Author Archive

The essence of neoliberalism

November 10, 2019 24 comments

from Lars Syll

800x450The neoliberal utopia evokes powerful belief – the free trade faith – not only among those who live off it, such as financiers, the owners and managers of large corporations, etc., but also among those, such as high-level government officials and politicians, who derive their justification for existing from it. For they sanctify the power of markets in the name of economic efficiency, which requires the elimination of administrative or political barriers capable of inconveniencing the owners of capital in their individual quest for the maximisation of individual profit, which has been turned into a model of rationality. They want independent central banks. And they preach the subordination of nation-states to the requirements of economic freedom for the masters of the economy, with the suppression of any regulation of any market, beginning with the labour market, the prohibition of deficits and inflation, the general privatisation of public services, and the reduction of public and social expenses. Read more…

Why validating assumptions is so important in science

November 8, 2019 1 comment

from Lars Syll

valAn ongoing concern is that excessive focus on formal modeling and statistics can lead to neglect of practical issues and to overconfidence in formal results … Analysis interpretation depends on contextual judgments about how reality is to be mapped onto the model, and how the formal analysis results are to be mapped back into reality. But overconfidence in formal outputs is only to be expected when much labor has gone into deductive reasoning. First, there is a need to feel the labor was justified, and one way to do so is to believe the formal deduction produced important conclusions. Second, there seems to be a pervasive human aversion to uncertainty, and one way to reduce feelings of uncertainty is to invest faith in deduction as a sufficient guide to truth. Unfortunately, such faith is as logically unjustified as any religious creed, since a deduction produces certainty about the real world only when its assumptions about the real world are certain …

Unfortunately, assumption uncertainty reduces the status of deductions and statistical computations to exercises in hypothetical reasoning – they provide best-case scenarios of what we could infer from specific data (which are assumed to have only specific, known problems). Even more unfortunate, however, is that this exercise is deceptive to the extent it ignores or misrepresents available information, and makes hidden assumptions that are unsupported by data …

Despite assumption uncertainties, modelers often express only the uncertainties derived within their modeling assumptions, sometimes to disastrous consequences. Econometrics supplies dramatic cautionary examples in which complex modeling has failed miserably in important applications …

Sander Greenland

Yes, indeed, econometrics fails miserably over and over again.  One reason why it does, is Read more…

Confusing statistics and research

November 5, 2019 2 comments

from Lars Syll

140113.bigdataCoupled with downright incompetence in statistics, we often find the syndrome that I have come to call statisticism: the notion that computing is synonymous with doing research, the naïve faith that statistics is a complete or sufficient basis for scientific methodology, the superstition that statistical formulas exist for evaluating such things as the relative merits of different substantive theories or the “importance” of  the causes of a “dependent variable”; and the delusion that decomposing the covariations of some arbitrary and haphazardly assembled collection of variables can somehow justify not only a “causal model” but also, praise a mark, a “measurement model.” There would be no point in deploring such caricatures of the scientific enterprise if there were a clearly identifiable sector of social science research wherein such fallacies were clearly recognized and emphatically out of bounds.

Dudley Duncan

Wise words well worth pondering on. Read more…

Game theory — a scientific cul-de-sac

November 4, 2019 17 comments

from Lars Syll

Back in 1991, when yours truly earned his first PhD​ with a dissertation on decision-making and rationality in social choice theory and game theory, I concluded that “repeatedly it seems as though mathematical tractability and elegance — rather than realism and relevance — have been the most applied guidelines for the behavioural assumptions being made. On a political and social level, ​it is doubtful if the methodological individualism, ahistoricity and formalism those guidelines imply are especially valid for explaining real-world decision-making.”

This, of course, was like swearing in church. My mainstream colleagues were — to say the least — not exactly überjoyed.

