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Merijn T. Knibbe

Merijn T. Knibbe

Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

Articles by Merijn T. Knibbe

Hours worked, EU and UK Covid-19 edition.

12 days ago


Measuring the labor market and understanding labormarket data has recently been more of a challenge than usual. An large number of people seem to leave the official labor market, rendering unemployment data less useful. Also, a large number of new arrangements influence who are counted as unemployed or as workers. The best and at this point of time the most useful data we have might be data on total hours worked. Which, for the EU and the UK, show a pitiful sight. It resembles half of a war economy.

Many sectors of the economy are curtailed, leading to large declines in hours worked. The other half of a war economy, employing the redundant people, is absent. True, employing people as soldiers or producers of weapons of destruction is a terrible thing. but in the war

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The Theil inequality index: a flexible tool for the modern political economist

12 days ago

Contrary to the Gini-index, the Theil inequality index enables us to directly tie estimates of inequality to the class and ownership structure of a society. As such, it’s an indispensable tool for the political economist, requiring a-priori knowledge of political economic theory but also an inductive reading of the sources and the situation. So, why is the Gini and not the Theil index often the economists inequality metric of choice? 

The Gini-index is an often used metric to estimate inequality. As such, it is highly useful. But for the political economist it has a fundamental drawback. It does matter if people are rich or poor and it does show the extent of differences in income or wealth. But it doesn’t matter if people are laborers or a capitalists, teachers of

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Can we reopen primary schools? Iceland data suggest: yes (they didn’t close them in the first place)

April 18, 2020

Mortality and prevalence of Corona.
Iceland tests a lot and has some of the best, most complete and representative, data on Corona infections (graph above, which is consistent with comparable data for Iceland from surveys, h/t Jesse Frederik) and seems to have come to grips with Corona, for the moment. What do these data tell us about the prevalence and mortality rate of Corona? They show that young people (18-, below another definition will be used) seem to be relatively immune to infection. Other data show that they also get less sick and basically do not die from Corona. Mind: Iceland has a lock down but primary schools are open, the lock down can’t explain the low prevalence of Corona among the 18- generation. The relatively complete data from Iceland also indicate a mortality

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Corona: a positive agenda

April 3, 2020

The eight hour working day was a long standing aim of organized labor. For decades it seemed unattainable. ‘International competition’ often was a main reason why countries stubbornly refused to introduce it. But from 1915 on and starting in Uruguay it suddenly spread all over the world. Within a few years, in many countries the six day eight hour working week had become the new normal.
Corona won’t end the world. After World War I and despite the Spanish flu many countries rapidly bounced back to prosperity. The introduction of the eight hour day did not prevent this in any way! Too much of this prosperity was based upon flimsy finance the productive capacity was available – while more robust ways to finance investment are of course possible.  Prosperity never is the problem even when

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Corona is like the flu. The Spanish one.

March 28, 2020

Yesterday, the number of Corona deaths in Italy rose to 919. In one day. According to Eurostat,  the 2018 total Italian death tally was 633,000. Which translates to on average 1,734 deaths a day meaning that the level of Corona deaths was over half of the ‘normal’ amount of deaths. Already. Despite the lock down. Dear people: this is much worse than a bad flu. And it is as bad as the Spanish flu. Which is supposed to have killed, around 1919,  about 50,000,000 people. FYI: the latest estimate of the number of casualties of the Spanish flu in Italy sets this number at 466.000 in the 1918-1920 period. With 919 deaths a day – Italy will get there. The silver lining: China and South Korea do have it under control. It is possible.
Yesterday’s number of deaths in Italy was of course a

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A million Corona tests a day. In the short run.

March 25, 2020

The news is as bad as it can be. Our most dependable indicator, people dying from Corona, suggest an exponential rate of growth of over 10%. Per day. Actually: 14%.  In a little over 2 weeks, 20.000 people will die. At least. Per day. If we do nothing.
The news is as good as it can be. High biotech companies are developing fast track tests at an unbelievable rate while the government offices which (rightly) have to approve these are working around the clock to do this. Korea will soon export 300.000 tests a week. That’s not enough to meet global demand. But if humankind has become good at anything it is at producing incredible amounts of stuff at an incredible speed. Tests, ventilators, masks – these will come. A million tests a day is feasible. And needed.
But other news is dire.

