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The benefits of free trade — a fallacy based on a fantasy

April 29, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Plenty of people will try to convince you that globalization and free trade could benefit everyone, if only the gains were more fairly shared …

trade-copyThis belief is shared by almost all politicians … and it’s an article of faith for the economics profession.

You are right to reject it …

It’s a fallacy based on a fantasy, and it has been ever since David Ricardo dreamed up the idea of “Comparative Advantage and the Gains from Trade” two centuries ago. The best way to prove that is to apply real-world scepticism to the original argument in favour of free trade …

Ricardo’s model assumed that you could produce wine or cloth with only labour, but of course you can’t. You need machines as well, and machinery is specific to each industry. The essential machinery for making wine can’t be used to make anything else, if its use becomes unprofitable. It is either scrapped, sold at a large loss, or shipped overseas. Ditto a spinning jenny, or a steel mill: if making steel becomes unprofitable, the capital involved in its production is effectively destroyed …

Ricardo’s little shell and pea trick is therefore like most conventional economic theory: it’s neat, plausible, and wrong. It’s the product of armchair thinking by people who never put foot in the factories that their economic theories turned into rust buckets.  Steve Keen

As always with Keen — thought-provoking and interesting. But I think he misses the most powerful argument against the Ricardian paradigm — what counts to day is not comparative advantage, but absolute advantage.   Read more…

Keynes on ‘money neutrality’ and the ‘classical dichotomy’

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Paul Krugman has repeatedly over the years argued that we should continue to use neoclassical hobby horses like IS-LM and AS-AD models. Here’s one example:

So why do AS-AD? … We do want, somewhere along the way, to get across the notion of the self-correcting economy, the notion that in the long run, we may all be dead, but that we also have a tendency to return to full employment via price flexibility. Or to put it differently, you do want somehow to make clear the notion (which even fairly Keynesian guys like me share) that money is neutral in the long run.

I seriously doubt that Keynes would have been impressed by having his theory being characterized with catchwords like “tendency to return to full employment” and “money is neutral in the long run.”

alfa

One of Keynes’s central tenets — in clear contradistinction to the beliefs of mainstream neoclassical economists — is that there is no strong automatic tendency for economies to move toward full employment levels in monetary economies.

Money doesn’t matter in mainstream neoclassical macroeconomic models. That’s true. According to the ‘classical dichotomy,’ real variables — output and employment — are independent of monetary variables, and so enables mainstream economics to depict the economy as basically a barter system.

But in the real world in which we happen to live, money certainly does matter. Money is not neutral and money matters in both the short run and the long run:

The theory which I desiderate would deal … with an economy in which money plays a part of its own and affects motives and decisions, and is, in short, one of the operative factors in the situation, so that the course of events cannot be predicted in either the long period or in the short, without a knowledge of the behaviour of money between the first state and the last. And it is this which we ought to mean when we speak of a monetary economy.

J. M. Keynes A monetary theory of production (1933)

Ditch physics envy!

20 April, 2017 at 19:31 | Posted in Economics | 9 Comments

physics_envy_poster-r91c03c52279340a8b709c2a9f850372f_wad_210In the 1870s, a handful of aspiring economists hoped to make economics a science as reputable as physics. Awed by Newton’s insights on the physical laws of motion – laws that so elegantly describe the trajectory of falling apples and orbiting moons – they sought to create an economic theory that matched his legacy. And so pioneering economists such as William Stanley Jevons and Léon Walras drew their diagrams in clear imitation of Newton’s style and, inspired by the way that gravity pulls a falling object to rest, wrote enthusiastically of the role played by market forces and mechanisms in pulling an economy into equilibrium.

People and money are not so obedient as gravity, as it turns out, so no such laws exist.

Their mechanical metaphor sounds authoritative, but it was ill-chosen from the start – a fact that has been widely acknowledged since the astonishing fragility and contagion of global financial markets was exposed by the 2008 crash.

The most pernicious legacy of this fake physics has been to entice generations of economists into a misguided search for economic laws of motion that dictate the path of development. People and money are not as obedient as gravity, so no such laws exist. Yet their false discoveries have been used to justify growth-first policymaking.

