Edmund Phelps — Today’s Nobel Prize in economics

by on October 9, 2006 at 7:37 am in Economics | Permalink

Edmund Phelps.  Here is the announcement from Sweden

Here is his autobiography.  He was born in Chicago in 1933 and now teaches at Columbia.  Here is his CV, and here is another version.  Here are recent papers.  His Wikipedia entry is a short stub, but watch it grow.

Here is his summary of his research.  Here is another good summary of his workThis summary, from Sweden, is the best and most comprehensive, albeit more technical.

His main contribution is a better understanding of the Phillips curve and the dynamics of short-run unemployment and the concept of the natural rate of unemployment.  He gave the Phillips curve microfoundations and developed the "expectations-augmented Phillips curve."  As the name suggests, the level of inflationary expectations matter for how money will influence output.

Here is his memoir on developing the idea of the natural rate of unemployment.  His most influential 1960s work suggested that economies possess a natural rate of unemployment, monetary policy can reduce unemployment only temporarily (NB: in his view this is a conclusion, and should not be an axiom in economic models), monetary policy can reduce unemployment temporarily, and Keynesian economics should not treat the rate of unemployment as arbitrarily at the whim of monetary and fiscal policy.  He was also concerned with how the natural rate of employment can change over time; here is his 1997 paper on that topic.

The evolution of Phelps’s thought on how money can matter is complex.  His later work stresses monetary non-neutrality, mostly through non-rational expectations and non-synchronized wage and price setting.  His work in the 1980s focused on what the concept of rational expectations means in such complex environments.   

Do not assume that early Phelps and late Phelps are saying the same things or arguing against the same opponents.  Sometimes it is argued that he redefined macroeconomics twice.  After criticizing Keynesianism, he later turned against the "rational expectations"  point of view.  He is a complex thinker, although it can be hard to divine his "bottom line."  He fails to fit inside the "macroeconomics boxes" that have developed since the early 1980s, namely real business cycle theory vs. neo-Keynesianism.

Phelps’s work was considered revolutionary in the 1960s, though the subsequent work and influence of Milton Friedman have brought related ideas into the mainstream some time ago.

He also has done work on economic justice and how a Rawlsian maximin analysis might modify the idea of a zero rate of marginal taxation on top earners, as had been suggested by James Mirrlees.  Phelps believes that considerations of justice and distribution are important, and neglected, in economic thinking.  Once he had a piece in the Journal of Philosophy on ideas of justice in public finance.

He also wrote some well-known papers on what intergenerational justice means, the optimal accumulation of capital, and whether those allocations will prove sustainable and consistent over time.  He asks what kind of principles should govern how much capital we should leave for the next generation.  His 1961 work on capital theory formulated the notion of a "golden rule" of capital accumulation.  It asked what savings rate would maximize per capita income on an ongoing basis.  The concepts behind this work remain important for work on capital accumulation and also the sustainability of natural resource use and environmental policy.  Phelps also generated the counterintuitive result that the savings rate can be too high, and that all generations could be better off with a lower savings rate.  He does not, however, seem to think that this latter idea is policy-relevant.  The best summary of this work on capital theory is here, scroll through a bit.

Lately he has been working on the possibility of subsidies for hiring low-wage labor and Eastern European transitions.  Here is his book on wage subsidies.  Here is a more popular Phelps piece on wage subsidies.  He has also done work on the structural dynamics of economies and the underlying factors behind economic innovation.  Here is an early Phelps paper on technological diffusion; surprisingly it is his most frequently cited work according to scholar.google.com.  He looked to education and population size as key factors driving the rate of economic growth; this piece is a precursor of later work on endogenous growth theory.

Phelps also wrote a 1972 paper on statistical discrimination, one of the earliest formal economic treatments of that topic.

Here is Phelps on Project Syndicate, the link offers numerous essays on current events.  The European malaise stems from lack of dynamism.  He opposed the Bush tax cuts.  Here is Phelps on the rise of the West and the need for humane capitalism.  He has a broadly classical liberal slant but has adopted the modern liberal idea that distribution requires government intervention into labor markets and other parts of a modern economy.  He has a strong concern with the moral foundations of a free society.

Here are his cites on scholar.google.com.  4600 is a relatively low number for a Nobel Laureate.  Vernon Smith for instance has over 40,000.  In part this relatively small number reflects the older nature of Phelps’s major contributions, and that often his ideas have been absorbed but without citation.  Furthermore Phelps does not always write within the context of the most contemporary debates.

Over the last twenty years Phelps has spent a great deal of time in Europe.  In general his European influence and reputation is stronger than in the United States.