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Costs of owner occupied houses should be in the price index. But in the right way.

February 6, 2020

The ECB rightly wants to pay more attention to costs of ‘owner occupied houses’ (OOH) when it comes to inflation. Statisticians often use ‘imputed rents’ to do this. The ECB shouldn’t do this but should look at actual costs of owners of houses.
Rents and monetary costs of OOH do not develop in the same way. Also, rented houses are not inhabited by the same social and demographic groups as owner occupied houses. Which means that using rents to gauge the costs of OOH, as happens in many countries, is not the right method. Other yardsticks have to be found. And maybe, in increasingly fragmented societies the time for only one consumer price index is over, especially because of demographic and labor market developments in connection with the increasing importance of housing costs in

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Unemployment: the concept and its measurement

January 2, 2020

Two days ago I posted ‘The macro economic graph of the decade‘. The comments were highly interesting and may be summarized as: “what does ‘headline’ unemployment measure anyway”. About this:
Headline of ‘U-3’ unemployment only captures a part of labor slack and is designed to capture only part of total slack. It can however be supplemented with other unemployment measurements which are designed to measure additional slack, like underemployed workers or discouraged workers.
But there are reasons to assume that it systematically underestimates what it tries to measure.
Ad 1) USA ‘broad’ unemployment is, measured in persons, at this moment about twice as high as headline unemployment (graph, I use USA data as these are very easily available). Also, the difference between broad and

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The Macro economic graph of the decade

December 31, 2019

Source: eurostat.
What did the last decade teach us about (macro-)economics? The graph above is clear:
* ‘Drunk driving’ financial crises do happen and cast a long shadow.
* Even then, the response to these crises does matter. Eurozone sobriety led to a double dip (in case of unemployment: a double increase). After a crisis, sobriety is not the answer. Remember: the famous ant of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper was not an austerian as he invested in real assets all the time! That’s what we should have done, too. The New Green Deal could have been largely completed by now.
* Absent such activities, recovery takes a lot of time
* Ideas about ‘natural’ or ‘equilibrium’ unemployment of 5 or 6% turned out to be nonsense. Unemployment can, without problems, go as low as 3 or even

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Twinkle, twinkle through 365 nights – on one battery!

December 24, 2019

Merry christmas and a happy new year! And a picture of an off the shelf heart shaped 2018 Christmas adornment which managed to twinkle 365/24/7 (even when not very bright) on one off the shelf battery, showing the power and the glory of modern contemporary off the shelf led and battery technology. Let’s embrace and welcome the next 365. And dump the last remaining 19th century technology totally outdated short lived energy wasting heat squandering incandescent light bulbs before the next year starts, making 2020 a happy place in advance.
And my favorite willow:

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The problem with ‘Divisia’ money

December 23, 2019

According to some economists, ‘Divisia money’ is, as a monetary aggregate, a superior and neoclassical alternative to the more often used M2 or M3 ‘single sum’ aggregates. But looking at such money aggregates in isolation prevents economists from analyzing monetary developments using the integrated and statistically coherent Flow of Funds framework which ties the growth of money to the growth of credit. Divisia money is not a sound alternative. The Flow of Funds are.

The graph shows that aggregate lending data are much more indicative of the growth of financial vulnerabilities and booms and busts than data on money.
What is Divisia money?
Divisia money is a neoclassical alternative to the classical ‘single sum’ money aggregates, like M3,  pioneered by Keynes in ‘A treatise on Money

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The EU Green New Deal. Fallen fruit first. And now.

