Home > Uncategorized > Economics is a waste of time

Economics is a waste of time

from Peter Radford

There I said it.

There comes a point when we all have to stop banging our heads against the wall and just step back. Why, we ask in such moments, are we wasting our time? The wall is immoveable. It is indifferent to our efforts. It is solid. It has the appearance of permanence. It just won’t shift.

So walk away.

Do something else.

In the case of economics go and study the economy instead.

Too many people are wasting far too much time talking about economists as if they study the economy. They don’t. They really and truly don’t. They live in a post-fact world. Indeed before it became fashionable to toss that phrase around — Trump and his regime pretty much define “post-fact” — economists had been steadfastly denying fact, ignoring reality, and living in a wonderland of their own creation.

Economists study economics. And economics is not the economy. It is a self-contained set of ideas, models, theories, mathematical intricacies, and axioms, that are designed to provide exciting intellectual sport for those so inclined to busy themselves with such activity. It is carefully constructed to look as if it touches reality. It still contains words that make it look as if it relates to reality. Economists intone cogently about real-world topics. And economists fill all the key policy positions that relate to steering, regulating, and measuring the economy.

But that’s all illusion.  

Poke at what they learn in school. Take a peek at the content of what they believe. Look at what it takes to be a respected economist.

Then try to connect that with what you see around you.

There is little or no connection. It’s as if the weather forecasters predicted the weather without ever looking out the window. Or as if physicists insisted that gravity threw things straight up in the air despite the contrary evidence. Alice and her looking glass have nothing on the ability of economists to defy the world in which they live.

But perhaps it isn’t defiance.

Another attribute of economists is their portrayal of the dispassionate observer of society gravely describing the “deep laws” humans are foolish to push back against. They project the air of sober analysis. They attempt to inject a discipline and rigor into the messy pool of human interaction. They want us to believe that what they describe is inevitable. So they take it upon themselves to act as caretakers of what ought to be.

No, it isn’t defiance. It is activism.

Having wandered into their intellectual wilderness, and having starved themselves of the diversity and complexity of reality, they have returned convinced in their hungry delirium that they have discovered ways in which society ought to conduct its affairs.

Economics, in its various mainstream hues, is profoundly normative. It is an attempt to dictate the ways in which we order our economic activity.

We know this from the way in which it treats collective action. It disallows such activity in its every recess and crevice. It is totally committed to the individual being the core agent. And that individual is presumed to be inhumanly rational.

This is why Keynesian ideas about the efficacy of examining macro or meta themes was considered apostate and had to be eradicated or so mutilated that they could be neutered politically.

This is why the Marxist critique is ignored as if power relations had no social significance.

This is why gender and minority considerations are thought irrelevant.

This is why institutions are disregarded as having theoretical import.

This is why knowledge has never found its way into the core of the so-called “production function”.

This is why the various fantasies of general equilibrium are tolerated by people with vast analytical skills and who, thus, ought to know better.

This is why growth theorists are content with models that predict a small portion of growth — the rest they tell us is a mystery.

This is why theories of the firm are hopelessly at odds with the firms we work in.

This is why oddities such as the notion of “marginal analysis” exist. Beautiful constructs and intellectually interesting, but not found in nature, they distract from locating better, more practical and real explanations of economic artifacts.

The list goes on.

This has all been said before. And it has been said much more eloquently.

So: my advice is to study the economy by taking classes in politics, sociology, philosophy, business or organizational theory. Get steeped in information theory. Build those agent based models. Go and talk to workers, shopkeepers, and all the other people in the real world.

But stay away from economics.

Especially if you’re serious about the economy.

  1. February 15, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    YES!

    And, don’t just talk about changing theory. Change it! The last thing it is is a mathematical game with unique outcomes that deliver the best of all possible worlds. Abandon ‘equilibrium’, bring in budget formation and the practical consumer behavior that underlies budget formation decisions while ridding economics of ‘endowed’ budgets,ever fixed and immutable in the face of price changes. Get rid of stable downward sloping demand schedules, for budget formation decisions re ‘buying’ goods make for unpredictable responses to price changes. Rid yourself of the false distinction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘producer since, most of the time, we are producers-who-consume-out- of-what-we produce. Get rid of all so-called real prices between goods, for these imply a neutrality of money that budget formation decisions would reveal to be ridiculous. Nominal incomes and nominal prices always matter. Do only nominal analysis. Employ more shift and share analysis of the effects of price and income changes, especially when looking at compositional changes in aggregate, and especially when looking at demand and supply.

