How does it happen that we have given our quiet assent to a situation where the richest 85 individuals have more money than the bottom 3.5 billion? Where vultures wait for starving children to die, while others eat luxurious meals on private resort islands? Where horrendous military and commercial crimes leading to deaths, misery, and deprivations of millions are routinely committed by highly educated men with multimillion dollar salaries in luxury corporate and government suites?
A core component of the answer to these critical questions is that we have been educated to believe that this is a normal state of affairs, which comes about through the operation of iron laws of economics. Economic theories currently being taught in universities all over the world are an essential pillar which sustains the economic system currently in operation. These theories state that we (human beings) are cold, callous, and calculating. Microeconomic theory says rational individuals are concerned only with their own consumption. They are callous; completely indifferent to the needs of others. They maximize, calculating personal benefits to the last penny. They are cold – their decisions are not swayed by emotions of any kind. All this theorizing is not without power – it creates the world we live in, and the rules we live by.
from David Ruccio
Or, in this case, only at Harvard. . . Read more…
New data illustrate the extent to which economists have stopped discussing each other’s work.
Once upon a time, economists regularly used to publicly criticise each other’s work in academic journals. But not any more.
In Figure 1 I have illustrated the degree to which economists have stopped debating. The data have been culled from Jstor, the online database of academic journals. To estimate the number of debating articles for each year, I searched for articles with “comment”, “reply”, and/or “rejoinder” in their titles, as these are the key words used to indicate a comment on someone else’s article and a reply to that comment. I did the search for the five most prestigious economics journals. I then used the total number of articles in those five journals in each year as the denominator.
Figure 1 shows how there was a dramatic increase in the level of debate in economics from the 1920s through the 1960s. Then, however, there was an equally dramatic fall. At the peak level, in 1968, fully 22 per cent of the articles published in these journals appear to have been related to debate. By 2013, however, just 2 per cent were.
Why did this rise and fall happen? Read more here
from David Ruccio
After the crash of 2008, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, students around the world have been calling for radical changes in the way economics is taught. They know that the discipline of economics, today as in the past, includes more than neoclassical economics—but, for the most part, students are not being exposed to concepts and methods other than those of neoclassical economic theory.
There are, of course, a handful of departments where non-mainstream theories have been developed and taught, alongside and in addition to neoclassical (and, for that matter, traditional Keynesian) economics. In the United States, in terms of Ph.D.-granting institutions, they include the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where I received my degree), American University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Utah, and New School University.
As Aaron Steelman recognizes, that handful also once included the University of Notre Dame. But that is no longer the case, since the current Department of Economics advertises itself as as purely neoclassical department.
Unfortunately, Steelman gets the history wrong. Read more…
from Lars Syll
Back in 1991, when I earned my first Ph.D. — with a dissertation on decision making and rationality in social choice theory and game theory — yours truly concluded that “repeatedly it seems as though mathematical tractability and elegance — rather than realism and relevance — have been the most applied guidelines for the behavioural assumptions being made. On a political and social level it is doubtful if the methodological individualism, ahistoricity and formalism they are advocating are especially valid.”
The decision theoretical approach I perhaps was most critical of, was the one building on the then reawakened Bayesian subjectivist interpretation of probability.
One of my inspirations when working on the dissertation was Henry E. Kyburg, and I still think his critique is the ultimate take-down of Bayesian hubris (emphasis added): Read more…
from Peter Radford
Actually the paper I just read is called “The Superiority of Economists”. It’s another analysis of thee economics profession by Marion Fourcade, this time in association with Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan. It is well worth reading and fits neatly in the same analytical tradition as Fourcade’s 2009 book “Economists and Societies”.
The problem is that none of it is particularly surprising. The point being that economists, by asserting their superiority vis other social sciences have exposed themselves to greater scrutiny and criticism than their peers. This has, apparently, induced more soul-searching within economics than in those other social sciences. Along with the air of superiority that economists exude due to their self-proclaimed intellectualism, comes a big dollop of insecurity.
Which is a point worth making: economists, for all their arrogant assertion of the truths of their ‘science’, are a little insecure about something. Hence, perhaps, their brashness and lack of interaction with their peers. One of Fourcade’s findings is that economists are more isolated as a profession than those around them. They quote fewer non-economics papers and books in their own work, and are almost haughty in the disregard of insights that other social sciences take very seriously. Read more…
from David Ruccio
Cornelia Strawser, in response to Brad DeLong, notes the importance of the declining labor share in U.S. national income.* She then poses a series of questions that, in her view, should be “raised in the academy and in public discourse”: Read more…
An international student call for pluralism in economics
It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls. What is taught shapes the minds of the next generation of policymakers, and therefore shapes the societies we live in. We, over 65 associations of economics students from over 30 different countries, believe it is time to reconsider the way economics is taught. We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the last couple of decades. This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. Such change will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society’s problems can be generated.
