Readers of this column, no doubt concerned for my wellbeing, have occasionally asked how my book Economyths – a critique of mainstream economics from the point of view of an applied mathematician – was received by economists.
The book, which also served as the basis for many Econoclast articles, did muster a number of positive reviews, from publications ranging from Bloomberg to Handelsblatt. The science writer Brian Clegg called it “probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read” (he’s not an economist, I just wanted to mention it, before we go on). Perhaps the strongest endorsement was from Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, who co-wrote a subsequent book with me.
Not everyone was so complimentary. (Read the rest of this article at World Finance.)
It is often said that quantum physics is so weird that it is beyond our understanding. But there is one area where some quantum insights might prove applicable to our everyday lives, and it’s a surprisingly common one: money. Just as subatomic objects have a dual nature, so do the money objects that we use to make payments. The main difference is that these objects are things we have designed ourselves. They are our contribution to the quantum universe.
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Money shapes our lives, yet we rarely reflect on where it came from
According to the authors Lipsey and Ragan of Canadian textbook Economics, money emerged as a replacement for barter: “If there were no money, goods would have to be exchanged by barter… The major difficulty with barter is that each transaction requires a double coincidence of wants… The use of money as a medium of exchange solves this problem.”
Fortunately the book was free, so in this case neither barter nor money were required. The authors went on: “All sorts of commodities have been used as money at one time or another, but gold and silver proved to have great advantages… The invention of coinage eliminated the need to weigh the metal at each transaction, but it created an important role for an authority, usually a monarch, who made the coins and affixed his or her seal, guaranteeing the amount of precious metal that the coin contained.”
This seemed clear enough. Commodity money emerged from barter. The best commodities, for various reasons, were gold and silver. The only role of government was to come along at the end and put its stamp on the coins. I had seen the same argument made before, with minor variations, by 19th-century economists such as William Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger, and by Adam Smith in the 18th century. But to check it out, I decided to go right to the source, the origin of origin stories: the philosopher himself.
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“Prediction,” the great physicist Niels Bohr is said to have once observed, “is very difficult. Especially when it concerns the future.” In science and economics, our lack of ability to foresee the future has traditionally been attributed to two theories – the butterfly effect, and the efficient market hypothesis – which have more in common than might appear.
The “butterfly effect” was first coined by the meteorologist Ed Lorenz in a 1972 talk, based on an earlier paper in which he observed that the solutions to a highly simplified weather model were sensitive to initial conditions. When he slightly changed the inputs to the model and ran the simulation, the answer changed completely. This was like running a weather prediction model using slightly different values for today’s weather, and getting wildly divergent forecasts for the weather next week.
[Read rest of latest World Finance column here.]
Latest World Finance column argues that it’s time for economists to come out of denial and embrace new ideas.
See also this related piece Economics: a discipline ripe for disruption in the Guardian.
And were the 1970s really an economic peak? Read latest World Finance column here.
While economics has long been known as the ‘dismal science’, this does not seem to apply to the science of forecasting. With some exceptions – such as the Mayans, or Nouriel Roubini – forecasters, it seems, are just way too cheery and confident.
Read more of the latest World Finance column here.
Why is it we can find the Higgs Boson, but can’t fix the euro? Read latest World Finance column here.
As the saying goes, if you want to enjoy a sausage, it’s better not to know what’s in it. Latest World Finance column is on sausage making in both food and finance – read more here.
Latest World Finance column is on the inherent uncertainty of complex systems – read more here.