The Future of Everything

July 17, 2017

On straw men

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 2:59 pm

From the preface to Economyths: 11 Ways Economics Gets It Wrong

As anticipated in the 2010 version of Economyths, many economists have argued that the economyths are an unfair caricature of their field – a ‘straw man’ I am setting up to easily defeat. Four things to add. First, this argument is a little over-used. ‘Read any review of a heterodox book by an economist’, noted Cahal Moran in 2011, and ‘you will find the exact same rhetoric’: the author is ‘attacking straw men, he doesn’t understand economics, etc.’ An external investigation into the economics department at the University of Manitoba in 2015 found that ‘the insistence by the mainstreamers that the heterodox are attacking a straw man could be labelled “gaslighting” [i.e. psychologically manipulating someone into doubting their own sanity]. Even as some heterodox are subject to unfriendly discrimination, ridicule, hostility, and censure, some mainstreamers simply deny it and insist the others are making it all up.’ Call me crazy, but I think they have a point.

Secondly, economists have long deflected criticism by claiming that key assumptions such as the rational behaviour of ‘economic man’, as Lionel Robbins put it in 1932, are ‘only an expository device – a first approximation used very cautiously at one stage in the development of arguments’. (As seen in the Appendix, economists repeat the identical argument today.) But that same ‘economic man’ – which as a view of human behaviour is less a first approximation than a severe distortion – reached perhaps its most gloriously exaggerated form in the Arrow-Debreu model (Chapter 5) well after Robbins dismissed it as a ‘bogey’ (the expression ‘straw man’ was not yet in vogue), and remains at the heart of much economic modelling, which is why eight decades later we could name a book after its impending twilight with no fear of redundancy.

Thirdly, there is also a longstanding tradition in which, as Moran and his co-authors Joe Earle and Zach Ward-Perkins put it in The Econocracy: ‘The concerns of critics are said to be addressed when economists find some way of incorporating their critiques into existing frameworks. The result is often a highly stylised version of what the critic had in mind, and may drop the things that are most important while conforming to certain assumptions that the critic may reject.’ When economists consider small departures from something like equilibrium – they would have to, wouldn’t they? – or arrange patches for the more egregious examples of ‘market failure’ – such as the environmental crisis – they are like the ancient astronomers who added extra epicycles to their geocentric models of the cosmos to better fit observations, while still assuming that the universe was based on circles and the sun went around the earth. In fact it is economists who have set up a highly simplified version of the real world – but instead of destroying it, they hold it up as an ideal to which real economies can only aspire. (And if that is a ‘caricature’ or a ‘straw man’, we will stop attacking it when it stops threatening to blow up the world.)

Finally, I take pains in the book to show that the arguments apply not just to this pure textbook version of the theory, but to anything near it, epicycles and all. And as we’ll see, supposedly sophisticated models may deviate from these foundational assumptions, but they can never stray too far without losing internal consistency – which is exactly why the field finds itself in a state of crisis.

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July 16, 2017

Time for critics of economics critics to move on!

Filed under: Uncategorized — David @ 3:28 pm

There is a growing trend for economists to write articles criticising the critics of economics. These articles follow a similar pattern. They start by saying that the criticisms are “both repetitive and increasingly misdirected” as economist Diane Coyle wrote, and might complain that they don’t want to hear one more time Queen Elizabeth’s question, on a 2008 visit to the London School of Economics: “Why did nobody see it coming?”

Economist Noah Smith agrees that “blanket critiques of the economics discipline have been standardized to the point where it’s pretty easy to predict how they’ll proceed.” Unlike the crisis then! “Economists will be castigated for their failure to foresee the Great Recession. Some unrealistic assumptions in mainstream macroeconomic models will be mentioned. Economists will be cast as priests of free-market ideology, whose shortcomings will be vigorously asserted.” And so on.