United across borders, we call for a change of course. We do not claim to have the perfect answer, but we have no doubt that economics students will profit from exposure to different perspectives and ideas. Pluralism will not only help to enrich teaching and research and reinvigorate the discipline. More than this, pluralism carries the promise of bringing economics back into the service of society. Three forms of pluralism must be at the core of curricula: Read more…
from Lars Syll
One may wonder how much calibration adds to the knowledge of economic structures and the deep parameters involved … Micro estimates are imputed in general equilibrium models which are confronted with new data, not used for the construction of the imputed parameters … However this procedure to impute parameter values into calibrated models has serious weaknesses …
Second, even where estimates are available from micro-econometric investigations, they cannot be automatically importyed into aggregated general equlibrium models …
Third, calibration hardly contributes to growth of knowledge about ‘deep parameters’. These deep parameters are confronted with a novel context (aggregate time-series), but this is not used for inference on their behalf. Rather, the new context is used to fit the model to presumed ‘laws of motion’ of the economy … Read more…
Financial Times, November 17.
University departments must share the blame
Sir, The FT is far from alone in, once again and for the umpteenth time, decrying the “scandal” that a section of the financial sector – this time the foreign exchange market – has “remained immersed in a culture that subordinates everything to making money” (editorial, November 13). University economics departments cannot escape their share of the blame for this, so crucial have they been in recent years in providing academic justification for this “culture”.
Economics is, according to the orthodoxy now almost totally dominant in these departments, a discipline whose very identity is inseparable from the calculus of maximisation and minimisation. This standpoint is not limited to those of a neoliberal orientation; on the contrary, among its most dogmatic adherents is the outspokenly non-neoliberal Paul Krugman, who states quite simply that the economist is a “maximising-minimising kind of guy”.
Krugman is, however, exceptional in his radical views, and the inevitable bias that results from the exclusion from the economics curriculum of alternative approaches is towards turning out students who are ready-primed for incorporation into the “culture” that is revealed with such depressing regularity every time there is a thorough investigation of financial misdemeanours.
Fortunately, an increasing number of economics students are raising their voices against a curriculum which has become, in effect, little more than an indoctrination into that heinous “culture”.
It is about time the managements of economics departments stopped exploiting their freedom to appoint and promote their staff to perpetuate this situation. Let us hope that the demands of their students and of the wider public can begin to force them once more to open their doors to adherents of alternative approaches, and thus to reflect within themselves the debates on economic issues that rage in the world outside.
University College London and University of Westminster, UK
from Neva Goodwin
Twentieth century economics supported, implicitly when not explicitly, the idea that neither ethics nor history nor the institutions of law or culture were of much economic importance – as long as these things did not get in the way of “free” market functioning. This case was pressed with special vigor from about 1970 to the end of the 20th century by economists from what was known as the Chicago School.
Even early on in this period there began to be concern that individuals acting solely to achieve their personal goals could not be counted on to operate a business in ways that would be good for the business itself. This real-world concern, combined with the dogma that people only act on the basis of self-interest, resulted in various efforts to motivate business leaders by offering rewards for specific markers of success (such as the price of the company’s stock). These efforts had the unintended consequence of escalating compensation of top management in the United States to levels that were many times greater than anything that had previously been considered normal (or were normal in other countries). They also resulted in an increasingly short-term vision on the part of business leaders. Very large scale frauds, Ponzi schemes, tax evasions, and environmental and human costs that businesses externalized during this period have made it increasingly evident that society cannot afford to encourage a culture of economic activity that ignores all normal human motivations except the selfish pursuit of personal gain. Read more…
from Lars Syll
Oxford macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis has a post up on his blog on the use of labels in macroeconomics:
Labels are fun, and get attention. They can be a useful shorthand to capture an idea, or related set of ideas … Here are a couple of bold assertions, which I think I believe, and which I will try to justify. First, in academic research terms there is only one meaningful division, between mainstream and heterodox … Second, in macroeconomic policy terms I think there is only one meaningful significant division, between mainstream and anti-Keynesians …
So what do I mean by a meaningful division in academic research terms? I mean speaking a different language. Thanks to the microfoundations revolution in macro, mainstream macroeconomists speak the same language. I can go to a seminar that involves an RBC model with flexible prices and no involuntary unemployment and still contribute and possibly learn something.
Wren-Lewis seems to be überjoyed by the fact that using the same language as real business cycles macroeconomists he can “possibly learn something” from them.