December 15, 2019

From Merijn Knibbe
The EU has announced a ‘Green Deal‘.  Good. But at this moment, this only a plan for a plan. But there’s no time to waste. So, what to do while we wait? Let’s unleash the economists’ neurotic obsession with efficiency! Identify ‘fallen fruit’, energy gobbling activities which shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And get rid of it. Three examples, non of which requries massive investment or path breaking research:
Media boxes. Problem: extreme stand by use. Solution: waiting for Netflix (for a few seconds). Almost every household has a media box, nowadays. And we literally can’t wait to see Netflix. Which means that these boxes are on ‘stand by’ which uses lots of energy.
In the case of Ziggo media boxes: 56 Watt. Suppose that 100.000.000 households in the EU

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Financialization, home ownership edition

December 11, 2019

Recent research has emphasized the negative effects of finance on macroeconomic performance and even cautioned of a “finance curse.” As one of the main drivers of financial sector growth, mortgages have traditionally been hailed as increasing the number of homeowners in a country. This article uses long-run panel data for seventeen countries between 1920 (1950) and 2013 to show that the effect of the “great mortgaging” on homeownership rates is not universally positive. Increasing mortgage debt appears to be neither necessary nor sufficient for higher homeownership levels. There were periods of rising homeownership levels without much increase in mortgages before 1980, thanks to government programs, purchasing power increases, and less inflated house prices. There have also been

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Are low interest rates ‘fair value’?

October 28, 2019

The next post is interesting on different levels. First, interest rates are low and it shows that medium run changes in these rates can to quite some extent be ‘explained’ by a cocktail of:  economic variables, price setting by central banks and expectation variables (mind that the model is straightforward but the variables aren’t!). This, however, does not explain why USA rates are quite a bit higher than (in this case) German rates, even when inflation, growth and unemployment in the USA and Germany is not too different. Second, it’s an example of investigating Keynes’ ‘beauty contest‘ (what do others expect expectations to be) and Soros’ ‘reflexivity‘ (expectations may be dead wrong but do influence markets so people follow them as they are paid to make short term gains) as well as

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Changing the money meme

October 19, 2019

Scientific economics needs more memes: short statements which capture the imagination and stick to the mind of lay people as well as economists. One of the well known memes of classical and neoclassical economics is the definition of money:
Money is:
* A means of exchange
* A store of value
* A unit of account
As such, it’s not bad. But it’s incomplete. The unit of account and the means of exchange do not have to be the same thing. In the olden days, in the Dutch Republic (as well as elswhere), the universal unit of account was the Stuiver and multiples thereof, like the Carolus Guilder of twenty Stuiver. While the means of exchange existed of a bewildering array of Pieces of eight, Guilders, Nobels, Thalers and whatever and sometimes, especially before 1650, even of products like rye

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Should Olivier Blanchard still get credit?

June 27, 2019

On June 17 Olivier Blanchard, an influential economist, held a dinner speech at the ECB Sintra Forum. Weird. Nothing changed. No Hyman Minsky. No Claudio Borio. No Ulrich Bindseil and intertemporal instability of the asset side of bank balance sheets. No Flow of Funds. Nothing of the kind. His solution for the problems of the Eurozone: get relative prices right and, trust me, general neoclassical equilibrium will return. Just plain old 2007 macro-economics. The whole reason we’re stuck in the mud is according to him that the – unobservable – ‘natural rate of interest’ has declined and has to increase again. Just get prices right (read: lower wages and the interest rate), which is more difficult when the natural rate of interest and inflation is low, and wait. In the meantime, as

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The age of Doris Day…

May 13, 2019

Let’s not forget that she once played a union worker, in ‘The pajama game’. With the song ‘racing with the clock‘. Also, here a blogpost of mine about how in ‘The Age of Doris Day’ apt new institutions enabled everybody to work less and have better lives, in stead of a part of the population being entirely unemployed and miserable.

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New distributional financial accounts from the Federal Reserve!

