from Lars Syll
Economic theory, like anthropology, ‘works’ by studying societies which are in some relevant sense simpler or more primitive than our own, in the hope either that relations that are important but hidden in our society will be laid bare in simpler ones, or that concrete evidence can be discovered for possibilities which are open to us which are without precedent in our own history.
Unlike anthropologists, however, economists simply invent the primitive societies we study, a practice which frees us from limiting ourselves to societies which can be physically visited as sparing us the discomforts of long stays among savages. This method of society-invention is the source of the utopian character of economics; and of the mix of distrust and envy with which we are viewed by our fellow social scientists. The point of studying wholly fictional, rather than actual societies, is that it is relatively inexpensive to subject them to external forces of various types and observe the way they react. If, subjected to forces similar to those acting on actual societies, the artificial society reacts in a similar way, we gain confidence that there are useable connections between the invented society and the one we really care about.
Although neither yours truly, nor anthropologists (I guess), will recognise anything in this description even remotely reminiscent of practices actually used in real sciences, this quote still gives a very good picture of Lucas’ warped methodology.
from Asad Zaman
A driving spirit of the modern age is the desire to banish all speculation about things beyond the physical and observable realms of our existence. This spirit was well expressed by one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, who called for burning all books which did not deal with the observable and quantifiable phenomena: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
This is a breathtakingly bold assertion. The literate reader may examine his or her bookshelf to see what little, if anything, would survive after applying Hume’s prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit of the secular age was very much in tune with Hume, and relegated vast areas of human knowledge captured in literature, history, and the arts, to second-class citizenship. The modern world has been shaped by this downgrading of the spiritual, intuitive, and mystical, and the elevation of the rational as supreme judge and arbiter over all other faculties.
The leaders of the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the sole criterion for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This has led to a dualism which has become firmly embedded in the foundations of Western thought, and has created a social science incapable of perceiving, let alone solving the problems currently being faced by humanity as a whole. Western hegemony has led to the global and widespread acceptance of this dualism, clearly expressed by Hume, in embracing the quantitative and passionately and violently rejecting the qualitative. Exploring the full range of difficulties caused by this dualism would take several books. In this essay we consider just one of the salient problems. Harvard Professor Julie Reuben expressed it as follows: “Truth was (a united whole) embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive knowledge. By the 1930’s, this unity was shattered; factual cognitive knowledge (was separated from) moral/spiritual knowledge.” read more
from Grazia Ietto-Gillies
The business media is awash with news about transnational companies (TNCs) be they in the services or manufacturing or agriculture sector. The news may refer to performance or strategies or plans for real investment (or the lack of them) or takeovers. There is currently also considerable interest in their tax minimization strategies.
Yet economics textbooks and courses are still shying away from this most relevant part of our contemporary economies. This is true of both orthodox/neoclassical approaches and – I regret to say – of alternative ones as a quick analysis of textbooks recommended in the WEA Pedagogy page shows.
It could be argued that the nationality of the investor, employer, or producer does not matter: a firm is a firm and the task of economics is to study it independently of where it invests or its nationality. I have argued (Ietto-Gillies, 2004 and 2012: introduction and Ch. 14) that the existence of nation-states with their different regulatory regimes makes a specific study of the TNC necessary. The regulatory regimes refer to taxation or labour and social security or currencies or environmental laws. The differences in regulatory regimes across different countries generate opportunities for alternative, profitable strategies for firms able to operate across national frontiers. Such operations allow the TNC to take advantage of different fiscal, currency or labour and social security or environmental regulations. Most relevant, transnationality increases the bargaining power of TNCs over labour as we see on an almost daily basis throughout the world. On the fiscal side the advantages that TNCs derive from their tax minimization strategies are partly linked to strategic location of their headquarters in tax-friendly countries and partly to the widely used manipulation of transfer prices (Eden, 2001; OECD, 2010). read more
from Lars Syll
Paul Krugman has in numerous posts on his blog tried to defend “the whole enterprise of Keynes/Hicks macroeconomic theory” and especially his own somewhat idiosyncratic version of IS-LM.
The main problem is simpliciter that there is no such thing as a Keynes-Hicks macroeconomic theory!
So, let us get some things straight.
There is nothing in the post-General Theory writings of Keynes that suggests him considering Hicks’s IS-LM anywhere near a faithful rendering of his thought. In Keynes’s canonical statement of the essence of his theory in the 1937 QJE-article there is nothing to even suggest that Keynes would have thought the existence of a Keynes-Hicks-IS-LM-theory anything but pure nonsense. So of course there can’t be any “vindication for the whole enterprise of Keynes/Hicks macroeconomic theory” – simply because “Keynes/Hicks” never existed.