Half a century ago there were widespread hopes game theory would provide a unified theory of social science. Today it has become obvious those hopes did not materialize. This ought to come as no surprise. Reductionist and atomistic models of social interaction — such as those mainstream economics and game theory are founded on — will never deliver sustainable building blocks for a realist and relevant social science. That is also — as yours truly argues in this article — the reason why game theory never will be anything but a footnote in the history of social science. Read more…

The experimental dilemma

November 1, 2019 26 comments

from Lars Syll

resissWe can either let theory guide us in our attempt to estimate causal relationships from data … or we don’t let theory guide us. If we let theory guide us, our causal inferences will be ‘incredible’ because our theoretical knowledge is itself not certain … If we do not let theory guide us, we have no good reason to believe that our causal conclusions are true either of the experimental population or of other populations because we have no understanding of the mechanisms that are responsible for a causal relationship to hold in the first place, and it is difficult to see how we could generalize an experimental result to other settings if this understanding doesn’t exist. Either way, then, causal inference seems to be a cul-de-sac.

Nowadays many mainstream economists maintain that ‘imaginative empirical methods’ — especially randomized experiments (RCTs) — can help us to answer questions concerning the external validity of economic models. In their view, they are, more or less, tests of ‘an underlying economic model’ and enable economists to make the right selection from the ever-expanding ‘collection of potentially applicable models.’ Read more…

Where economics went wrong

October 29, 2019 10 comments

from Lars Syll

colDavid Colander and Craig Freedman’s Where Economics Went Wrong is a provocative book designed to inspire economists to serious reflection on the nature of economics and how it is practiced. It is a book to that seeks to stimulate discussion about the current state of the discipline; it should be read by anyone who categorizes what they do as applied policy work. I agree with much – though not all – of what Colander and Freedman’s write … Reliance on mathematics has obscured much of the assumed structure that economists work from, leaving us unable to clearly articulate assumptions or identify our often normative precepts. Adoption of the scientific method has resulted in the belief that economic theory can deliver useful, practical knowledge. However, this belief has not been tempered by a corresponding understanding of the limits of theory in a complex world where people do not always behave as rational actors, but are influenced by culture, society, history, and government structure. In this review essay, I explore some aspects of the Chicago-School story to illustrate why shifting the profession to Colander and Freedman’s vision of a Classical liberal attitude is likely to be a difficult task – and why the effort is valuable.

Marianne Johnson

Read more…

The pitfalls of econometrics

October 28, 2019 11 comments

from Lars Syll

Ed Leamer’s Tantalus on the Road to Asymptopia is one of my favourite critiques of econometrics, and for the benefit of those who are not versed in the econometric jargon, this handy summary gives the gist of it in plain English:


Read more…

Paul Krugman — finally — admits he was wrong!

October 25, 2019 26 comments

from Lars Syll

Paul Krugman has never suffered fools gladly. The Nobel Prize-winning economist rose to international fame—and a coveted space on the New York Times op-ed page—by lacerating his intellectual opponents in the most withering way. In a series of books and articles beginning in the 1990s, Krugman branded just about everybody who questioned the rapid pace of globalization a fool who didn’t understand economics very well. “Silly” was a word Krugman used a lot to describe pundits who raised fears of economic competition from other nations, especially China. Don’t worry about it, he said: Free trade will have only minor impact on your prosperity.

economist-krugmanNow Krugman has come out and admitted, offhandedly, that his own understanding of economics has been seriously deficient as well. In a recent essay titled “What Economists (Including Me) Got Wrong About Globalization,” adapted from a forthcoming book on inequality, Krugman writes that he and other mainstream economists “missed a crucial part of the story” in failing to realize that globalization would lead to “hyperglobalization” and huge economic and social upheaval, particularly of the industrial middle class in America. And many of these working-class communities have been hit hard by Chinese competition, which economists made a “major mistake” in underestimating, Krugman says.

It was quite a “whoops” moment, considering all the ruined American communities and displaced millions of workers we’ve seen in the interim. And a newly humbled Krugman must consider an even more disturbing idea: Did he and other mainstream economists help put a protectionist populist, Donald Trump, in the White House with a lot of bad advice about free markets?

Michael Hirsh

Yours truly has for years been complaining about Krugman on this issue, so of course, it’s great that he finally admits he was wrong! Read more…

Econometrics — the danger of calling your pet cat a dog

October 24, 2019 26 comments

from Lars Syll

Since econometrics doesn’t content itself with only making optimal predictions, but also aspires to explain things in terms of causes and effects, econometricians need loads of assumptions — most important of these are additivity and linearity. Important, simply because if they are not true, your model is invalid and descriptively incorrect.  And when the model is wrong — well, then it’s wrong.