    Bring values-in-use back into theory … for, in the actual world of the economy, the benefits/values-from-use are the drivers of consumption and production activities, for production is merely a different form of consumption activity.

    Recognize that, in practice, economic decision-making has more to do with needs and the ways in which we meet those needs, constrained in our use of goods by incomes and prices, laws, traditions, institutions as well as the reality that our needs change as we do.

    Never conduct analysis or construct theory that fails to account for the diversity of benefits associated with the different uses for goods.

    And, finally, don’t give up.

  2. robert locke
    February 15, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Why don’t you mention history? I have been saying what you just said ever since I joined the blog in 2008, without any effect on blog readers at all, including you, since you leave history out of the subjects people interested in economic events should study. But as an historian I am not surprised. People who live in particular periods of time, as every historians knows, engage in folly when seeking answers to contemporary problems. People sat and watched the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the European Union… decline because of the folly that their own policies contributed to the ruin.

    • rjw
      February 15, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      You right of course. The biggest failing in modern economics teaching is not so much the use of models … that can be debated …models can be useful, and sometimes even very simply and highly stylized models can provide insights. The problem is that we don’t inculcate a sense of contingency in students … the realization that historical context matters, and that the precise mechanisms at work may vary in different historical contexts and circumstances. And the best way to get that sense, is to be steeped in economic history.

    • February 16, 2017 at 12:45 am

      I agree that a history of economic thought should be required to be taught. It would show that the marginal revolution stopped economics from being about real human behavior and actual economic activity, and that it largely did so through mathemagical thinking about imaginary beings who never suffered if they failed to consume anything at all owing to a lack of sufficient income to do so.

      It is well past time to re-introduce values-in-use back into economic theory.

      • February 19, 2017 at 4:06 pm

        I think the point is not so much to focus on the history of economic thought, although that’s relevant too, but to use comparative historic analysis, studying similar events in the past and their outcomes, to try and make sense of what is happening now and gauge its possible consequences. The results of such analysis then to be used as an for input policy making.

  3. February 15, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Yes. I too have for a long time been attempting to explain my impressions of historical lessons and the weird ideas of equilibrium and often only apparent economies of scale.

    I gave up and camouflaged what I consider the most advanced economics on Earth in an adventure story. Here you will zoom among the stars and also see that the dirty darkness drifting around Earth is little doom clouds of pollution posing as profit.

    intro … http://zerowastenews.org/chapters-web/Pacifica-ch0.html

  4. February 15, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    Yes, mainstream economics is a waste of time. But what’s worse, the faults of economics in combination with its influence on policy making block society from effectively using its productive potential to address its ecological, economic and social problems. Society can afford groups of economists conducting pseudoscience in the academy, though of course the money and intellect going into that effort would be spent better on other endeavors. But society cannot afford not taking effective action to address the major environmental, social and economic problems that threaten present and future generations. And it’s economic dogma – reducing the role of the state, regulation and taxes, perpetuating a monetary system in which commercial enterprises are allowed to create money and reap the profits, and so on – that keeps society from doing so. That is the most important reason why the immovable, indifferent, solid, permanent wall the author speaks off must be tumbled.
    And as the commentators say, a new economics should make historical analysis a key tool. Forget about modelling, also about agent-based models. The human condition, mind and behaviour are too complex to be caught in models; attempting to do so leads to simplifications that distort reality to such an extent that the outcomes are useless and worse. As is presently the case in economics. Forget about models and go into the real world, past and present, collect and analyze real life data and information, apply social science methodology to improve the validity and reliability of information gathering and to conduct proper analysis.
    For those interested: I’ve written a critique of economics for a broad audience, elaborating on the above, the consequences of the primacy of economics in policy making, and guidelines for improving things. It’s called Crisis, Economics, and the Emperor’s Clothes (2012), and it’s a free download from http://www.new-economics.info, as is a short version, the Common Sense Manifesto. Feel free to download and, if you like the contents, share. With interested lay persons, students and especially, non-economic scientists – the group of professionals best placed to call economics and economists to task.

