Author Archive

Efficient Allocations?

March 25, 2015 4 comments

from Peter Radford

Willford King has written:

“It is easy to find a man in almost any line of employment who is twice as efficient as another employee, but it is very rare to find one who is ten times as efficient. It is common, however, to see one man possessing not ten times but a thousand times the wealth of his neighbor … Is the middle class doomed to extinction and shall we soon find the handful of plutocrats, the modern barons of wealth, lined up squarely in opposition to the propertyless masses with no buffer between to lessen the chances of open battle? With the middle class gone and the laborer condemned to remain a lifelong wage-earner with no hope of attaining wealth of even a competence in his old age, all the conditions are ripe for a crowning class-conflict equaling in intensity and bitterness anything pictured by the most radical follower of Karl Marx. Is this condition soon coming to pass?” [Emphasis in original]

That was in 1915. My how times change.

Well maybe not. That comment about the middle class has a very contemporary ring to it.

A couple of things pop out at me when I read that quote – no doubt you will find your own emphasis.  Read more…

Ideas that must be forgotten

March 17, 2015 5 comments

from Peter Radford

Much of what we are told as being advances in economics are diversions or delusions that serve only to trap us in a cul-de-sac. Sometimes that becomes a very long road to nowhere. Sometimes, it seems, economics will never return to being about actual economies, but will always be doomed to stay the plaything of a select group of very clever savants separated from the world by their contempt for its complex messiness.

I am not one of those to indulge in endless territorial fights over purity of thought. What matters to me is practical application. I measure the usefulness of an economic idea by the illumination it throws on a real world problem and on its ability to assist us better our collective lots in life. I frankly don’t care if it is the precise meaning that some long ago dead theorist gave to an idea. Our current divination of that meaning may have strayed from purity, but it might also work. Battles over intellectual turf are meaningless except for a very few whose reputations are involved. Other than that, who cares? Read more…

Categories: rethinking economics

Where’s the Structure?

March 5, 2015 4 comments

from Peter Radford

In its long search for the illusion of equilibrium economics has had to barter away one aspect of reality after another. Driven by its desire to unearth laws that explain the presence of that illusion economists have long ago lost contact with the grittiness of actual economies. They prefer the pristine and simplified sanctuary of their models no matter how reduced the image of an economy those models portray.

Oddly I do not criticize them for this. No, I think I understand the logic of the process that produced the result. I applaud the effort. I salute the intellectual energy that has been absorbed into the project.

It’s the outcome I abhor. Economists are simply caught in a valley which, unfortunately for them, sits in the shadows of reality rather than sitting on a peak casting light on it.

I was thinking thus because I was trying to relate how economics, most of it anyway, ignores uncertainty. As you know this ignorance vexes me more than somewhat, because I see uncertainty as central to human existence. Without some element of uncertainty there would be no need to learn — we would know everything already. It is the absence of knowledge that incites us to search, to innovate, and to arm ourselves against the unknown. It is the very essence of life: problem solving is the distinguishing characteristic of life. It is how we tell that something is alive. The intentional imposition of order on disorder is the central property of all things we consider to be living. Read more…

Categories: rethinking economics

Economic Ignorance?

March 2, 2015 24 comments

from Peter Radford

Ha-Joon Chang nails it.

But I wish he hadn’t.

You see, I agree with his analysis of the inverse nature of status within the economics profession. As a useful general rule the more notable you are within the profession the less you know about the economy. This is a result of the perverse nature of what economists actually do: they are amongst the very few disciplines — perhaps they are unique — who invent the artifacts that they then seek to explain and study. This relieves them, as you can imagine, from having to engage with the mucky real world.

You might wonder how this came about. It is quite a puzzle isn’t it? All those extremely clever people resolutely avoiding contact with the very substance that their chosen topic of study presents them from outside; averting their eyes from the glare of reality; turning inward as they search for clarity and that song sought after simplicity that so beguiles them.

It’s actually quite dispiriting for anyone who dares imagine that economics has relevance to humanity and its ability to chart a course towards a generally more prosperous world.

So how did this disconnect happen? How is it that the very best are the most ignorant? Read more…

I am a know-nothing

February 27, 2015 6 comments

from Peter Radford

Beware of the possible snark in the following:

One of the possibilities you face when you commit to writing about something is that you get called names. Sometimes you are called wrong. And sometimes when you are called wrong, you are indeed wrong. Such is life. We learn.

This is not one of those times.

Because I am right.

Anyway, this time I have been called wrong because I asked that we raise a collective voice to ask questions about economics. I made no substantive claim in my call for questions. I just asked for questions and then did claim that the resultant conversation would/could be interesting. I thought this was uncontroversial.  Read more…

To see is to believe?

February 26, 2015 3 comments

from Peter Radford

The French Republican thinker Charles Péguy once said:

“One must always say what one sees. But especially — and this is the hard part — one must always see what one sees.”

Very true.

The ability to see something and not see it simultaneously seems to be a major characteristic of orthodox economists.

Thus involuntary unemployment melts into thin air as its offensive existence is not only offensive to civility, but is, more importantly, offensive to the ideological basis of orthodoxy. For if markets always exert their magical powers, and if the people caught up within them act [hyper] rationally, and if, and so on and so on, then anyone without a job is someone who doesn’t want a job. That person prefers a life of leisure to one of work, no matter how impecunious they are.