Kate Raworth

John Tavener

19 April, 2017 at 19:03 | Posted in Varia | Leave a comment

David Ricardo and comparative advantage — a bicentennial assessment

19 April, 2017 at 13:50 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments
Two hundred years ago, on 19 April 1817, David Ricardo’s Principles was published. In it he presented a theory that was meant to explain why countries trade and, based on the concept of opportunity cost, how the pattern of export and import is ruled by countries exporting goods in which they have comparative advantage and importing goods in which they have a comparative disadvantage.

Heckscher-Ohlin-HO-Modern-Theory-of-International-TradeAlthough a great accomplishment per se, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, however, didn’t explain why the comparative advantage was the way it was. In the beginning of the 20th century, two Swedish economists — Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin — presented a theory/model/theorem according to which the comparative advantages arose from differences in factor endowments between countries. Countries have a comparative advantages in producing goods that use up production factors that are most abundant in the different countries. Countries would mostly export goods that used the abundant factors of production and import goods that mostly used factors of productions that were scarce.

The Heckscher-Ohlin theorem — as do the elaborations on in it by e.g. Vanek, Stolper and Samuelson — builds on a series of restrictive and unrealistic assumptions. The most critically important — beside the standard market clearing equilibrium assumptions — are

(1) Countries use identical production technologies.

(2) Production takes place with a constant returns to scale technology.

(3) Within countries the factor substitutability is more or less infinite.

(4) Factor-prices are equalised (the Stolper-Samuelson extension of the theorem).

These assumptions are, as almost all empirical testing of the theorem has shown, totally unrealistic. That is, they are empirically false. 

That said, one could indeed wonder why on earth anyone should be interested in applying this theorem to real world situations. As so many other mainstream mathematical models taught to economics students today, this theorem has very little to do  with the real world.

Using false assumptions, mainstream modelers can derive whatever conclusions they want. Wanting to show that ‘free trade is great’ just e.g. assume ‘all economists from Chicago are right’ and ‘all economists from Chicago consider free trade to be great’  The conclusions follows by deduction — but is of course factually totally wrong. Models and theories building on that kind of reasoning is nothing but a pointless waste of time.

What mainstream economics took over from Ricardo was not only the theory of comparative advantage. The whole deductive-axiomatic approach to economics that is still at the core of mainstream methodology was taken over from Ricardo. Nothing has been more detrimental to the development of economics than going down that barren path.

Ricardo shunted the car of economic science on to the wrong track. Mainstream economics is still on that track. It’s high time to get on the right track and make economics a realist and relevant science.

Is having infinitely many models really a sign of progress in economics?

18 April, 2017 at 17:55 | Posted in Economics | 1 Comment
user-guides-5

In Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules it is argud that ‘the multiplicity of models is economics’ strength,’ and that a science that has a different model for everything is non-problematic, since

economic models are cases that come with explicit user’s guides — teaching notes on how to apply them. That’s because they are transparent about their critical assumptions and behavioral mechanisms.

Hmm …

That is at odds with yours truly’s experience from studying mainstream economic models during four decades.

When — just to take an example — criticizing the basic (DSGE) workhorse macroeconomic model for its inability to explain involuntary unemployment, its defenders maintain that later ‘successive approximations’ and elaborations — especially newer search models — manage to do just that. However, one of the more conspicuous problems with those ‘solutions,’ is that they are as a rule constructed without seriously trying to warrant that the model immanent assumptions and results are applicable in the real world. External validity is more or less a non-existent problematique sacrificed on the altar of model derivations. This is not by chance. These theories and models do not come at all with the transparent and ‘explicit user’s guides.’ And there’s a very obvious reason for that. For how could one even imagine to empirically test assumptions such as ‘wages being determined by Nash bargaining’ or ‘actors maximizing expected utility,’ without coming to the conclusion that this is — in terms of realism and relevance — far from ‘good enough’ or ‘close enough’ to real world situations?

