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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