And it gets even worse!
John Hicks, the man who invented IS-LM in his 1937 Econometrica review of Keynes’ General Theory – ‘Mr. Keynes and the ‘Classics’. A Suggested Interpretation’ – returned to it in an article in 1980 – ‘IS-LM: an explanation’ – in Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Self-critically he wrote: Read more…
from Lars Syll
Responding to the critique of his Bloomberg View post on heterodox economics and its alleged anti-math position, Noah Smith approvingly cites Steve Keen telling us there is
a wing of heterodox economics that is anti-mathematical. Known as “Critical Realism” and centred on the work of Tony Lawson at Cambridge UK, it attributes the failings of economics to the use of mathematics itself…
Although yours truly appreciate much of Steve Keen’s debunking of mainstream economics, onthis issue he is, however, just plain wrong! For a more truthful characterization of Tony Lawson’s position, here’s what Axel Leijonhufvud has to say: Read more…
from Maria Alejandra Madi
The Call for papers for the current conference Food and Justice is now open.
We invite you to submit a paper to email@example.com by 15th September, 2016.
A paperback, Food and Justice, of conference papers will be published by WEA Books in the new year.
Visit the Conference website http://foodandjustice2016.weaconferences.net/
Food production has always been present in the economic debate because of the concern about population growth and demographic changes. In spite of the Malthusian concern, new methods of food production have emerged which allowed the increase in food supply. Technological changes, however, have not occurred uniformly throughout the world. Indeed, some countries have managed to expand their production and trade surpluses while situations of hunger remained a reality in many parts of the world.
In addition to technological factors in food production, other political and economic issues are involved in the access to food. In the 21st century, the scenario of changes in food production means that even with a larger supply of food, many people, mainly the poor ones, still live in a situation of starvation. In addition to the challenges in food access, other relevant issue is food waste. Actually, a large percentage of the world food production is lost throughout the different stages of production, transportation, processing and consumption. Indeed, among the current concerns, there is the need to search for actions that can reduce the food losses that could face the situation of hunger of millions of people.
from Lars Syll
In producing theories couched in terms of isolated atoms that are quite at odds with social reality, modellers are actually compelled to make substantive claims that are wildly unrealistic. And because social reality does not conform to systems of isolated atoms, there is no guarantee that event regularities of the sort pursued will occur. Indeed, they are found not to …
Friedman enters this scene arguing that all we need to do is predict successfully, that this can be done even without realistic theories, and that unrealistic theories are to be preferred to realistic ones, essentially because they can usually be more parsimonious.
The first thing to note about this response is that Friedman is attempting to turn inevitable failure into a virtue. In the context of economic modelling, the need to produce formulations in terms of systems of isolated atoms, where these are not characteristic of social reality, means that unrealistic formulations are more or less unavoidable. Arguing that they are to be preferred to realistic ones in this context belies the fact that there is not a choice.
What amazed me about the initial responses to Friedman by numerous philosophers and others is that they mostly took the form: prediction is not enough, we need explanation too. Rarely, if ever, was it pointed out that because the social world is open, we cannot have successful prediction anyway.
So my own response to Friedman’s intervention is that it was mostly an irrelevancy, but one that has been opportunistically grasped by some as a supposed defence of the profusion of unrealistic assumptions in economics. This would work if successful prediction were possible. But usually it is not.
from Maria Alejandra Madi
The global scenario has restated the menace of deep depressions among the economic challenges. Indeed, in the current setting, the principles of corporate behaviour have reinforced the lack of commitment to long-run social and economic sustainability.
Looking backward, in the context of the 1930 Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that the evolution of capital markets increases the risk of speculation and instability since these markets are mostly based upon conventions whose precariousness affects the rhythm of investment and employment. Keynes called attention to the fact that the capitalist system has endogenous mechanisms capable of destabilizing the levels of spending, income and employment. He suggested a reconsideration of the understanding of the relations among individuals, society and governments within the market where institutions and conventions could shape human behaviour. Aware of the need to overcome the concept of rationality that overwhelms the homo oeconomicus, his contribution enhances a more extended understanding of the entrepreneurs’ and investors’ behaviour, as well as of their strategies and decisions. read more
from Lars Syll
Yours truly is far from being alone in criticising Noah Smith’s article on heterodox economics and mathematics (on which I commented yesterday). Tom Palley writes:
(1) Pretty much everything Smith charges heterodox economics with can be said about orthodox economics. That’s OK, but in that case we should open the classroom and op-ed pages to a variety of points of view and abandon the neoclassical monopoly.