My take: It is hard to argue with this pick.  It is a good selection.  His 1960s macro work was true, important, and extremely influential.  The capital theory work endures and provides a foundation for subsequent theory.  The overall scope is impressive, and Phelps’s concerns never strayed far from the real world.

But Phelps is not an economist who has influenced my own thinking much if at all.  His major contributions were absorbed, and were standard fare, by the time I was a young’un.  For instance I drunk the same macro milk through the writings of Milton Friedman.  I find him to be a murky writer, and often he is frustrating to read and hard to pin down.  His advocates would characterize him as a "rich" thinker.

What this Prize means: The big questions still matter.  Unemployment, economic growth, labor markets, capital accumulation, fairness, discrimination, and justice across the generations are indeed worthy of economic attention.  Phelps contributed to all of those areas.   Normative questions matter.  Relevance and breadth triumph over narrow technical skill.

Addendum: The U.S. has now won six Nobel Prizes in a row, but I bet we don’t get the Peace Prize this year.

DRDR October 9, 2006 at 8:35 am

I think the Nobel Prize web site now has the best summary of his research.

Bill Stepp October 9, 2006 at 9:29 am

I met Phelps a couple years ago at a party; he’s a very nice man and
obviously very smart. He wrote some articles on the stock bubble of
the late 1990s stating that is was caused by outsized productivity gains,
a view I still disagree with. It fails to explain why the cost of capital
fell so low and why, therefore, investors were discounting (in some cases
nonexistent) expected cash flows with absurdly low discount rates, which
in my view could be the only explanation for ridiculously high stock prices.

DRDR October 9, 2006 at 9:46 am

While Phelps’ citation counts aren’t off the charts, the Heck-Zaleski paper just discussed on RadioEconomics ranks him 45th with 30 Blue-Ribbon publications in this last half-century (Bloomberg). So pick your favorite measure of academic productivity.

Barkley Rosser October 9, 2006 at 10:36 am

And, well, so much for all the predictions on
this blog, including by me. Phelps was not even
on that A-list that Tyler put up, although there
has been a concerted campaign for him by a pretty
serious group of New Keynesians for some time,
highlighted by a very high-powered conference at
Columbia a few years ago.

Phelps is not a sign of the big money campaign
by Columbia. That is a recent phenomenon. Ned
has been at Columbia pretty much forever.

BTW, the big joke here is that what they seem to
be giving it to him for is an idea that looks more
and more incorrect, even if his version of it is
a bit more sophisticated than the alternative put
forth by Milton Friedman: the natural rate of
unemployment. That this is a core idea of the
New Keynesians is one of the problems with the
that group, a problem that they share with the
New Classicals (and some of the Old ones as well,
see Uncle Miltie). Frankly, it is a good thing
that the Fed under Greenspan decided to downgrade
this idea back in the 90s. It would seem that
the Committee is giving prizes for ideas that are
past their prime, although Phelps is certainly
a worthy and deserving individual for his work.

Commenterlein October 9, 2006 at 1:07 pm

Really excellent summary, thank you. I didn’t even know half of the contributions you mention above.

google scholar October 9, 2006 at 2:16 pm

I think your interpretion of the google scholar hits is false. What you report (4600 vs. 41000) is not the number of citations, but the number of articles found including something like edmund or phelps vs. vernon or smith in the title or the authors name etc. Since smith is not the least common name, the large number is not really surprising…. If this is wrong, I apologize

nick October 9, 2006 at 4:06 pm

great prompt summary Tyler!
If I were dishing out Nobel prizes for summary biogs you’d share this year’s with wikipedia :o)

Jim October 9, 2006 at 7:13 pm

Here is a concise summation from the Mises Institute blog post on the news:

His framework helped central banks shift their focus toward using inflation expectations to set monetary policy rather than concentrating on money supply and demand.

Manage the effect, not the cause.

KTA October 9, 2006 at 9:34 pm

Tyler,

You are amazing, period. Your summary of Phelps is impeccable. What astonishes me is your ability to put it together on the drop of a dime. I truly admire your intellectual curiosity and relentless pursuit of diverse knowledge. Your great breadth of knowledge is reflected in your blog which makes it the most original one of its caliber.

Cheers

Russell Nelson October 10, 2006 at 3:03 am

I don’t quite understand why Phelps got any credit for showing that there is a natural rate of unemployment. Didn’t von Mises (and other Austrians) explain that much sooner than Phelps?

Andrew John October 10, 2006 at 3:46 pm

It’s interesting. Ten years ago, Phelps’ name came up a lot when people were speculating about the Nobel. But I think there was a sense that his time had passed, and the committee had moved on to a younger generation, at least in macro (Lucas, Prescott). (Not that Lucas is that much younger than Phelps, but he was much younger when he received the prize.)

