Can You Tell The Difference Between Economics And Politics?

These days, it is trendy to practice political punditry under the guise of a thoughtful economist handing out enlightened “economic policy” suggestions.

A recent case in point is the interview with Harvard’s Ed Glaeser with EconTalk’s Russ Roberts, wherein Glaeser shared the following ideas about reforming city governance with respect to “historic preservation districts”:

In the case of the city historic preservation districts I would probably replace the ever-increasing swatch of territories–15% of the land area in Manhattan south, in the bottom half of Manhattan excluding Central Park as an historic preservation district right now–and areas go into historic preservation districts but they rarely come out of them. So, it seems like it’s going to be an ever-increasing swath of the city. I don’t much like the idea of cities being museum pieces. There are a few which are appropriate, like Bruges, but I think it’s good that cities change and that they develop new space, combination of new activities and people. So, I would in terms of preservation–my father was an architectural historian so I do really believe in the value of preserving some old, beautiful buildings–but I would have a fixed number of the total number of buildings that they are able to set aside as being preserved rather than allow them to just keep on getting new areas for preservation districts.

Here is what an economist would say:

Land and property use should be conditioned on “most highly valued use”, as evidenced by voluntary exchanges agreed to by participants in the property market. For some, purchasing historic properties for the purposes of preserving them, perhaps for commercial exploitation as a tourist attraction or simply to be kept out of the hands of the public or those who might privately redevelop them, might be the “most highly valued use” for which a person would exchange their wealth to control these properties. For others, tearing the historic buildings down or otherwise modifying them from their original, historic state, may be the “most highly valued use”, perhaps for the purpose of providing new housing or areas of commerce and industry.

There is no moral reason why future generations should be beholden to the land-use decisions of ancient generations, and even if there was, it is not an economist’s place to discuss such topics.

Notice– Glaeser said none of this, and in fact violated the statement at the end while complementing it all with a bit of arbitrary personal psychological projection, the idea that because his father was an architectural historian he has some kind of special need or special knowledge into the value of preserving historic properties that necessitate the violence of the State to protect such value impositions.

In fact, the closest Glaeser came to say anything “economic” about the subject was his attempt to calculate a “fixed number of total buildings” which would be available for historic preservation. But even here, his theorizing falls flat on its face, for Glaeser does not explain how his arbitrary calculus would be superior to the outcomes of voluntary exchanges between market participants.

How many is a “fixed number”? What constitutes a “building” for purposes of this policy? Which “buildings” shall be a part of this “fixed number” and which shall remain outside it, and how are such decisions evaluated in an objective way?

Such policies are an invitation for gross, arbitrary and wild government intervention and special interest group politicking that Glaeser claims earlier in the interview he is strongly against. Yet, he opens the intellectual door to them in moments like these when he places his economist costume over his political self and attempts to perpetrate a theoretical deception.

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More Banking Confusion: Liquidity Versus Solvency

Here is a choice quote from the recent EconTalk podcast with Anat Admati of Stanford University:

Well, they have fancy ways to talk about banks, and we try to unpack those. They talk about maturity transformation, liquidity transformation. What that means is really that the depositor, the people who lend to the banks, often time want their money quickly, especially demand deposits. But when they invest it, they kind of invest it longer term and in less liquid things. So there is a sort of imbalance between the money that they use to fund and their investment in the sense of the length of time until something has to happen and also the speed with which they have to pay versus get paid. And so that mismatch creates fragility by itself, which also means for example if all of us run to the bank at the same time then the bank may not be able to cover all of that. Even if it technically would be solvent, it has everything, that’s kind of an inefficient run that you could have, in principle. So basically the banks tend to run a little bit more than other people into liquidity problems. You could say that, just, I have the money but I didn’t go to the ATM kind of thing–I can pay you back but we’re going to have to find a liquidity solution, sort of a rolling back my debt. Their funding is kind of fragile almost by definition because of the way it comes and the way people can come back for their money on short notice or any time they want. So that’s part of the funding. And the investments are not as liquid or longer term than that. (emphasis added)

This is an utter confusion. This is not a “liquidity problem”, it’s a solvency problem.

Money-in-an-ATM is not the same economic good as money-in-my-hand. That is, money-five-minutes-from-now is not the same as money-right-now.

They are separate economic goods due to the time value of money. What Admati has done is create an arbitrary distinction between a future money good and a present money good, by projecting her preference/judgment onto an exchange involving two other parties of which she is not one.

If party A demanding “liquidity” from the bank B truly saw no difference between money-right-now and money-a-few-days-from-now, for example, then a bank run would never happen and these items would trade at the same price, which they do not.

This is a fundamental error of economic reasoning. I expect a professor of finance and economics to understand something like this and as a result I find myself disappointed to see that she does not.

Economists and politicians only let banks get away with this. If anyone else were to be so arbitrary and haughty toward contracts they’d be thrown in prison, but for banks insolvency never comes so long as you can contort logic to the point that you convince yourself that all that’s missing is a bit of liquidity.

This is more free lunch thinking.