(2) Smith’s views on mathematical models come close to fetishism. Models have use value but they do not define economics (think of a paper with just math and no words vs. a paper with just words), and models are easily pushed into the realm of “negative” marginal returns.
Furthermore, Smith appears ignorant of the fact that mathematical modelling is very widespread in heterodox economics.
(3) Smith’s comments about predicting the crisis are facile. It’s not about predicting “dates”, but about having a sense of imminent developments and a sense of the deep-seated nature of the problems (i.e. demand shortage, income inequality, financial fragility, and tendency to stagnation). If orthodoxy had anticipated a fraction of what heterodoxy has, it would be trumpeting its achievements.
(4) In sum, this is an ill-informed article that aims to defend the economics status quo with unwarranted claims about the weaknesses of heterodox economics and strengths of orthodox economics.
from Lars Syll
There’s no question that mainstream academic macroeconomics failed pretty spectacularly in 2008 …
Many among the heterodox would have us believe that their paradigm worked perfectly well in 2008 and after … This is dramatically overselling the product. First, heterodox models didn’t “predict” the crisis in the sense of an actual quantitative forecast.
This is because much of heterodox theory is non-quantitative. Basically, people write down English words explaining their conceptual ideas about how the economy works. This describes the ideas of mid-20th-century economist Hyman Minsky, who wrote books and essays about the instability of the financial system. Minsky, though trained in math, chose not to use equations to model the economy — instead, he sketched broad ideas in plain English …
At the end of the day, policymakers and investors need to make quantitative decisions — how much to raise or lower interest rates, how big of a deficit to run, or how much wealth to allocate to Treasury bonds.
Noah Smith — like so many other mainstream economists — obviously has the unfounded and ridiculous idea that because heterodox people like yours truly, Hyman Minsky, Steve Keen, or Tony Lawson, often criticize the application of mathematics in mainstream economics, we are critical of math. Read more…
from Robert Locke
In the Collapse of the American Management Mystique, Oxford UP 1996, I wrote about the rapid decline in American staple industries, “in automobiles and in the related industries of steel, glass, and tires. The total number of workers in the automobile industry declined from 802,800 in December 1978 to 478,000 in January 1983. By 1980 Japan had become the world’s major automobile producing nation. As Japanese replaced American, American automakers world market share decline from 27.9 percent in 1970 to 19 percent in 1982. That’s a crisis. The story in steel was even worse. In 1982 eighteen major steel companies recorded a combined loss in that year of $3.2 billion. American steel was an industry in crisis. Half of the routine steelmakers jobs vanished between 1977 and 1988 (from 489,000 to 260,000.) To these horror stories could be added many others about American failure in mass-production industries – transistor radios , cameras, binoculars, sewing machines, color televisions, VCRs, CD compact discs, as well as in glass and tire manufacturing…..” p.160
I just heard Donald Trump, in his speech about economic policy, blame Hillary Clinton for creating this crisis, with nary a word of clarification raised by commentators on his speech about the fact that this collapse in Detroit and elsewhere had nothing to do with the Clintons. It occurred during Ronald Reagan’s watch. Read more…
from Lars Syll
Obscurantism is sustained by the self-interest of non-obscurantist scholars. To be effective, an attack on obscurantism has to be well documented and well argued. Mere diatribes are pointless and sometimes counterproductive. Yet scholars have a greater personal interest in achieving positive results than in exposing the flaws of others, not only because of the reward system of science, but also because achieving positive results is intrinsically more satisfying. On grounds of self-interest, therefore, many schoars will hesitate to take time off from their main work and hope that someone else will do the cleaning … The highly regarded economist Ariel Rubinstein has offered rare insider criticism of mainstream economics, commenting, for example, on a ‘as-if-rationality’ that “it ultimately became clear that the phrase ‘as if’ is a way to avoid taking responsibility for the strong assumptions upon which economic models are founded” …
When Joseph Stiglitz was asked at a private dinner party how economists can make repeated falsified claims without having their careers terminated, he reportedly answered: “I agree with you, but I don’t understand why you are so puzzled. What you should be assuming is that — as is done by most economists — economics is really a religion. So why should you be puzzled by the fact that they cling to and never give up their views despite frequent falsification?”
from Lars Syll
We have indeed come round in a circle. The whole vision of the working of the macrosystem presented, in terms of the AD/AS model, by far too many contemporary textbooks, is essentially pre-Keynesian. Monetary spending may fluctuate, but whether or not such fluctuations affect employment and output is said to depend on reactions affecting real wages. Slow adjustment of money wages to price changes is held to account for cyclical variations in employment and output. With respect to the longer term, it is presumed that real wages return to their proper full-employment level …
As regards the fundamental elements of the Keynes conception … all have disappeared.
