Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Noah Smith Befuddling Bloomberg Readers

1.0 Introduction

Noah Smith seems to be trying to become a professional columnist and blogger, however his day job works out. I do not know if the same opportunity still exists, as it apparently did when, for example, Duncan Black, Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein, Josh Marshall, Heather Parton, and Matthew Yglesias were starting out. I do not want to spend much time taking down Smith, but I wish so many of his columns did not provide anecdotal evidence that the job of mainstream economists is to sow confusion into the public sphere. Maybe I should try to resolve not to read him.

2.0 Confusion on Marginal Productivity

Consider this Bloomberg column, "You want a bigger paycheck? Convince me." Smith's column contains the, I guess, still obligatory confused red-baiting:

"No economic model says that people get paid based on average productivity. If they did, there would be no income left over for capital -- no profits, rents or interest. We’d be living in a sort of a Marxist world, where labor is the only thing with any value." -- Noah Smith

I do not see what that comment has to do with Marxism. (Consider the Critique of the Gotha Program.) Anyways, this comment immediately follows Smith's graphical and empirical demonstration that real wages rose with increases in productivity in the United States during the post war golden age. Was the United States in the 1950s and 1960s a "sort of Marxist" society? Certainly economic models of growth and distribution exist for thinking about the relationship between wages and average productivity in the golden age, and the breakdown of this relationship in the subsequent neoliberal era.

Smith apparently thinks that the theory of marginal productivity is a theory of the distribution of income. He is, of course, quite mistaken. Even worse, Smith goes on to use the discredited Solovian growth model, with an aggregate Cobb-Douglas production function, to explain how economists supposedly explain (changes in) the shares of "capital" and labor in national income.

Is it progress that Smith does not bring up skills-biased technical change, a nonsensical theory often used to propagandize for increased inequality in the distribution of wages? Maybe not, for Smith's purpose seems to be to propagandize for increased inequality in the functional income distribution between "capital" and wages. And so he brings up an equally nonsensical theory about the "rise of robots".

3.0 Inadequate Understanding on Women in Economics

Even when I don't necessarily disagree with Smith, I often find his columns insufficiently informed. Here he writes about career prospects in economics for women. I thank Smith for bringing this paper by Ceci, Ginther, Kahn, and Williams to my attention. But it takes Claudia Sahm, in a response to this column, to bring up the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). And, as far as I am aware, nobody previously commenting on Smith has mentioned the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) and their journal, Feminist Economics. If you want to argue that homo economicus is gendered, I suggest browsing back issues of that journal.

1 comment:

isomorphismes said...

Glad to hear someone harping on the skills-biased technical change, robo-obsession, and Solow/lazy Cobb-Douglas isms.

(Robots improve productivity in factories; computers have outmoded various admin roles; and yet it's finance where the incomes are 10× normal. Just a bit more detail with well-known facts would undercut those fables.)