The assumption of additivity and linearity means that the outcome variable is, in reality, linearly related to any predictors … and that if you have several predictors then their combined effect is best described by adding their effects together …

catdogThis assumption is the most important because if it is not true then even if all other assumptions are met, your model is invalid because you have described it incorrectly. It’s a bit like calling your pet cat a dog: you can try to get it to go in a kennel, or to fetch sticks, or to sit when you tell it to, but don’t be surprised when its behaviour isn’t what you expect because even though you’ve called it a dog, it is in fact a cat. Similarly, if you have described your statistical model inaccurately it won’t behave itself and there’s no point in interpreting its parameter estimates or worrying about significance tests of confidence intervals: the model is wrong.

Andy Field

Read more…

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!

October 23, 2019 7 comments

from Lars Syll

In the postwar period, it has become increasingly clear that economic growth has not only brought greater prosperity. The other side of growth, in the form of pollution, contamination, wastage of resources, and climate change, has emerged as perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.

Against the mainstream theory’s view on the economy as a balanced and harmonious system, where growth and the environment go hand in hand, ecological economists object that it can rather be characterized as an unstable system that at an accelerating pace consumes energy and matter, and thereby pose a threat against the very basis for its survival.

nicholasThe Romanian-American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) argued in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) that the economy was actually a giant thermodynamic system in which entropy increases inexorably and our material basis disappears. If we choose to continue to produce with the techniques we have developed, then our society and earth will disappear faster than if we introduce small-scale production, resource-saving technologies and limited consumption.

Following Georgescu-Roegen, ecological economists have argued that industrial society inevitably leads to increased environmental pollution, energy crisis and an unsustainable growth.

Today we really need to re-consider how we look upon how our economy influences the environment and climate change. And we need to do it fast. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen gives us a good starting point for doing so!

‘Nobel prize’ winners Duflo and Banerjee do not tackle the real root causes of poverty

October 22, 2019 8 comments

from Lars Syll

banSome go so far as to insist that development interventions should be subjected to the same kind of randomised control trials used in medicine, with “treatment” groups assessed against control groups. Such trials are being rolled out to evaluate the impact of a wide variety of projects – everything from water purification tablets to microcredit schemes, financial literacy classes to teachers’ performance bonuses …

The real problem with the “aid effectiveness” craze is that it narrows our focus down to micro-interventions at a local level that yield results that can be observed in the short term. At first glance this approach might seem reasonable and even beguiling. But it tends to ignore the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and underdevelopment. Aid projects might yield satisfying micro-results, but they generally do little to change the systems that produce the problems in the first place. What we need instead is to tackle the real root causes of poverty, inequality and climate change …

If we are concerned about effectiveness, then instead of assessing the short-term impacts of micro-projects, we should evaluate whole public policies … In the face of the sheer scale of the overlapping crises we face, we need systems-level thinking …

Fighting against poverty, inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change requires changing the rules of the international economic system to make it more ecological and fairer for the world’s majority. It’s time that we devise interventions – and accountability tools – appropriate to this new frontier.

Angus Deaton James Heckman Judea Pearl Joseph Stiglitz et al.

Read more…

Econometrics — junk science with no relevance whatsoever to real-world economics

October 21, 2019 3 comments

from Lars Syll

Do you believe that 10 to 20% of the decline in crime in the 1990s was caused by an increase in abortions in the 1970s? Or that the murder rate would have increased by 250% since 1974 if the United States had not built so many new prisons? Did you believe predictions that the welfare reform of the 1990s would force 1,100,000 children into poverty?

qs-econometrics-titleIf you were misled by any of these studies, you may have fallen for a pernicious form of junk science: the use of mathematical modeling to evaluate the impact of social policies. These studies are superficially impressive. Produced by reputable social scientists from prestigious institutions, they are often published in peer reviewed scientific journals. They are filled with statistical calculations too complex for anyone but another specialist to untangle. They give precise numerical “facts” that are often quoted in policy debates. But these “facts” turn out to be will o’ the wisps …

These predictions are based on a statistical technique called multiple regression that uses correlational analysis to make causal arguments … The problem with this, as anyone who has studied statistics knows, is that correlation is not causation. A correlation between two variables may be “spurious” if it is caused by some third variable. Multiple regression researchers try to overcome the spuriousness problem by including all the variables in analysis. The data available for this purpose simply is not up to this task, however, and the studies have consistently failed.