    • February 16, 2017 at 12:52 am

      Thank you. Have downloaded.

      • February 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm

        Thanks for downloading the book, Larry, hope to receive some feedback in due course. And if you think it’s worth reading, I’d appreciate your pointing it out to others.

      • February 20, 2017 at 12:16 am

        Addressing your earlier comment I will comment on The Emperor’s New Clothes at some point.

        I agree that historical analysis — where there are elements in common (say, for instance, shares in income distribution; or, for that matter, ‘debt loads’ as reducing disposable income shares) — is a critical component of useful policy guidance. This said, what often passes as ‘historical analysis’ in economics often amounts to trying to fit ‘history’ into far-fetched models based upon will o’ the wisp assumptions that ignore actual human and institutional behaviors, so I do not trust the mainstream orthodoxy to conduct such ‘analysis’.

        I see economics much as Weber and Veblen did. And, I think economics is in need of thinkers trained in European sociological methods and research as opposed to American sociological structuralism in most of its forms.

      • February 20, 2017 at 6:47 am

        The history of trade gives insights into how advantages are made and unmade, how traders combine factors not considered economic by today’s economists (religion, military, technology, etc.) to create trade deals, how trade is always about more than winning, and how trade can be a beginning of civilizations (Norse, Russia).

        Yes, economic historians who are economists are generally a waste of time to read. I stick to actual historians who study economics.

        Long ago the German Historical School of social science lost the battle with the positivism social science of Emile Durkheim and August Comte. That victory carried over to the US, where American social scientists used science based on the model of physics to build laws that would explain and predict the future of the “exceptional” (i.e., perfect and guiding light for the world) American society. So, where European social scientists only had to break free of the formal models and axioms of physics applied to human society, American social scientists had the added burden of demolishing American perfectionism before they could free themselves from social physics. European social scientists are moving forward with the project. American social scientists are decades behind. Which explains some of the misunderstandings between American and European social scientists. Economics is a special case here. Economists have yet to generally even acknowledge that social physics is the wrong path for economics. Here even European economists lag in reaching this conclusion.

      • February 20, 2017 at 4:10 pm

        I couldn’t agree more. I never came across the concise term ‘social physics’ before, but I like it a great deal as it underlies all of the mathemagics of mainstream subjective utility and ‘macro’ model making.

      • February 21, 2017 at 5:14 am

        The term was first used in articles August Comte published in “Le Producteur” in 1825/1826. Comte defined ‘la physique sociale’ (social physics) as, “that science which occupies itself with social phenomena, considered in the same light as astronomical, physical, chemical, and physiological phenomena, that is to say as being subject to natural and invariable Laws the discovery of which is the special object of its researches.”

      • February 21, 2017 at 1:07 pm

        Thank you.

  5. February 15, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Forget about the theory, leave operational systems the same. Change to a more efficient way profitable way to invest. https://medium.com/@kevin_34708/money-with-interest-is-inefficient-not-evil-38adbe3ba44d#.umf1moamp

  6. February 16, 2017 at 10:20 am

    Peter, all your points are valid. But how did we and by we I mean US economists get into this fix? In her book “Origins of American Social Science,” Dorothy Ross (an historian not social scientist) focuses on the history of the disciplines of economics, sociology, political science, and history, examining how American social science came to model itself on natural science and liberal politics. In the use of such models American social science wasn’t different from European social science. In short, this meant social scientists searched for and expected to find universal “laws” or relationships that could be used to clearly spell out cause and effect. They also believed their sciences had to support and were supported by the basics of liberalism – individual rights/freedom, rationality and science over religion, empiricism over magic, and the certainty that technological and political progress are unending. Ross goes on to argue that American social science receives its distinctive stamp from the ideology of American exceptionalism, the idea that America occupies an exceptional place in history, based on her republican government and wide economic opportunity. Under the influence of this national self-conception, Americans believed their history was set on a millennial course, exempted from historical change and from the mass poverty and class conflict of Europe. Before the Civil War, this vision of American exceptionalism drew social scientists into the national effort to stay the hand of time. To create an eternal utopia as an example to the world. Not until after the Civil War did industrialization force American social scientists to confront the idea and reality of historical change. The social science disciplines had their origin in that crisis and their development is a story of efforts to evade and tame historical transformation in the interest of exceptionalist ideals.