Typical mainstream neoclassical modeling assumptions — with or without due pragmatic considerations — can not in any relevant way be considered anything else but imagined model worlds assumptions that has nothing at all to do with the real world we happen to live in.

Here is no real transparency as to the deeper significance and role of the chosen set of axiomatic assumptions.

Here is no explicit user’s guide or indication of how we should be able to, as Rodrik puts it, ‘discriminate’ between the ‘bewildering array of possibilities’ that flow out of such outlandish and known to be false assumptions.

Theoretical models building on piles of known to be false assumptions are in no way close to being scientific explanations. On the contrary. They are untestable and a fortiori totally worthless from the point of view of scientific relevance.

And — as Noah Smith noticed the other day — it certainly isn’t unproblematic to portray having infinitely many models as something laudable:

One thing I still notice about macro … is the continued proliferation of models. Almost every macro paper has a theory section. Because it takes more than one empirical paper to properly test a theory, this means that theories are being created in macro at a far greater rate than they can be tested.

56238100That seems like a problem to me. If you have an infinite collection of models sitting on the shelves, how does theory inform policy? If policy advisers have an endless list of models to choose from, how do they pick which one to use? It seems like a lot of the time it’ll come down to personal preference, intuition, or even ideology …

It seems to me that if you want to make a field truly empirical, you don’t just need to look at data – you need to use data to toss out models, and model elements like the Euler equation … I also think macro people in general could stand to be more proactive about using new data to critically reexamine canonical assumptions … That seems like it’ll raise the chances that the macro consensus gets the next crisis right before it happens, rather than after.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

17 April, 2017 at 23:48 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

C’est vraiment incroyable que l’économie orthodoxe ait toujours négligé The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, un ouvrage fondamental et aussi important dans l’histoire de la pensée économique que General Theory de Keynes.

Cutting wages is no panacea

15 April, 2017 at 12:32 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

wagecutsFalling wages might provide a short-term boost to corporate profits, but the reduced purchasing power of working people would soon cause people to buy less. That is disastrous in advanced capitalist countries, where consumer spending generally accounts for anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product …

Falling wages were a reality during the Great Depression, but that didn’t help matters. By 1933 in the United States, manufacturing wages fell 34 percent and unemployment rose to about 25 percent. The Canadian economy contracted by more than 40 percentand unemployment reached 30 percent in 1933. Collapses in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression.

Moreover, already existing low wages come at a high cost. A 2015 study by the researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that public benefits given to people who have jobs but can’t live on their meager wages cost the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States — more than half of total public-assistance spending by federal and state governments. Wal-Mart alone costs taxpayers an estimated $6 billion per year subsidizing the retailer’s low pay and paltry benefits at the same time it pays out similar amounts in dividends, half of which go to the Walton family.

As all of you doing the jobs of two or three people at your place of employment have undoubtedly noticed, more work is not being rewarded with more pay. The average U.S. household earns about $18,000 less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity gains, and the average Canadian household is short at least $10,000 per year because of pay lagging productivity gains. Workers across Europe, including in Britain, Germany and Spain, have also seen pay lag productivity.

Pete Dolack

Learning to think like an economist

14 April, 2017 at 09:01 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

thinklikemeIt takes some courage, maturity, and perception for the self-discovery that one is engaged in a fraudulent enterprise … Our teachers never talked about ideologies or the larger issues, and seemed content with discussing arcane mathematics — DELIBERATE deception involves knowing the truth and then using lies to hide it.This does not seem to be the modus operandi. Rather, after the initial discomfort of swallowing certain absurd framing ideas wears off, one learns to believe these lies. Much like the experiments with reversing glasses, those who wear them are disoriented at first because the glasses turn the world upside down. However, after a little while the mind adjusts and re-interprets the world so that the upside down image becomes right side up. Then, if they take the glasses off, the world appears upside down. This is what is meant by “learning to think like an economist.”

Asad Zaman

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David Ricardo and comparative advantage — a bicentennial assessment

April 25, 2017 16 comments

from Lars Syll

Two hundred years ago, on 19 April 1817, David Ricardo’s Principles was published. In it he presented a theory that was meant to explain why countries trade and, based on the concept of opportunity cost, how the pattern of export and import is ruled by countries exporting goods in which they have comparative advantage and importing goods in which they have a comparative disadvantage.

