An aside on the term ‘macro’

A few years ago, when Ben Bernanke’s appointment was ushered through the US Senate with hardly a murmur, Michael Evans—author of a once widely-used textbook called Macroeconomic Activity—quipped, ‘Macroeconomics, unless it messes up, doesn’t matter very much any more’.  Macro is no longer passé, however, so TCD’s Antoin Murphy is lucky in the timing of his The Genesis of Macroeconomics (just out, Oxford University Press). 


As Antoin points out the term ‘macroeconomics’ was coined by Ragnar Frisch in 1933.  Frisch also invented ‘microeconomics’ and ‘econometrics’, as well as some other terms that never caught on.   But ‘macroeconomics’ was still unfamiliar enough in 1945 for an article in the American Economic Review  to use it with the ‘macro’ bit in inverted commas.  It might never have caught on but for the Great Depression and Keynes’s General Theory.  Ironically, though, Keynes himself does not seem to have keen on the term.  Who was the first Irish economist to use it?


If JSTOR is to be trusted, the first use of the term in an academic journal was by Jan Tinbergen in 1936 (in ‘Sur la determination statistique de la position de l’équilibre cyclique’, Review of the International Statistical Institute, 4(2) (1936): 173-188).  Tinbergen, by the way, shared the Nobel Prize with Frisch in 1969.  The term was slow to catch on: one JSTOR ‘hit’ before 1940, three in 1940-44, and forty-four in 1945-49.  The story thereafter, as reflected in JSTOR, is summarized in the accompanying table.   Will these ‘interesting times’ reverse the apparent downturn in usage?


Year          ‘Hits’
1935-9 1
1940-4 3
1945-9 44
1950-4 149
1955-9 217
1960-4 436
1965-9 959
1970-4 1639
1975-9 2806
1980-4 4429
1985-9 6385
1990-5 7368
1995-9 8028
2000-4 7186






The Johan Cruijff principle

Besides being one of the best soccer players of all times, Johan Cruijff is also a sage who spouts wise platitudes in a heavy Amsterdam accent. One of them is that every downside has an upside.

The economy is contracting rapidly. This is bad. However, greenhouse gas emissions are also contracting rapidly. This is good.

The EPA will today announce that we will be much closer to our Kyoto targets than previously thought. See Harry McGee’s piece in the Irish Times. This means that we will not have to spend all of the 270 million euro that is reserved for importing emission permits. Every little bit helps.

The details in today’s announcement are of historical interest. The latest EPA emissions projection is based on an ESRI economic projection of mid January.* How times flies. Back then, we thought that cumulative contraction would be 7% between 2008 and 2010. If only.

Should anyone want to update the emission projections, the output elasticity of CO2 is about 0.7 while the output elasticity of all greenhouse gas is about 0.5.

*We also projected emissions at the same time. See another piece by McGee.

Back to the banks

The policy pendulum looks set to swing back to dealing with credit flow in the banking system.  With so many policy proposals floating around internationally, I would be very interested to hear current views on the best policy course for the government. 

 Taking it as given that there has been a severe contraction of new credit, how much is due to: (i) a collapse in the demand for credit as firms and households repair balance sheets; or (ii) a collapse in the supply of credit?  

 Under (ii), is the main reason for the decline in supply: (a) the declining creditworthiness of potential borrowers; or (b) the risk aversion of bankers as they teeter on the edge of insolvency?

 It seems to me that if the contraction is mainly driven by some combination of (i) and (ii a), the government would be wise to limit the additional fiscal commitment.   A large package would further tighten the fiscal solvency constraint and force a more rapid fiscal correction. 

 The case for a large package seems more compelling if the credit contraction is being driven by the caution of the bankers.   Whatever the size of the package, what is the proper balance between re-capitalisation, insurance for new credit flows, troubled asset purchases, etc? 

What a great opportunity for public transport

This will be a nice case study for future students of business administration. Consider a company that holds a near monopoly in a segment of a market that has been growing by 7.7% per year for a decade. What does such a company need to do to turn a loss?

Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus managed this feat (after subsidies). I will not speculate how and why. But with respect for the workers that are being laid off, I think this situation provides a great opportunity for public transport in Ireland.

Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus need to cut costs. They want to do this by reducing the number of busses on the road and the number of drivers on the payroll. That is their choice. The plan is to trim the schedule. That is wrong. Instead of reducing frequency at selected routes, they should give up some routes altogether. The regulator should then sell the concession on these routes to the highest bidder. (This would not save public finance.) Service levels would be maintained where commercially viable. Competition would lead to lower transport costs. (This would not restore competiveness.) Unemployment would fall (but the incoming operators may prefer to hire other drivers than the ones just let go).

Overall demand for transport is down in any recession, but the share of cheap (i.e., bus) transport is up, so I think there is a business case for bus routes in Dublin.

Over time, the state-owned, subsidised incumbents may get their act together, or they may be replaced by commercial operators altogether.

This post was written in Switzerland, where there is a train waiting at the airport to take you to the university’s doorstep. I landed at 2:30 pm in Zurich and was well in time for my 4 pm lecture in Bern. Zurich and Bern are as far apart as Dublin and Athlone.