steven Levy, is yet more technology:

a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. . . .

the automated intake of our information will allow us to “know by wire,” as super-smart systems learn how to parcel things out in the least annoying and most useful fashion. They will curate better than any human can.

First of all, I’m skeptical. So is Levy, apparently; just a few paragraphs up, he writes, “the idea of One Feed to Rule Them All is ultimately a pipe dream.” The same factors that make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized feed make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized stream of notifications.

Read more at Medium …

Good Ideas Are Not Enough

By James Kwak

Dan Davies put together a brilliant roundup of the clever business models that financial technology startups are pitching to their investors — and why most of them are deeply flawed. Some of them apply much more broadly than to just the financial services industry. Number three, for example — “Hoping that a load of people who actively mistrust each other will trust you instead” — is a decent description of the business-to-business marketplaces that Ariba was trying to build when I worked there back at the beginning of the millennium.

I’d like to add two more general principles that apply to technology companies that are trying to serve the financial services industry — mainly learned during my years working at an insurance software company before going to law school.

Read more on Medium …

(I’m going to try switching to a Brad DeLong-style approach in which I put the beginnings of my Medium posts here, and then you can decide if you want to read more or not. I can’t put the whole post here because they have thirty-day exclusivity.)

Vaguely Monthly Roundup

By James Kwak

Did you know that blogging is dead? That’s what I hear, anyway. I plan to say something about it once I figure out if I have anything to say on it.

Anyway, as you have probably noticed, I do most of my sporadic writing over at Medium these days. Since I last checked in here, I wrote stories about:

I also posted an essay by Walt Glazer about inequality.

You can see all of my Medium stories here, or you can read the whole Bull Market publication (now including Brad DeLong!).