Heckscher-Ohlin-HO-Modern-Theory-of-International-TradeAlthough a great accomplishment per se, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, however, didn’t explain why the comparative advantage was the way it was. In the beginning of the 20th century, two Swedish economists — Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin — presented a theory/model/theorem according to which the comparative advantages arose from differences in factor endowments between countries. Countries have a comparative advantages in producing goods that use up production factors that are most abundant in the different countries. Countries would mostly export goods that used the abundant factors of production and import goods that mostly used factors of productions that were scarce.

The Heckscher-Ohlin theorem — as do the elaborations on in it by e.g. Vanek, Stolper and Samuelson — builds on a series of restrictive and unrealistic assumptions. The most critically important — beside the standard market clearing equilibrium assumptions — are  Read more…

Is having infinitely many models really a sign of progress in economics?

April 22, 2017 2 comments

from Lars Syll

user-guides-5

In Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules it is argud that ‘the multiplicity of models is economics’ strength,’ and that a science that has a different model for everything is non-problematic, since

economic models are cases that come with explicit user’s guides — teaching notes on how to apply them. That’s because they are transparent about their critical assumptions and behavioral mechanisms.

Hmm …

That is at odds with yours truly’s experience from studying mainstream economic models during four decades.

When — just to take an example — criticizing the basic (DSGE) workhorse macroeconomic model for its inability to explain involuntary unemployment, its defenders maintain that later ‘successive approximations’ and elaborations — especially newer search models — manage to do just that. However, one of the more conspicuous problems with those ‘solutions,’ is that they are as a rule constructed without seriously trying to warrant that the model immanent assumptions and results are applicable in the real world. External validity is more or less a non-existent problematique sacrificed on the altar of model derivations. This is not by chance. These theories and models do not come at all with the transparent and ‘explicit user’s guides.’ And there’s a very obvious reason for that. For how could one even imagine to empirically test assumptions such as ‘wages being determined by Nash bargaining’ or ‘actors maximizing expected utility,’ without coming to the conclusion that this is — in terms of realism and relevance — far from ‘good enough’ or ‘close enough’ to real world situations?   Read more…

Learning to think like an economist

April 20, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll

thinklikemeIt takes some courage, maturity, and perception for the self-discovery that one is engaged in a fraudulent enterprise … Our teachers never talked about ideologies or the larger issues, and seemed content with discussing arcane mathematics — DELIBERATE deception involves knowing the truth and then using lies to hide it.This does not seem to be the modus operandi. Rather, after the initial discomfort of swallowing certain absurd framing ideas wears off, one learns to believe these lies. Much like the experiments with reversing glasses, those who wear them are disoriented at first because the glasses turn the world upside down. However, after a little while the mind adjusts and re-interprets the world so that the upside down image becomes right side up. Then, if they take the glasses off, the world appears upside down. This is what is meant by “learning to think like an economist.”

Asad Zaman

Mainstream ‘pluralism’

April 18, 2017 5 comments

from Lars Syll

mainstreampluralism

The only economic analysis that mainstream economists accept is the one that takes place within the analytic-formalistic modeling strategy that makes up the core of mainstream economics. All models and theories that do not live up to the precepts of the mainstream methodological canon are pruned. straight-jacketYou’re free to take your models — not using (mathematical) models at all is considered totally unthinkable — and apply them to whatever you want — as long as you do it within the mainstream approach and its modeling strategy.

If you do not follow that particular mathematical-deductive analytical formalism you’re not even considered doing economics. ‘If it isn’t modeled, it isn’t economics.’

That isn’t pluralism.

That’s a methodological reductionist straightjacket.

