What’s the use of economics?
from Lars Syll
The simple question that was raised during a recent conference … was to what extent has – or should – the teaching of economics be modified in the light of the current economic crisis? The simple answer is that the economics profession is unlikely to change. Why would economists be willing to give up much of their human capital, painstakingly nurtured for over two centuries? For macroeconomists in particular, the reaction has been to suggest that modifications of existing models to take account of ‘frictions’ or ‘imperfections’ will be enough to account for the current evolution of the world economy. The idea is that once students have understood the basics, they can be introduced to these modifications.
However, other economists such as myself feel that we have finally reached the turning point in economics where we have to radically change the way we conceive of and model the economy. The crisis is an opportune occasion to carefully investigate new approaches. Paul Seabright hit the nail on the head; economists tend to inaccurately portray their work as a steady and relentless improvement of their models whereas, actually, economists tend to chase an empirical reality that is changing just as fast as their modelling. I would go further; rather than making steady progress towards explaining economic phenomena professional economists have been locked into a narrow vision of the economy. We constantly make more and more sophisticated models within that vision until, as Bob Solow put it, “the uninitiated peasant is left wondering what planet he or she is on” (Solow 2006) …
Entomologists (those who study insects) of old with more simple models came to the conclusion that bumble bees should not be able to fly. Their reaction was to later rethink their models in light of irrefutable evidence. Yet, the economist’s instinct is to attempt to modify reality in order to fit a model that has been built on longstanding theory. Unfortunately, that very theory is itself based on shaky foundations …
Every student in economics is faced with the model of the isolated optimising individual who makes his choices within the constraints imposed by the market. Somehow, the axioms of rationality imposed on this individual are not very convincing, particularly to first time students. But the student is told that the aim of the exercise is to show that there is an equilibrium, there can be prices that will clear all markets simultaneously. And, furthermore, the student is taught that such an equilibrium has desirable welfare properties. Importantly, the student is told that since the 1970s it has been known that whilst such a system of equilibrium prices may exist, we cannot show that the economy would ever reach an equilibrium nor that such an equilibrium is unique.
The student then moves on to macroeconomics and is told that the aggregate economy or market behaves just like the average individual she has just studied. She is not told that these general models in fact poorly reflect reality. For the macroeconomist, this is a boon since he can now analyse the aggregate allocations in an economy as though they were the result of the rational choices made by one individual. The student may find this even more difficult to swallow when she is aware that peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts are often influenced by those of the other participants in the economy. Students take a long time to accept the idea that the economy’s choices can be assimilated to those of one individual.
Alan Kirman What’s the use of economics?