How have we got into this situation? In the 1970s, reflecting a general change in the political and intellectual climate, economic theorists and commentators of a right-wing, free-market persuasion began to advance, with renewed vigour, old ideas which had for the last few decades been put to the side. Under novel labels such as ‘New Classical’ and ‘New Keynesian’ theory, explanations of unemployment being simply of a voluntary or merely frictional character were reasserted, attracted sympathetic listeners and soon found their way into the burgeoning crop of macro textbooks coming on the market. Over the years distinctive features of the Keynes theory – such as the concepts of involuntary unemployment, of the marginal efficiency of capital as distinct from the marginal productivity of capital, of uncertainty as something different from mathematically measurable risk, and the understanding that the macro economy contained within itself, even in the long run, no reliable self-righting mechanism to guarantee the automatic establishment of full employment – tended to slip out of the mainstream picture. Indeed, more than that: the Keynes theory is frequently misrepresented – it is typically asserted that an assumption of wage-stickiness is the critical factor differentiating the Keynes theory from the classical theory. Scholars who should have known better have been all too ready to adopt the old classical labour market theory of unemployment as embodied in the AS curve, apparently seeing the AD/AS model as a convenient and acceptable device for allowing analysis to be extended beyond the fix-price world of IS/LM. The upshot is that mainstream teaching of macroeconomic theory is today typically propounding a view of the working of the economy which is a very long way from the vision presented in the General Theory or from the conventional wisdom of the immediate post-war years, but strikingly similar to views current long ago, before the ‘Keynesian Revolution’. It is not going too far to say that the practical common-sense of the Keynesian perspective has (at least in some not un-influential quarters) been replaced by irrelevance and fantasy.
from Mouvement des étudiants pour la réforme de l’enseignement en économie (MEPREE) France and RWER #75
The basic background ideology: free individuals, free markets and “invisible hand”
The e-Book overtly proclaims that it adheres to “methodological individualism”. That is, individuals are society’s point of departure. They are “free to choose”, between consumption and leisure for “Angela the farmer” and “Mary the employee”, e-Book’s typical consumer, and between leisure and school-grades for “student Alexei”, e-Book’s typical producer.
They are selfish, at least as a first approximation, but happily there is the “invisible hand”. The e-Book, as almost all textbooks do, quotes Adam Smith:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote, adding that each would be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” (Unit 1 page 7, our italics).
and, like other textbooks, forgets to tell the readers that several hundred pages separate the first phrase from the second – the first is in chapter 2 book I, the second in chapter 2 book IV. Only ideology – or ignorance? – can explain the fact that Smith’s two phrases are artificially linked by the expression “adding that”.
Like other textbooks, the e-Book expresses its admiration for the way prices, “governed by supply and demand”, coordinate the choices of “millions of people”:
“The amazing thing about prices determined by markets is that individuals do not send the messages; they result from the anonymous interaction of sometimes millions of people, governed by supply and demand. And when conditions change — a cheaper way of producing bread, for example — nobody has to change the message (“put bread instead of potatoes on the table tonight”). A price change results from a change in firms’ costs. The reduced price of bread says it all” (Unit 8.0, our italics).
The “invisible hand” again… Read more…
from Lars Syll
New Keynesian’ macroeconomist Simon Wren-Lewis has a post on his blog discussing how evidence is treated in modern macroeconomics (emphasis added):
It is hard to get academic macroeconomists trained since the 1980s to address this question, because they have been taught that these models and techniques are fatally flawed because of the Lucas critique and identification problems. But DSGE models as a guide for policy are also fatally flawed because they are too simple. The unique property that DSGE models have is internal consistency. Take a DSGE model, and alter a few equations so that they fit the data much better, and you have what could be called a structural econometric model. It is internally inconsistent, but because it fits the data better it may be a better guide for policy.
Being able to model a credible world, a world that somehow could be considered real or similar to the real world, is not the same as investigating the real world. Even though all theories are false, since they simplify, they may still possibly serve our pursuit of truth. But then they cannot be unrealistic or false in any way. The falsehood or unrealisticness has to be qualified (in terms of resemblance, relevance, etc.). At the very least, the minimalist demand on models in terms of credibility has to give away to a stronger epistemic demand of appropriate similarity and plausibility. One could of course also ask for a sensitivity or robustness analysis, but the credible world, even after having tested it for sensitivity and robustness, can still be a far way from reality – and unfortunately often in ways we know are important. Robustness of claims in a model does not per se give a warrant for exporting the claims to real world target systems. Read more…
from Mouvement des étudiants pour la réforme de l’enseignement en économie (MEPREE) France and RWER #75
“Students in economics all over the world were asking, just as I had asked a few years previously: why has the subject of economics become detached from our experience of real life?” (Camila Cea, Member of the CORE project, University of Chile.)