Economics — an empty and inexact science

April 17, 2017 10 comments

from Lars Syll

Of course economics involves cases where economists appear too reluctant to give up their favoured models. You can find similar stories in the hard sciences. There will be more such stories in economics because the inexact nature of economics makes it easier to discount any single piece of evidence. What I cannot understand is what leads someone … to argue against the use of evidence, and instead that “economics is primarily a way of organizing one’s thinking”. Astrology is also a way of organising one’s thinking, but it fails because evidence does not back it up.

ct7x3eovmaa25klThat comparison is slightly unfair, because while the theory behind astrology is obviously implausible, the basic principles of microeconomics are not. In a class on economic methodology I once drew a huge tree that showed how most of economics could be derived from principles of rational choice. But go beyond the basics, and add in complications involving information and transactions costs (to name but two) and you very quickly derive competing models. There is no single model that comes from thinking like an economist, so for that reason alone we need data to tell us which models are more applicable.

Simon Wren-Lewis

It’s hard not to agree that economics is a very inexact science. But — that’s actually not at all the way its mainstream überpriests present it. Especially not in their textbooks. There economics — the queen of social sciences — is portrayed as a rock-solid science on a par with physics.   Read more…

Yes — there is something really wrong with macroeconomics

April 13, 2017 29 comments

from Lars Syll

One way that macroeconomics stands out from other fields in economics is in how often it produces forecasts. The vast majority of empirical models in economics can be very successful at identifying causal relations or at fitting explaining behavior, but they are never used to provide unconditional forecasts, nor do people expect them to. Macroeconomists, instead, are asked to routinely produce forecasts to guide fiscal and monetary policy, and are perhaps too eager to comply …

sales-forecast-guessing-dart_0Forecasting is hard. Forecasting what people will do when their behavior is affected by many interrelated personal, local, and national variables is even harder. Forecasting when the forecasts cause changes in policy, which make people change their choices, which in turn make it required to revise the forecasts, is iteratively hard. Forecasting when economic agents themselves are forecasting your forecast to anticipate the policies that will be adopted involves strategic thinking and game theory that goes well beyond the standard statistical toolbox …   Read more…

Swedish economics establishment and pluralism in economics

April 11, 2017 3 comments

from Lars Syll

1390045613In the latest issue of Fronesis yours truly and a couple of other academics (e.g. Julie Nelson, Tony Lawson, and Phil Mirowski) made an effort at introducing its readers to heterodox economics and its critique of mainstream economics. Rather unsurprisingly this hasn’t pleased the Swedish economics establishment.

On the mainstream economics blog Ekonomistas, professor Daniel Waldenström today rode out to defend the mainstream with the nowadays standard defense — heterodox critics haven’t understood that mainstream economics today has gone through a pluralist and empirical revolution. Since heterodox critics haven’t noticed that, their views on the mainstream project is more or less irrelevant.

Well, the problem with that defense is that it has pretty little with reality to do.

When mainstream economists today try to give a picture of modern economics as a pluralist enterprise, they silently ‘forget’ to mention that the change and diversity that gets their approval only takes place within the analytic-formalistic modeling strategy that makes up the core of mainstream economics.   You’re free to take your analytical formalist models and apply it to whatever you want — as long as you do it with a modeling methodology that is acceptable to the mainstream. If you do not follow this particular mathematical-deductive analytical formalism you’re not even considered doing economics. If you haven’t modeled your thoughts, you’re not in the economics business. But this isn’t pluralism. It’s a methodological reductionist straightjacket.   Read more…

Lowering wages is not the solution

April 9, 2017 21 comments

from Lars Syll

In connection with being awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel a couple of years ago, Thomas Sargent, in an interview with Swedish Television, declared that workers ought to be prepared for having low unemployment compensations in order to get the right incentives to search for jobs.

This old mercantilist idea has very little support in research, since it has turned out to be exceedingly difficult to really get clear cut results of causality on the issue.

workers-wages-vsMany well-known and influential economists have for decades been writing out the same prescription — lower wages — for solving no matter what problem facing our economies.

As in the 1920s, more and more right-wing politicians — and economists — suggest that lowering wages is the right medicine to strengthen the competitiveness of their faltering economies, get the economy going, increase employment and create growth that will get rid of the towering debts and create balance in the state budgets.