Ted Goertzel

Mainstream economists often hold the view that if you are critical of econometrics it can only be because you are a sadly misinformed and misguided person who dislike and do not understand much of it. Read more…

On the limited applicability of game theory

October 17, 2019 2 comments

from Lars Syll

Many mainstream economists – still — think that game theory is useful and can be applied to real-life and give important and interesting results. That, however, is a rather unsubstantiated view. What game theory does is, strictly seen, nothing more than investigating the logic of behaviour among non-existant robot-imitations of humans. Knowing how those ‘rational fools’ play games do not help us to decide and act when interacting with real people. Knowing some game theory may actually make us behave in a way that hurts both ourselves and others. Decision-making and social interaction are always embedded in socio-cultural contexts. Not taking account of that, game theory will remain an analytical cul-de-sac that never will be able to come up with useful and relevant explanations.

GT-Fig-16Over-emphasizing the reach of instrumental rationality and abstracting away from the influence of many known to be important factors, reduces the analysis to a pure thought experiment without any substantial connection to reality. Limiting theoretical economic analysis in this way — not incorporating both motivational and institutional factors when trying to explain human behaviour — makes economics insensitive to social facts. Read more…

The limits of extrapolation in economics

October 15, 2019 5 comments

from Lars Syll

steelThere are two basic challenges that confront any account of extrapolation that seeks to resolve the shortcomings of simple induction. One challenge, which I call extrapolator’s circle, arises from the fact that extrapolation is worthwhile only when there are important limitations on what one can learn about the target by studying it directly. The challenge, then, is to explain how the suitability of the model as a basis for extrapolation can be established given only limited, partial information about the target … The second challenge is a direct consequence of the heterogeneity of populations studied in biology and social sciences. Because of this heterogeneity, it is inevitable there will be causally relevant differences between the model and the target population.

In economics — as a rule — we can’t experiment on the real-world target directly. Read more…

Do economic models actually explain anything?

October 12, 2019 10 comments

from Lars Syll

One of the limitations with economics is the restricted possibility to perform experiments, forcing it to mainly rely on observational studies for knowledge of real-world economies.

But still — the idea of performing laboratory experiments holds a firm grip of our wish to discover (causal) relationships between economic ‘variables.’ Galileo's falling bodies experimentIf we only could isolate and manipulate variables in controlled environments, we would probably find ourselves in a situation where we with greater ‘rigour’ and ‘precision’ could describe, predict, or explain economic happenings in terms of ‘structural’ causes, ‘parameter’ values of relevant variables, and economic ‘laws.’

Galileo Galilei’s experiments are often held as exemplary for how to perform experiments to learn something about the real world.

Galileo’s heavy balls dropping from the tower of Pisa, confirmed that the distance an object falls is proportional to the square of time and that this law (empirical regularity) of falling bodies could be applicable outside a vacuum tube when e. g. air existence is negligible. Read more…

Teflon economics

October 10, 2019 7 comments

from Lars Syll

At least since the time of Keynes’s famous critique of Tinbergen’s econometric methods, those of us in the social science community who have been impolite enough to dare to question the preferred methods and models applied in quantitative research in general and economics more specifically, are as a rule met with disapproval. Although people seem to get very agitated and upset by the critique — just read the commentaries on this blog if you don’t believe me — defenders of received theory always say that the critique is ‘nothing new’, that they have always been ‘well aware’ of the problems, and so on, and so on.