Wonder what …
I’m not sure Wren-Lewis uses the same “language” as James Tobin, but he’s definitely worth listening to: Read more…
As a follow-up to Rethinking Economics rejects INET’s “Core Curriculum” here is an excerpt from a Rethinking Economics blog post back in August by David Wells.
. . . just before the final keynote address, a short video was played in which Robert Johnson, the President of INET, sent his best wishes to the conference and congratulated the organisers – but also suggested at one point that the students should be ‘guided’ by INET.
This is strange. Why should the students be ‘guided’ by INET? Why not the other way around? After all, it is the students who are the instigators of this revolution and who are at the front line, manning the barricades. INET are very active in their own way – the CORE curriculum project is especially interesting – and they supply invaluable funding, including for this conference*, but they are essentially secondary actors on the stage. The protagonists are the students, not just in the UK but all over the world: the ISIPE now has (at least) 65 member associations in 30 countries.
from Neva Goodwin
Herbert Simon received the Nobel Prize in 1978. This fact had little or no influence on subsequent economics textbooks, which sometimes mentioned bounded rationality, but did not reduce their dependence on the old rationality postulate as the foundation for deducing all human behaviour.
Simon was not the first critic to be so dismissed. Decades before behavioral economics came into fashion “alternative” economists were complaining about the unrealism of the neoclassical view of humanity. They especially focused on the fact that, as Smith had so well recognized, people are social animals. Relatively few of our actions are taken completely without regard for what we have seen other people do, or what we expect that other people will think. Even popular books on finance refer to the “herd instinct” in reference to the way investors follow fads and fashions of thought. There appears to be an inborn tendency for people to act as part of some kind of human collective, rather than in isolation. Yet this had no place in the neoclassical understanding of human behaviour.
from Lars Syll
from Lars Syll
The techniques we use affect our thinking in deep and not always conscious ways. This was very much the case in macroeconomics in the decades preceding the crisis. The techniques were best suited to a worldview in which economic fluctuations occurred but were regular, and essentially self correcting. The problem is that we came to believe that this was indeed the way the world worked.
To understand how that view emerged, one has to go back to the so-called rational expectations revolution of the 1970s … These techniques however made sense only under a vision in which economic fluctuations were regular enough so that, by looking at the past, people and firms (and the econometricians who apply statistics to economics) could understand their nature and form expectations of the future, and simple enough so that small shocks had small effects and a shock twice as big as another had twice the effect on economic activity. The reason for this assumption, called linearity, was technical: models with nonlinearities—those in which a small shock, such as a decrease in housing prices, can sometimes have large effects, or in which the effect of a shock depends on the rest of the economic environment—were difficult, if not impossible, to solve under rational expectations.
Thinking about macroeconomics was largely shaped by those assumptions. We in the field did think of the economy as roughly linear, constantly subject to different shocks, constantly fluctuating, but naturally returning to its steady state over time …
From the early 1980s on, most advanced economies experienced what has been dubbed the “Great Moderation,” a steady decrease in the variability of output and its major components—such as consumption and investment … Whatever caused the Great Moderation, for a quarter Century the benign, linear view of fluctuations looked fine.
from Neva Goodwin
Neoclassical economics claims to be based entirely on a view of human nature which is not only morally repugnant, but which also both leaves out a great deal about how people actually do operate, while it brings in seriously contrary-to-fact assumptions about what people are capable of. The latter have included assumptions about consistency (including that preferences change slowly, if at all, and that if A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C, then C cannot be preferred to A); about information (people are able to act as if they have perfect information); about self-knowledge (people know what they want, and are best served by getting what they want); and about influence, or power. The last of these assumptions includes the idea that human wants and preferences are endogenous, generated entirely from within; it ignores the extent to which people’s choices and decisions may be manipulated by those who have an interest in persuading the public to buy certain things, or vote in certain ways. It ignores the reality that market economies are rife with powerful actors who do have such an interest, in both the economic and the political spheres. Read more…
from Dean Baker
The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.
Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.
In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings. Read more…
Economic Thought - History, Philosophy, and Methodology
An open access, open peer review journal from the World Economics Association
Vol 3, No 2, 2014 Download issue
Reconciling Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage with Smith’s Productivity Theory
Jorge Morales Meoqui 21 abstract
The Theory of the Transnational Corporation at 50+
Grazia Ietto-Gillies 38 abstract
Reply to John Cantwell’s Commentary on Grazia Ietto-Gillies’ paper
Grazia Ietto-Gillies 67 abstract
If ‘Well-Being’ is the Key Concept in Political Economy...
Claudio Gnesutta 70 abstract