But, intimating that one could solve economic problems by impairing unemployment compensations and wage cuts, in dire times, should really be taken more as a sign of how low the confidence in our economic system has sunk. Wage cuts and lower unemployment compensation levels – of course – do not save neither competitiveness, nor jobs.

What is needed more than anything else in these times is stimulus and economic policies that increase effective demand.  Read more…

Probability and economics

April 4, 2017 4 comments

from Lars Syll

Modern mainstream (neoclassical) economics relies to a large degree on the notion of probability.

To at all be amenable to applied economic analysis, economic observations allegedly have to be conceived as random events that are analyzable within a probabilistic framework.

But is it really necessary to model the economic system as a system where randomness can only be analyzed and understood when based on an a priori notion of probability?

probabilityWhen attempting to convince us of the necessity of founding empirical economic analysis on probability models,  neoclassical economics actually forces us to (implicitly) interpret events as random variables generated by an underlying probability density function.

This is at odds with reality. Randomness obviously is a fact of the real world. Probability, on the other hand, attaches (if at all) to the world via intellectually constructed models, and a fortiori is only a fact of a probability generating (nomological) machine or a well constructed experimental arrangement or ‘chance set-up.’

Just as there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch,’ there is no such thing as a ‘free probability.’

To be able at all to talk about probabilities, you have to specify a model. If there is no chance set-up or model that generates the probabilistic outcomes or events – in statistics one refers to any process where you observe or measure as an experiment (rolling a die) and the results obtained as the outcomes or events (number of points rolled with the die, being e. g. 3 or 5) of the experiment – there strictly seen is no event at all.   Read more…

Mainstream flimflam defender Wren-Lewis gets it wrong — again!

April 2, 2017 3 comments

from Lars Syll

flimflam-2Again and again, Oxford professor Simon Wren-Lewis rides out to defend orthodox macroeconomic theory against attacks from heterodox critics.

A couple of years ago, it was rational expectations, microfoundations, and representative agent modeling he wanted to save.

And now he is back with new flimflamming against heterodox attacks and pluralist demands from economics students all over the world:

Attacks [against mainstream economics] are far from progressive.

[D]evoting 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 … [E]conomics 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 …

Economics, as someone once said, is a separate and inexact science. That it is a science, with a mainstream that has areas of agreement and areas of disagreement, is its strength. It is what allows economists to claim that some things are knowledge, and should be treated as such. Turn it into separate schools of thought, and it degenerates into sets of separate opinions. There is plenty wrong with mainstream economics, but replacing it with schools of thought is not the progressive endeavor that some believe. It would just give you more idiotic policies …

Mainstream economics is here 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!

Reading that kind of nonsense one has to wonder if this guy is for real!   Read more…

Textbooks problem — teaching the wrong things all too well

March 30, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

It is well known that even experienced scientists routinely misinterpret p-values in all sorts of ways, including confusion of statistical and practical significance, treating non-rejection as acceptance of the null hypothesis, and interpreting the p-value as some sort of replication probability or as the posterior probability that the null hypothesis is true …

servicemanIt is shocking that these errors seem so hard-wired into statisticians’ thinking, and this suggests that our profession really needs to look at how it teaches the interpretation of statistical inferences. The problem does not seem just to be technical misunderstandings; rather, statistical analysis is being asked to do something that it simply can’t do, to bring out a signal from any data, no matter how noisy. We suspect that, to make progress in pedagogy, statisticians will have to give up some of the claims we have implicitly been making about the effectiveness of our methods …

It would be nice if the statistics profession was offering a good solution to the significance testing problem and we just needed to convey it more clearly. But, no, … many statisticians misunderstand the core ideas too. It might be a good idea for other reasons to recommend that students take more statistics classes—but this won’t solve the problems if textbooks point in the wrong direction and instructors don’t understand what they are teaching. To put it another way, it’s not that we’re teaching the right thing poorly; unfortunately, we’ve been teaching the wrong thing all too well.