So, for the benefit of all mindless practitioners of economics — who don’t want to be disturbed in their doings — eminent mathematical statistician David Freedman has put together a very practical list of vacuous responses to criticism that can be freely used to save your peace of mind:

Read more…

The primary problem with mainstream economics

October 5, 2019 20 comments

from Lars Syll

Jamie Morgan: To a member of the public it must seem weird that it is possible to state, as you do, such fundamental criticism of an entire field of study. The perplexing issue from a third party point of view is how do we reconcile good intention (or at least legitimate sense of self as a scholar), and power and influence in the world with error, failure and falsity in some primary sense; given that the primary problem is methodological, the issues seem to extend in different ways from Milton Friedman to Robert Lucas Jr, from Paul Krugman to Joseph Stiglitz. Do such observations give you pause? My question (invitation) I suppose, is how does one reconcile (explain or account for) the direction of travel of mainstream economics: the degree of commonality identified in relation to its otherwise diverse parts, the glaring problems of that commonality – as identified and stated by you and many other critics? Read more…

What’s wrong with Krugman’s economics?

October 3, 2019 15 comments

from Lars Syll

Krugman writes: “So how do you do useful economics? In general, what we really do is combine maximization-and-equilibrium as a first cut with a variety of ad hoc modifications reflecting what seem to be empirical regularities about how both individual behavior and markets depart from this idealized case.”

Alexander Rosenberg Duke UniversityBut if you ask the New Classical economists, they’ll say, this is exactly what we do—combine maximizing-and-equilibrium with empirical regularities. And they’d go on to say it’s because Krugman’s Keynesian models don’t do this or don’t do enough of it, they are not “useful” for prediction or explanation …

The trouble is that the macroeconomic evidence can’t tell us when and where maximization-and-equilibrium goes wrong, and there seems no immediate prospect for improving the assumptions of perfect rationality and perfect markets from behavioral economics, neuroeconomics, experimental economics, evolutionary economics, game theory, etc.  Read more…

The ‘rational expectations’ hoax

September 26, 2019 3 comments

from Lars Syll

sun kiIt can be said without great controversy that no other theoretical approach in this century has ever enjoyed the same level of ubiquity throughout the social sciences as the rational choice approach enjoys today. Despite this ubiquity, the success of the approach has been very tenuous. Its advance has been accompanied by an intense debate over its relative merit. The approach has been subject to the usual criticism of blatant inaccuracy given by outsiders to any would-be theoretical hegemon and to a predictable fuzzying of its assumptions as it is adapted to a wider and wider range of empirical phenomena. More notably, however, some of the most virulent mere criticisms of the rational choice approach have come from within its own ranks.

Despite the absence of any clear-cut resolution to this debate, there appears to be a growing consensus about the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. To put it briefly, the main strengths of the approach are that its conventional assumptions about actors are parsimonious and applicable to a very broad range of environments, generating usually falsifiable and sometimes empirically confirmed hypotheses about action across these environments. This provides conventional rational choice with a combination of generality and predictive power not found in other approaches. However, the conventional assumptions of rational choice not only lack verisimilitude in many circumstances but also fail to accurately predict a wide range of human behaviors.

Read more…

Why policy design without theory is useless

September 24, 2019 58 comments

from Lars Syll

Taking into account the methodologies that support some policy practices that favour inductive reasoning and randomized control trials of impact evaluation (RCTs), there is a controversy around the utilization of these attempts to build experimental programmes or policy intervention …

so youAs the decision-making policy process in the real world relies on institutional factors that may be different elsewhere, the methodology based on RCTs does not provide a credible basis for policy making. In short, the outcomes of inductive investigation can never be completely transported across time and space …

In fact, the methodology of RCTs runs the risk of considering worthless casual relationships as relevant causalities in the attempt to develop policy recommendations. In short, the use of the outcomes of RCTs as normative orientations for policy making should be put in question.

“What works” in the “sterile” environment of a laboratory does not necessarily work in a real-world where social interactions and the dynamics of institutions are overwhelmed by power relations. Therefore, ethical considerations should be considered in any attemp to build policy proposals.

Indeed, the transformation of the economic policy approach has evidently been a remarkable one. It is worth recalling the words of Lars Syll about the current sad state of economics as a science,

“A science that doesn’t self-reflect and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits. The main reason why mainstream economics has increasingly become more and more useless as a public policy instrument is to be found in its perverted view on the value of methodology.”

Maria Alejandra Madi / WEA Pedagogy Blog

Evidence-based theories and policies are highly valued nowadays. Randomization is supposed to control for bias from unknown confounders. The received opinion is that evidence-based on randomized experiments, therefore, is the best. Read more…