    How can the historical changes and upheaval coming via the Civil War and American industrialization be reconciled with the US as the shining light to the world? To this day this question drives American social scientists, including economists. All the American social sciences claim an answer via one theory or another. Sociology in structural-functionalism, Political science in various forms of behaviorism. And, economics of course in marginalism and rational choice. Recently, each of these theories has begun to crack. Now multiple theories compete in sociology and political science. Economics’ is changing also. Perhaps a bit slower than the others. We don’t yet have a clear picture of the new theories in economics. But they’re on the way. Let’s not single out economics as an exceptional or unusual case here. It is generally following the same path as the other American social sciences. In 20 years, it will look very different than it does today.

    • February 19, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      Dear Ken,
      In sociology theories are complementary rather than competing. More important, in contrast to mainstream economics most sociological research is conducted using relatively sound, empirically based methods rather than mathematical modelling based on wholly unrealistic assumptions.
      On the other hand, there are few signs of mainstream economics not budging, whereas even critics of the mainstream continue to be infatuated with and therefore use modelling. Modelling, in turn, is unavoidably linked to unrealistic assumptions, due to the need to simplify reality to make the models work. That leads to comparably distorted images of reality, misinterpretation and faulty predictions as those of mainstream economics.
      Most important, the influence of economics on policy an thereby, how we address our societal challenges is immeasurably greater than that of any other social science. In consequence, the harm caused by the faults of economics is immeasurably greater. For the further elaboration of this point of view I’ll have the temerity to refer once more to my critique of economics Crisis, Economics, and the Emperor’s Clothes (2012), a free download from http://www.new-economics.info. Hope you’ll take a look.

      • February 20, 2017 at 10:19 am

        Frans, economists crave perfection. A perfect economy is without flaws and always leads to the the best of all possible worlds. Economists are charged with and know how to create these. At least, that’s what economists tell everyone. Everything is just decoration after this. Only supposedly unquestionable, absolutely true and universal assumptions fit with a perfect, flaw free economy. At that point empirical observation and learning from experience go out the window. Real people’s lives and concerns also go out the window. Economics becomes the search for a delusion.

        Sociology and the other social sciences are not as delusional an economics. But most still are to an extent. Sociology, for example was dominated by one theory – structural-functionalism (SF) – from the second world war till the 1970s. SF is a conservative theory, assuming the stability of societies through the common structures that fulfill common functions, thus maintaining societal equilibrium and continuation. SF really can’t handle change or uncertainty well. And falls apart in the face of things like social movements and intentional social disruptions about such things as civil rights and inequality. Just as the political structure of the US was shifting to the right SF fell apart in the 1980s. Now there is no dominant single theory in sociology. One of the reasons perhaps that sociology’s work has so little influence outside academia. But even with its mixed up theoretical arrangements sociology is generally more realistic than economics in its assessment of society and recommendations for dealing with social concerns.

        I read your book. The points it makes are all important. The treatment of science is somewhat simplistic and misdirected. But that’s the case with most treatments of science, even sometimes by scientists.

      • February 20, 2017 at 6:13 pm

        Are you aware that your link http://www.new-economics.info is no longer working? I seem also to be unable to re-open my download.

      • February 20, 2017 at 7:27 pm

        Hi Larry,
        No, was not aware the link isn’t working. I’ll try and fix asap. Apologies. Re. the download, wouldn’t know why you would not be able to open it a second time, unless the file got damaged somehow between the first and the second attempt to open. Best may be to try and download again when the site is accesible again. Again, apologies, will inform when things are working again.
        Frans

  7. Neville
    February 16, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    Absolutely correct. It will be advantageous for all to read Steve Keens books; Debunking economics and; A new economics for the post crisis world.

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