Andrew Gelman & John Carlin

Teaching both statistics and economics, yours truly can’t but notice that the statements “give up some of the claims we have implicitly been making about the effectiveness of our methods” and “it’s not that we’re teaching the right thing poorly; unfortunately, we’ve been teaching the wrong thing all too well” obviously apply not only to statistics …  Read more…

Your model is consistent? So what!

March 26, 2017 8 comments

from Lars Syll

In the realm of science it ought to be considered of little or no value to simply make claims about the model and lose sight of reality.

errorineconomicsThere is a difference between having evidence for some hypothesis and having evidence for the hypothesis relevant for a given purpose. The difference is important because scientific methods tend to be good at addressing hypotheses of a certain kind and not others: scientific methods come with particular applications built into them … The advantage of mathematical modelling is that its method of deriving a result is that of mathemtical prof: the conclusion is guaranteed to hold given the assumptions. However, the evidence generated in this way is valid only in abstract model worlds while we would like to evaluate hypotheses about what happens in economies in the real world … The upshot is that valid evidence does not seem to be enough. What we also need is to evaluate the relevance of the evidence in the context of a given purpose.

Even if some people think that there has been a kind of empirical revolution in economics lately, I would still argue that empirical evidence only plays a minor role in economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence. The one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modeling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics, still roosts the roost.

The man who crushed the mathematical dream

March 24, 2017 28 comments

from Lars Syll

b00dshx3_640_360Gödel’s incompleteness theorems raise important questions about the foundations of mathematics.

The most important concerns the question of how to select the specific systems of axioms that mathematics are supposed to be founded on. Gödel’s theorems irrevocably show that no matter what system is chosen, there will always have to be other axioms to prove previously unproved truths.

This, of course, ought to be of paramount interest for those mainstream economists who still adhere to the dream of constructing a deductive-axiomatic economics with analytic truths that do not require empirical verification. Since Gödel showed that any complex axiomatic system is undecidable and incomplete, any such deductive-axiomatic economics will always consist of some undecidable statements. When not even being able to fulfil the dream of a complete and consistent axiomatic foundation for mathematics, it’s totally incomprehensible that some people still think that could be achieved for economics.

Read more…

Why Krugman and Stiglitz are no real alternatives to mainstream economics

March 20, 2017 9 comments

from Lars Syll

verso_978-1-781683026_never_let_a_serious_crisis__pb_edition__large_300_cmyk-dc185356d27351d710223aefe6ffad0cLittle in the discipline has changed in the wake of the crisis. Mirowski thinks that this is at least in part a result of the impotence of the loyal opposition — those economists such as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman who attempt to oppose the more viciously neoliberal articulations of economic theory from within the camp of neoclassical economics. Though Krugman and Stiglitz have attacked concepts like the efficient markets hypothesis … Mirowski argues that their attempt to do so while retaining the basic theoretical architecture of neoclassicism has rendered them doubly ineffective.

First, their adoption of the battery of assumptions that accompany most neoclassical theorizing — about representative agents, treating information like any other commodity, and so on — make it nearly impossible to conclusively rebut arguments like the efficient markets hypothesis. Instead, they end up tinkering with it, introducing a nuance here or a qualification there … Stiglitz’s and Krugman’s arguments, while receiving circulation through the popular press, utterly fail to transform the discipline.

Paul Heideman

Despite all their radical rhetoric, Krugman and Stiglitz are — where it really counts — nothing but die-hard mainstream neoclassical economists. Just like Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas or Greg Mankiw.

Read more…

Neoliberalism and mainstream economics

March 19, 2017 2 comments

from Lars Syll

Oxford professor Simon Wren-Lewis isn’t pleased with heterodox attacks on mainstream economics. One of the reasons is that he doesn’t share the heterodox view that mainstream economics and neoliberal ideas are highly linked.

In a post on his blog, Wren-Lewis defends the mainstream economics establishment against critique waged against it by Phil Mirowski:

Mirowski overestimates the extent to which neoliberal ideas have become “embedded in economic theory”, and underestimates the power that economic theory and evidence can have over even those academic economists who might have a neoliberal disposition. If the tide of neoliberal thought is going to be turned back, economics is going to be important in making that happen.