I think Barkley has said it well. There used to be a joke about someone asking why Hicks won a Nobel given that he had merely done stuff that could be found in any basic textbook. Phelps is similar. I also echo the admiration for Tyler’s summary, with one quibble: I think macro has moved well beyond the RBC/New Keynesian boxes that he describes. I suspect few young macroeconomists would willingly accept either label.

Barkley Rosser October 11, 2006 at 8:49 am

Yes, Olle, we all know that. But it simply takes too
long to write that out every time one talks about it.
Get real.

Kevin Mitchell October 18, 2006 at 2:45 pm

I’m a high school student…can anyone explain this phillips curve to me so that it makes since??

Jaime Güemes October 20, 2006 at 7:48 pm

Here we have people who defend him and other people who attack him, i´m a economics stundent and i am 22, i want to know like some reasons of why he won the nobel prize. Mail me please!

Nicolaas J Smith January 10, 2007 at 2:09 am

Non-monetary inflation can be stopped.

“People today use the term `inflation’ to refer to the phenomenon that is an inevitable consequence of inflation, that is the tendency of all prices and wage rates to rise.” Ludwig von Mises – “Inflation: An Unworkable Fiscal Policy”.

All prices do not rise. Only the prices of variable real value non-monetary items while many constant real value non-monetary items are not fully updated and many are not updated at all.

The second inevitable consequence of inflation is the tendency of many constant real value non-monetary items NOT to rise at all – during the Historical Cost era while some constant real value non-monetary items are not fully updated.

Inflation today has and always had a second consequence during the 700 year old Historical Cost era.

Inflation has a monetary consequence, called cash inflation refered to above by Ludwig von Mises and defined as the economic process that results in the destruction of real economic value in depreciating money and depreciating monetary values over time as indicated by the change in the Consumer Price Index.

Inflation´s second consequence is a non-monetary consequence defined as Historical Cost Accounting inflation which is always and everywhere the destruction of real economic value in constant real value non-monetary items not fully or never updated (increased) over time due to the use of the Historical Cost Accounting model or any other accounting model which does not allow the continuous updating (increasing) in constant real value non-monetary items in an economy subject to cash inflation.

Inflation´s second consequence is solely caused by the global stable measuring unit assumption.

The stable measuring unit assumption means that we regard the annual destruction of a portion of the real value of our monetary unit by cash inflation in low inflation economies as of not sufficient importance to update the real values of constant real value non-monetary items in our financial statements.

This results in the destruction of at least $31bn in the real value of Dow companies´ Retained Income balances each and every year. Globally this value probably reaches in excess of $200bn per annum for the real value thus destroyed in all companies´ Retained Income balances.

The International Accounting Standards Board recognizes two economic items:

1) Monetary items: money held and “items to be received or paid in money” – in terms of the IASB definition.

2) Non-monetary items: All items that are not monetary items.

Non-monetary items include variable real value non-monetary items valued, for example, at fair value, market value, present value, net realizable value or recoverable value.

Historical Cost items valued at cost in terms of the stable measuring unit assumption are also included in non-monetary items. This makes these HC items, unfortunately, equal to monetary items in the case of companies´ Retained Income balances and the issued share capital values of companies without well located and well maintained land and/or buildings or without other variable real value non-monetary items able to be revalued at least equal to the original real value of each contribution of issued share capital.

The stable measuring unit assumption thus allows the IASB and the Financial Accounting Standards Board to conveniently side-step the split between variable and constant real value non-monetary items. This is a very costly mistake in low cash inflation economies – or 99.9% of the world economy.

Retained Income is a constant real value non-monetary item, but, it has been in the past and is, for now, valued at Historical Cost which makes it, very logically, subject to the destruction of its real value by cash inflation in low inflation economies – just like in cash.

It is an undeniable fact that the functional currency’s internal real value is constantly being destroyed by cash inflation in the case of low inflation economies, but this is considered as of not sufficient importance to adjust the real values of constant real value non-monetary items in the financial statements – the universal stable measuring unit assumption which is the cornerstone of the Historical Cost Accounting model.

The combination of the implementation of the stable measuring unit assumption and low inflation is thus indirectly responsible for the destruction of the real value of Retained Income equal to the annual average value of Retained Income times the average annual rate of inflation. This value is easy to calculate in the case of each and very company in the world with Retained Income for any given period.