The articles criticising critics then tell critics it is time to adopt a “more constructive tone” and “focus on what is going right in the economics discipline” (Smith) because “only if today’s critics of economics pay more attention to what economists are actually doing will they be able to make a meaningful contribution to assessing the state of the discipline” (Coyle). If the critics being criticised are not economists, the articles often point out or imply that they don’t know what they are talking about, are attacking a straw man, etc., or even (not these authors) compare them to climate change deniers.

Speaking as an early adopter of the Queen Elizabeth story (in my 2010 book Economyths, recently re-released in extended form), allow me to say that I agree completely with these critic critics. Yes, economists failed to predict the most significant economic event of their lifetimes. Yes, their models couldn’t have predicted it, even in principle, based as they were on the idea that markets are inherently self-stabilising. And yes, economists didn’t just fail to predict the crisis, they helped cause it, through their use of flawed risk models which gave a false sense of security.

But it is time for us critics to move on, and accentuate the positive. Only by doing so can we make a meaningful contribution. And as Smith points out, calls for “humility on the part of economists” are getting old (Tomáš Sedláček, Roman Chlupatý and I wrote Bescheidenheit – für eine neue Ökonomie five years ago). It’s like asking Donald Trump to admit that he once lost at something.

Of course, some people might say that it isn’t up to economists to tell everyone else when they should stop talking about economists’ role in the crisis, or bring up what the former head of the UK Treasury memorably called in 2016 their “monumental collective intellectual error.”

Some stick-in-the-muds note that “No one took any responsibility or blame for a forecasting failure that led to a policy disaster” and have called for a public inquiry into their role in the crisis. Instead of telling everyone else to move on, they argue, it is time for economists to own their mistakes. Well guess what, people – it’s not going to happen! And stop asking for a public apology. Let’s focus on what is going right and hand out some gold stars.

For example, there is the “data revolution” heralded by Smith. As he notes, “econ is paying a lot more attention to data these days.” Sure, economists are literally the last group of researchers on earth to have realised the usefulness of data. In physics the “data revolution” happened back when astronomers like Tycho Brahe pointed their telescopes at the sky and began to question the theories of Aristotle. But better late than never!

Oh, here’s a data point – all the orthodox theories failed during the crisis! But you knew that.

Or there is behavioral economics, which Coyle notes is “one of the most popular areas of the discipline now, among academics and students alike.” Critics again might note that progress in this area has been painfully slow and has had little real impact. Tweaks such as “hyperbolic discounting” are equivalent to ancient astronomers appending epicycles to their models to make them look slightly more realistic. But that rational economic man thing is so over – straw man walking.

Admittedly, there has been less progress on a few things. The equilibrium models used by policy makers, for example, still rely on the concept of equilibrium – and so have nothing to say on the cause or nature of financial crises. Risk models used by banks and other financial institutions still view markets as governed by the independent actions of rational economic man investors, and are more useful for hiding risk than for estimating it, as quant Paul Wilmott and I have argued.

As Paul Krugman noted in 2016, “we really don’t know how to model personal income distribution,” even though social inequality – along with financial instability – is one of the biggest economic issues of our time. Some insiders such as World Bank chief economist Paul Romer – who compared a chain of reasoning in the field of macroeconomics to “blah blah blah” – describe the area as “pseudo-science”. And economics education still concentrates almost solely on the discredited neoclassical approach, complete with rational economic man, according to the student authors of The Econocracy.

But these are details. As Coyle notes, some economists are finally getting to grips with ideas from areas such as “complexity theory, network theory, and agent-based modeling” which of course are exactly those areas that critics have long been suggesting they learn from.

Or the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council recently let it be known that it is setting up a network of experts from different disciplines including “psychology, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, economic history, political science, biology and physics,” whose task it will be to “revolutionise” the field of economics. Again, that is nice, since Economyths called in its final chapter for just such an intervention by non-economists back in 2010.

So, yes, it is time to celebrate the new dawn of economics! But critics of critics – do try to move on from the same criticisms, we’ve heard it all before, in fact for decades now.

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