Wren-Lewis admits that “Philip Mirowski is a historian who has written a great deal about both the history of economics as a discipline and about neoliberalism” and that Mirowski “knows much more about the history of both subjects than I [W-L] do.”

632488Fair enough, but there are simple remedies for the lack of knowledge.

Read this essay, where yours truly try to further analyze — much inspired by the works of Amartya Sen — what kind of philosophical-ideological-political-economic doctrine neoliberalism is, and why it so often comes natural for mainstream economists to embrace neoliberal ideals.

Or maybe — if your Swedish isn’t too rusty … — you could take part of the book-length argumentation in Den dystra vetenskapen (‘The Dismal Science,’ Atlas 2001) for why there has been such a deep and long-standing connection between the dismal science and different varieties of neoliberalism.

Solving the fundamental problem of decision theory (wonkish)

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

from Lars Syll

Currently the dominant formalism for treating the [general gamble] problem is utility theory. Utility theory was born out of the failure of the following behavioral null model: individuals were assumed to optimize changes in the expectation values of their wealth. We argue that this null model is a priori a bad starting point because the expectation value of wealth does not generally reflect what happens over time. We propose a different null model of human behavior that eliminates, in many cases, the need for utility theory: an individual optimizes what happens to his wealth as time passes …

Our method starts by recognizing the inevitable non- ergodicity of stochastic growth processes, e.g. noisy multiplicative growth. The specific stochastic process implies a set of meaningful observables with ergodic properties, e.g. the exponential growth rate. These observables make use of a mapping that in the tradition of economics is viewed as a psychological utility function, e.g. the logarithm …

The dynamic approach to the gamble problem makes sense of risk aversion as optimal behavior for a given dynamic and level of wealth, implying a different concept of rationality. Maximizing expectation values of observables that do not have the ergodic property … cannot be considered rational for an individual. Instead, it is more useful to consider rational the optimization of time-average performance, or of expectation values of appropriate ergodic observables. We note that where optimization is used in science, the deep insight is finding the right object to optimize … The same is true in the present case  — deep insight is gained by finding the right object to optimize — we suggest time-average growth.

Ole Peters & Murray Gell-Mann

Although the expected utility theory is obviously both theoretically and descriptively inadequate, colleagues in economics, game theory and decision theory, gladly continue to use it, as though its deficiencies were unknown or unheard of.   Read more…

Has economics really become an empirical science?

March 15, 2017 1 comment

from Lars Syll

As I see it, a rational predictor should use a combination of theory and empirics. But theory should also be informed by data – there are lots of theories, and in general they can’t all apply to the same situation, so you need evidence to tell you which one(s) to use. So a rational predictor’s predictions should always be tied as closely as possible to empirical evidence. Discounting empirical evidence … seems inevitably to lead to the use of casual intuition (or to even worse things, like pure ideology).

George-Akerlof-Quotes-3Anyway, just in case you were curious, Seattle went ahead and hiked the minimum wage, and whether you measure by stylized facts or carefully controlled empirical studies, any negative effect on employment was small or zero. Of course, if you want, you can say that the empirical studies weren’t controlled well enough, and the stylized facts are illusions, and the minimum wage hike must have hurt employment because government intervention always hurts employment la la la I can’t hear you, but if you say that, who’s going to respect you intellectually?

Noah Smith

Yes, indeed, who would respect such a person ‘intellectually’?  Read more…

Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017)

March 13, 2017 12 comments

from Lars Syll

arrowA democratic polity is supposed to be based on egalitarian distribution of political power. In a system where virtually all resources are available for a price, economic power can be translated into political power by channels too obvious for mention. In a capitalist society, economic power is very unequally distributed, and hence democratic government is inevitably something of a sham. In a sense, the maintained ideal of democracy makes matters worse, for it adds the tensions of hypocrisy to the inequality of power.

Kenneth Arrow

Kenneth Arrow, one of the greatest economists ever, died last month at age 95.
A great modeler, yes, but also an economist who never forgot on what assumptions the models were based …