Everybody agrees that the destruction of the internal real value of the monetary unit of account is a very important matter and that cash inflation thus destroys the real value of all variable real value non-monetary items when they are not valued at fair value, market value, present value, net realizable value or recoverable value.

But, everybody suddenly agrees, in the same breath, that for the purpose of valuing Retained Income – a constant real value non-monetary item – the change in the real value of money is regarded as of not sufficient importance to update the real value of Retained Income in the financial statements. Everybody suddenly then agrees to destroy hundreds of billions of Dollars in real value in all companies´ Retained Income balances all around the world.

Yes, inflation is very important! All central banks and thousands of economists and commentators spend huge amounts of time on the matter. Thousands of books are available on the matter. Financial newspapers and economics journals devote thousands of columns to the discussion of the fight against inflation.

But, when it comes to constant real value non-monetary items:

No sir, inflation is not important! We happily destroy hundreds of billions of Dollars in Retained Income real value year after year after year.

However, when you are operating in an economy with hyperinflation, then we all agree that, yes sir, you have to update everything in terms of International Accounting Standard IAS 29 Financial Reporting in Hyperinflationary Economies: Variable and constant real value non-monetary items.

But ONLY as long as your annual inflation rate has been 26% for three years in a row adding up to 100% – the rate required for the implementation of IAS 29. Once you are not in hyperinflation anymore (for example, Turkey from 2005 onwards), then, with an annual inflation rate anywhere from 2% to 20% for as many years as you want, you are prohibited from updating constant real value non-monetary items. Then you are forced by the FASB´s US GAAP and the IASB´s International Accounting Standards and International Financial Reporting Standards to destroy their value again – at 2% to 20% per annum – as applicable!

For example:

Shareholder value permanently destroyed by the implementation of the Historical Cost Accounting model in Exxon Mobil’s accounting of their Retained Income during 2005 exceeded $4.7bn for the first time. This compares to the $4.5bn shareholder real value permanently destroyed in 2004 in this manner. (Dec 2005 values).

The application by BP, the global energy and petrochemical company, of the stable measuring unit assumption in the accounting of their Retained Income resulted in the destruction of at least $1.3bn of shareholder value during 2005. (Dec 2005 values).

Royal Dutch Shell Plc, a global group of energy and petrochemical companies, permanently destroyed $2.974 billion of shareholder value during 2005 as a result of their implementation of the stable measuring unit assumption in the valuation of their Retained Income. (Dec 2005 values).

Revoking the stable measuring unit assumption is actually allowed this very moment by IAS 29 but ONLY for companies in hyperinflationary economies. At 26% per annum for three years in a row, yes! At any lower rate, no!

It is prohibited by US GAAP and IASB International Standards for companies that are operating in a low inflation economy.

That means the following at this very moment in time: Today all companies in, most probably, only Zimbabwe (1000% inflation) are allowed to update all their variable real value non-monetary items as well as all their constant real value non-monetary items.

But not the rest of the world.

The rest of the world is forced by current US GAAP and IASB International Standards to destroy their/our Retained Income balances each and every year at the rate of inflation because of the implementation of the stable measuring unit assumption whereby we are all forced to regard the change in the value of the unit of account – our low inflation currencies – as of not sufficient importance to update the real values of constant real value non-monetary items in our financial statements.

We are forced to destroy them year after year at the rate of inflation till they will reach zero real value as in the case of Retained Income and the issued share capital values of all companies with no well located and well maintained land and/or buildings at least equal to the original real value of each contribution of issued share capital.

The 30 Dow companies destroy at least $31bn annually in the real value of their Retained Income balances as a result of the implementation of the stable measuring unit assumption. Every single year.

Retained Income can be paid out to shareholders as dividens. Poor Dow company shareholders. They will never see that $31bn of dividens destroyed each and every year.

We have all been doing this for the last 700 years: from around the year 1300 when the double entry accounting model was perfected in Venice.

When we do this at the rate of 2% inflation (“price stability” as per the European Central Bank and as per Mr Trichet, the president of the ECB) we are forced to destroy 51% of the real value of the Retained Income balances in all companies operating in the European Monetary Union over the next 35 years – when that Retained Income remains in the companies for the 35 years – all else except cash inflation being equal.

Each and every one of those 35 years will be classified as a year of “price stability” by the ECB and Mr Trichet. Mr Trichet will not be the president of the ECB in 35 years time.

I think we will do ourselves a great favour by revoking the stable measuring unit assumption as soon as possible.

FREE DOWNLOAD : You can download the book “RealValueAccounting.Com – The next step in our fundamental model of accounting.” on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at http://ssrn.com/abstract=946775

——————–

Nicolaas J Smith
http://www.realvalueaccounting.com/

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