May 6, 2019

The Federal Reserve (Fed) publishes the Flow of Funds. It has recently made an important addition to these invaluable financial data: quarterly distributional financial accounts. They are more frequent, more detailed and much faster than existing accounts. Why did they do this? For one thing: distributional accounts are not a new idea. As stated in their first footnote (but note the gap between the fifties and 2014):
For example, Carroll (2014) cites the need for distributional national statistics, while the Inter-Agency Group on Economic and Financial Statistics has called on G-20 nations to develop such statistics that are internationally comparable. Other efforts to construct distributional national measures in the United States include early work by King (1915), King (1927), King

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Putting the baby in the tub: unemployment in a neoclassical (?) macro model

April 23, 2019

Is it possible to model unemployment in neoclassical ‘DSGE’ macro-economic models ? I’m occupied with a project which compares neoclassical macro concepts with statistical macro concepts. One of the glaring differences between the statistics and the models: we measure unemployment as a matter of routine but DSGE-models do not conceptualize or define, let alone operationalize it. When you model our society as a one person ‘Robinson Crusoë’ ‘society’ you will have somebody who works a little less or more but who will never be entirely unemployed. Models with heterogeneous agents have problems with this, too. On twitter, Lukas Freund however pointed me however to the 2018 article ‘Unemployment (fears) and deflationary spiral’ by Wouter J. den Haan, Pontus Rendahl and Markus Riegler, which

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What’s in a model… (an economic one, that is)

April 6, 2019

What’s an economic model? A little semantic intro (don’t worry, we will get to Keynes in a moment)
I work together with biologists, agronomists and even test animal specialists on a regular basis. These people use words like ‘conceptual models’ or ‘even ‘animal model’ all the time. Check this:  ‘Mouse Models of Diabetic Nephropathy‘. Yes, a live animal is considered to be a scientific model. I had to get used to this as this use of the word ‘model’ transcended the boundaries used in the world I came from. But mastering these concepts prooved enightening. Conceptual models are described by Andrew Powell-Morse in the following way:
A conceptual model is a representation of a system that uses concepts and ideas to form said representation… a model is intrinsically a thing unto itself, but

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Modern Money Theory and inflation control: look at constant tax inflation

February 17, 2019

One of the tenets of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is that taxes are, ceteris paribus, deflationary. When prices of gasoline increase because of green taxes, people have less money left and know that their purchasing power declines. This is not consistent with neoclassical macro, at least not in its influential ‘Ricardian equivalence’ version, but that’s not interesting. The interesting thing is that MMT states that if inflation rises, taxes should increase to cool the economy. Which means that they will have to target some kind of inflation rate. Which rate? I’m not aware of any MMT-ers writing about this (but I might have missed a paragraph here or there from Bill Mitchell). But they should. The price level doesn’t only change because of an overheated economy but also because sales

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The enduring popularity of ‘The Great Transformation’ by Polanyi

February 16, 2019

Source: International Labour Organization
The most popular post on this blog is a summary of ‘The Great Transformation‘ by Polanyi. Which is remarkable as it is an old book about even older events: the transformation off traditional economies with a low rate of investment and little wage labor into modern economies with a high rate of investment and high levels of wage labor (Polanyi does not stress investments too much but see, in about the same period, Kuznets (1955) and Rostow (1959)). This economic process went together with a cultural revolution like the commodification of labor and time. Fortunately, people are not puppets and all kind of institutions mitigating the alienating aspects of the modern economy evolved, like the International Labour Organization, which turns one

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Let them pump biodiesel… Or: the French yellow vests are right about prices.

February 8, 2019

There is a lot of ado about the French yellow vests who, somewhat violently and in a tenacious way protest the french government and battle the french police. The protests erupted when the Macron government increased gasoline and diesel prices.  Was this the proverbial drop which made the bucket overflow (”la goutte d’eau qui fait deborder la vase” or, to comply with Anglosaxon culture and to connect with the new nationalism in Anglosaxonia (not to be confused with Niedersachsen)): “the straw which broke the camels back”)? Yes, it was. The statisticians of Eurostat measure consumer price inflation for the Eurozone as a whole but also for the seperate countries. A distinct category is ‘administered prices inflation’. Administered prices are prices which are set (directly or indirectly)

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Productivity in the Eurozone (and why it matters)

December 24, 2018

@Brankomilan leads us to this (french) piece about Austria. It states that the Austrian government enacted a new law which authorizes working days of 12 hours and working weeks of 60 hours.
A). This is a clear case of retrogression. It’s good to read what, in 1921, the International Labor Office stated in its first annual report: 
““It would therefore be almost impossible to exaggerate the truly revolutionary character of the events which during the last years of the war or after the war took place in the sphere of the regulation of hours of work…. During the years 1918-19 the 8-hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries … Before the war, whenever even a minimum or gradual reduction of the working day was proposed,

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Thomas Sargent discovered his inner Marxist. Really. Two graphs.