The CORE project is a response to students’ protests against teaching in economics. It wants “to make economics accessible and relevant to today’s problems”. Sadly, it doesn’t distinguish itself from usual (mainstream) “projects” as regards to ideology and basic theory. As a consequence, the CORE project e-Book doesn’t escape textbooks’ absurdities. We pinpoint five of them and we wonder if the book would still be viable if all these absurdities were eliminated.
The point of departure of the so-called “French students movement” against teaching in economics was their desire to “escape from imaginary worlds”, especially in microeconomics. The “post-autistic economics movement” emerged on the same ideas all over the world. Since then, student protests in economics surge regularly (Pepséconomie, Harvard, Manchester…). They were boosted by the 2008 crisis, but also by the rise of inequality and of precarious jobs, especially for young people.
Much of social science has come to rely on a set of analytical approaches intended to identify specific influences within a range of confounding factors. The object of analysis is to separate the strands, to distinguish different influences, to attribute influence to particular variables. This has to be done in the face of multiple, competing influences.
As a discipline, economics goes about this in different ways. The traditional approach of classical economics is theoretical and deductive. Economic reasoning typically depends on theorisation about patterns of behaviour, subject to the assumption that ‘other things are equal’. A range of models have been developed as a potential guide to analysis. Once the initial outline of a model has been determined, it is then possible successively to test the assumptions to see what the implications are of each further variable. This is the approach of much of what is done in microeconomic theory, including models of the actions of rational consumers or the behaviour of producers. Friedman argued that the test of theory was instrumental:
“Viewed as a body of substantive hypotheses, theory is to be judged by its predictive power for the class of phenomena which it is intended to ‘explain’…. To be important… a hypothesis must be descriptively false in its assumptions… the relevant question to ask about the ‘assumptions’ of a theory is not whether they are descriptively ‘realistic’, for they never are, but whether they are sufficiently good approximations for the purpose in hand” (Friedman, 1953, pp. 8, 14). Read more…
from Lars Syll
Noah Smith has an article up on Bloomberg View on Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis (PIH). Noah argues that almost all modern macroeconomic theories are based on PIH, especially used in formulating the consumption Euler equations that make up a vital part of ‘modern’ New Classical and New Keynesian macro models.
So, what’s the problem? Well, only that PIH according to Smith is ‘most certainly wrong.’
Chris Dillow has commented on Noah’s PIH critique, arguing that although Noah is right
he overstates the newness of the evidence against the PIH. In fact, we’ve known it was flawed ever since the early 80s. He also overstates the PIH’s intellectual hegemony. The standard UK undergraduate textbook says:
“One strong prediction of the simple PIH model … is that changes in income that are predictable from past information should have no effect on current consumption. But there is by now a considerable body of work on aggregate consumption data that suggests this is wrong…This is an important result for economic policy because it suggests that changes in income as a result, say, of tax changes can have a marked effect on consumption and hence on economic activity.” (Carlin and Soskice, Macroeconomics: Imperfections, Institutions and Policies, p 221-22)”
Dillow then goes on arguing that PIH is not always wrong, that it is useful, and that it is basically all about ‘context’ and that this reinforces what Dani Rodrik has written in Economics Rules (p 5-6) : Read more…
from Jayati Ghosh
Even before the results of the UK referendum, the European Union was facing a crisis of popular legitimacy. The result, especially in England and Wales, was certainly driven by the fear of more immigration, irresponsibly whipped up by xenophobic right-wing leaders who now appear uncertain themselves of what to do with the outcome. But it was as much a cry of pain and protest from working communities that have been damaged and hollowed out by three decades of neoliberal economic policies. And this is why the concerns of greater popular resonance across other countries in the EU – and the idea that this could simply be the first domino to fall–are absolutely valid. So the bloc as a whole now faces an existential crisis of an entirely different order, and its survival hinges on how its rulers choose to confront it.
A little history is in order first. The formation of the union itself, from its genesis in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, was as much a result of geopolitical pressure from the US as it was of the grand visions of those who led it. The six founding countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) built on the hope of the European Coal and Steel Community that was established in 1950, that greater economic relations would secure lasting peace and prosperity. Somewhat ironically, they were egged on by the United States, which in the post Second World War period not only provided huge amounts of Marshall Plan aid to western Europe, but urged the reduction of trade barriers between them to encourage more intra-regional economic activity and provide an effective counter to eastern Europe during the Cold War. Read more…