Home > Uncategorized > Wren-Lewis — the flimflam anti-pluralist

Wren-Lewis — the flimflam anti-pluralist

from Lars Syll

Again and again, Oxford professor Simon Wren-Lewis rides out to defend orthodox macroeconomic theory against attacks from heterodox critics. In one of his latest attacks on heterodox economics and students demanding pluralist economics education he writes:

mainstreampluralismThe danger in encouraging plurality is that you make it much easier for politicians to select the advice they like, because there is almost certain to be a school of thought that gives the ‘right’ answers from the politicians point of view. The point is obvious once you make the comparison to medicine. Don’t like the idea of vaccination? Pick an expert from the anti-vaccination medical school. The lesson of the last seven years, in the UK in particular, is that we want mainstream economists to have more influence on politicians and the public, and not to dilute this influence through a plurality of schools of thought.

And  a couple of years ago he wrote the following:  

Attacks [against mainstream economics] are far from progressive.

Devoting a lot of time to exposing students to contrasting economic frameworks (feminist, Austrian, post-Keynesian) to give them a range of ways to think about the economy, as suggested here, means cutting time spent on learning the essential tools that any economist needs … Economics is a vocational subject, not a liberal arts subject …

This is the mistake that progressives make. They think that by challenging mainstream economics they will somehow make the economic arguments for regressive policies go away. They will not go away. Instead all you have done is thrown away the chance of challenging those arguments on their own ground, using the strength of an objective empirical science …

Replacing [mainstream economics] with schools of thought is not the progressive endeavor that some believe. It would just give you more idiotic policies …

Mainstream economics is depicted by Wren-Lewis as nothing but “essential tools that any economist needs.” Not a theory among other competing theories. Not a “separate school of thoughts,” but an “objective empirical science” capable of producing “knowledge.”

I’ll be dipped!


Validly deducing things from patently unreal assumptions — that we all know are purely fictional — makes most of the modelling​ exercises pursued by mainstream macroeconomists rather pointless. It’s simply not the stuff that real understanding and explanation in science is made of. Had mainstream economists like Wren-Lewis not been so in love with their models, they would have perceived this too. Telling us that the plethora of models that make up modern macroeconomics are not right or wrong, but just more or less applicable to different situations, is nothing short of hand waving.

Wren-Lewis seems to have no problem with the lack of fundamental diversity — not just path-dependent elaborations of the mainstream canon — and vanishingly little real-world relevance that characterize modern mainstream macroeconomics. And he obviously shares the view that there is nothing basically wrong with ‘standard theory.’ As long as policymakers​ and economists stick to ‘standard economic analysis’ everything is just fine. Economics is just a common language and method that makes us think straight,  reach correct answers, and produce ‘knowledge.’

Contrary to what Wren-Lewis seems to argue, I would say the recent economic and financial crises and the fact that mainstream economics has had next to nothing to contribute in understanding them, shows that mainstream economics is in dire need of replacement.

No matter how precise and rigorous the analysis is, and no matter how hard one tries to cast the argument in modern ‘the model is the message’ form, mainstream economists like Wren-Lewis do not push economic science forwards one millimetre​ since they simply do not stand the acid test of relevance to the target. No matter how clear, precise, rigorous or certain the inferences delivered inside their models are, that is no guarantee whatsoever they have anything interesting or relevant to say about real-world economies.

  1. Helen Sakho
    October 30, 2018 at 12:43 am

    Thank you. This really does make perfect sense.

  2. Ron Goldring
    October 30, 2018 at 7:51 am

    Some questions to proponents of “Standard Economics”:
    * How does standard economic analysis address inequality? Is there any theory and policy suggestions to mitigate it?
    * How does standard economic analysis view the use of GDP growth as policy goal, even as it is not related to the welfare of the population? Even though it does not account for the huge effort exerted by women at home, for which they get no money and thus it is not tracked by national accounting?
    * How does standard economics view the “Winner takes all” economy due to network effects? Does it offer any mitigating policy for the benefit of the non-winner majority?
    * How does it view the need for both money and time by people, in order to allow getting personal services?
    * How does it view the relationship between economic analysis and sustainability?
    * How does it account for values, that are subjective by definition?

  3. patrick newman
    October 30, 2018 at 10:47 am

    SW-L’s thinking is reminiscent of religious thinking – there is only one God and followers must worship no other!

  4. October 30, 2018 at 11:59 am

    I’m going to defend Wren-Lewis’s case for not giving bent politicians a menu of convenient excuses, but argue that he is pitching it at the wrong level in respect of both science and economics: in terms of rival models rather than rival paradigms.

    The rival paradigm for science is based on an evolutionary version of Lawson’s ontology (what things are and do) rather than Hume’s epistemology (how we know about them). For economics, the paradigmatic choice is between communications [information] science and physical [force and power] science: the former of these including the latter.. Communication systems enable truth/reliability to be maintained by eliminating error; physical systems have to use countervailing forces tailored in every case to particular situations, for when the context of countervailing forces varies “one size does not fit all”.

  5. Edward K ross
    October 30, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    Dear Dave, I really appreciate your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ted the simple country boy at heart.

  6. Helen Sakho
    November 4, 2018 at 12:10 am

    On this particular occasion I stand with Ron.

  7. November 11, 2018 at 9:03 am

    It is impossible for humans to know anything beyond their own experiences. Their own communal experiences. It is with these humans create their cultures to provide themselves homes and whatever level of confidence that goes with these. Of course, this means both experience and culture are unclear, just out of focus, and never completed. We use the terms complex or chaotic to describe this situation. Models (scientific, artistic, religious, etc.) constructed by such creatures as humans are thus situational and as a result ambiguous from one situation to another. So, we humans need multiple models for each endeavor, just to survive. As with all that humans do, multiple models are practical. Useful for humans. Wren-Lewis is apparently a simplistic man who creates simplistic theories.

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