November 12, 2018

Graph 1. Unemployment in the USA, % of the labor force, monthly data.
One of the central and most pressing questions of macro-economics is how to estimate and explain unemployment. Thomas Sargent, card-carrying member of the neoclassical cabal and winner of the ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize In Economic Sciences In Memory Of Alfred Nobel’ (SRPIESIMOAN)  just made a shot at it. A somewhat Marxist shot, as far as I’m concerned. Which, considering the hard core neoclassical nature of the rest of the work of Sargent, is quite surprising. What’s the case?
Unemployment as we measure it is a cyclical variable (graph 1). The increases of unemployment coincide perfectly with the downswings of the business cycle which are measured using methods pioneered by Wesley Mitchell (the grey bars in graph 1).

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Uploaded: ‘The role of money in economic theory’ by Wesley Claire Mitchell (1916)

November 4, 2018

Is economics basically about measured monetary variables like GDP or wages (recount that ‘total wage income’ is part of GDP)? Or is it, as neoclassical economists assume, mainly about what Thorstein Veblen called ‘hedonistic’ variables like ‘utility’? This discussion is still waging. Look here. It’s an old discussion. According to a man who decisively contributed to the way we measure the ‘money economy’, Wesley ClaireMitchell, economics is about measuring the ‘money economy’ (Mitchell (1916))‘ – even when we want to know about the psychological variables. Not because money is all that matters. But as (on the practical side) monetary relations and transactions are inherently measurable. While (on the theoretical side) the development of monetary variables like wages, loans or profits,

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‘Truly revolutionary’. The November 1918 armistice and labor relations

November 1, 2018

One hundred years ago World War I ended. This war changed everything. It did not only  end the Austrian-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires and lead to the emergence of the USA as an international hegemon. It also transformed labor relations worldwide.  According to the first Report of the Director of the new International Labour Office (ILO): “It would therefore be almost impossible to exaggerate the truly revolutionary character of the events which during the last years of the war or after the war took place in the sphere of the regulation of hours of work…. During the years 1918-19 the 8-hour day has, either by collective agreements or by law, become a reality in the majority of industrial countries … Before the war, whenever even a minimum or gradual reduction of the working day was

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‘The backward art of spending money’ by Wesley C. Mitchell.

October 28, 2018

In 1912 Wesley C. Mitchell, Veblen’s best student and one of the three or four most important economists of the first half of the twentieth century, published ‘The backward art of spending money’ (the link will directly download the article) in the American Economic Review. The article is about the (monetary) problems housewives encounter when they have to manage a household and a family and having scant time and money to do so. It is related to the present day Levy institute ‘time poverty’ project (very much so, even).  It’s a feminist text. Maybe not all young modern readers will agree. But remember that in 1912 the 48 hour workweek was not yet introduced (in most countries this happened between 1915 and 1921) while quite some people in western countries were still illiterate. If

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Edward Prescott, Finn Kydland and the flooding of Fukushima

October 12, 2018

How did this ever pass the peer-review procedure… In an article in the Journal of Political Economy Edward Prescott and Finn Kydland argue in favor of (undemocratic) rules instead of (democratic) economic policies. One of the methods they use to push their idea is the using examples. One particular famous one is the one about floodplains. But the example is wrong. Government policies are not as benevolent, rational and effective as Prescott and Kydland think they are. And people are not as rational. Here’s the example:

This is not what happens. What happens (and it happened after 1570 and 1717 and 1825 and 1916 and 1953 in the Netherlands and in Germany (around Hamburg) in 1962 and in the USA in New Orleans after 2005) is the next thing:
People build houses, farms, factories

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