That orthodox economists must see involuntary unemployment is surely undeniable. That they don’t see it because of the jaundice of orthodoxy that afflicts them is, I think Péguy would agree, an affront to reality.

Likewise with uncertainty: Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm

Questions – Add Your Voice

February 24, 2015 15 comments

from Peter Radford

There’s been a lot of excitement about changing the substance of economics and the way it is taught. Rightly so. But that, it seems to me, just begs the question: “What is economics?” Or, rather, it begs a series of questions. None of us can pretend to have the answer since the answer is surely to be found in the collective voice of those who are interested enough to respond. Social intelligence is a more robust repository of ‘truth’ than any single intelligence can ever be.


What are the questions? Tell me.

Once we have a good set of questions, let’s then survey our friends and colleagues to get answers. Oh. And let’s restrict ourselves to limited space. Those answers must be short. Let’s say a few paragraphs at the very most.

Once we have the questions and all the answers we can assemble them as a collective voice.

A hundred or so answers to, say, fifteen good questions would give us a very quick but deep insight into the state of economics.

Let’s not place any limits on ourselves just yet – other than the need for brevity.

So go ahead. Add your voice to the collective.


Categories: rethinking economics

Rats! History does repeat itself

February 10, 2015 3 comments

from Peter Radford

And clearly economists don’t learn from it.

Ponder this:

“It was all very well for the rich, who could raise all the credit they needed, to clamp rigid deflation and monetary orthodoxy on the economy … it was the little man who suffered, and demanded easy credit and financial unorthodoxy.”

That’s the voice of E. J. Hobsbawm in his book, “The Age of Revolution 1789 – 1848″, and he is talking about post Napoleonic Europe.

But how contemporary is that sentiment?

We are stuck in a similar situation. Our elite, both here and in Europe, is managing the economy  for its own ends. The disconnect with everyday folk is astonishing. The hubris and plain meanness of it all is equally astonishing.

Look at Greece: the attempt to impose a teutonic fiscal ‘discipline’ via stringent austerity has simply led to the debt that was the target of the policy becoming an even larger problem. It is an example of epic policy failure. The Greeks, for all their previous laxity and fiscal ineptitude, are to be applauded for calling for an end to the stupidity. Read more…

The Greek Experiment

January 31, 2015 8 comments

from Peter Radford

Let me congratulate the Greeks for taking the first, but only the first, step towards a more civilized economic policy. I am intrigued by the prospect of Yanis Varoufakis as economic minister deep in argument with any of the large number of radicals that infest European economic posts. And, yes, they are the radicals. The notion that aggressive austerity measures can engender growth and can be mostly benign with respect to employment, wages, and other immediate aspects of economic life is a radical, almost extreme, idea honed most recently to protect wealthy elites from having to engage with the rest of the societies inside which they exist. Against this form of radicalism people like Varoufakis, despite being smeared as radicals themselves, are more orthodox than not. At least they realize that economies are not mere models to manipulate, but are collections of people whose futures and dignity are surely worthy of consideration alongside such abstractions as markets or efficiency.  Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Zero Shocker

January 20, 2015 2 comments

from Peter Radford

What with the World Economic Forum folks wading in on inequality ahead of the annual Davos shindig for the great and beautiful, here’s what Oxfam has to say:

“Global wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a small wealthy elite … These wealthy individuals have generated and sustained their vast riches through their interests and activities in a few important economic sectors, including finance and pharmaceuticals/healthcare. Companies from these sectors spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying to create a policy environment that protects and enhances their interests further.”

Moreover Oxfam predicts that the top 1% will have more wealth than the bottom 99% by about 2016. Here’s their chart: Read more…

Economics is what?

January 12, 2015 6 comments

from Peter Radford

This week’s Economist magazine includes an article designed to uplift the hearts of depressed economists everywhere. It devotes a whole page under the headline “Meet the market shapers”, to a catalog of what it regards as cutting edge examples of economists doing useful stuff at the ‘micro’ level. By micro in these cases the Economist means working inside or alongside a business firm.

All the cases in the article are about some clever folk doing some clever analysis that, so we are told, really and truly helps the firms in question do better. In particular a theme emerges that the work seems to help the firms match what they have to sell with people who are likely, though not certain, to buy.

Naturally, although the magazine doesn’t admit to any added value in this, all the firms cited are Silicon Valley start ups and the like. As we know all Silicon Valley firms are very, very smart – they disrupt the dullards who have only managed to survive a few decades by shooting into orbit and surviving [gasp] for months and even years. So to help firms that are already clever is a real feather in anyone’s cap.

All this cutting edge stuff has the Economist really excited. Not only does it give the story a full page, but it even devotes one of its editorial columns to explaining what micro-economists do:  Read more…

Uncertain Causes

January 6, 2015 3 comments

from Peter Radford

When you throw a feather out of a tenth story window it eventually hits the ground, but only after fluttering about for a while and following an often circuitous route downwards. Throw a ten ton lump of lead out and the route tends to be a lot more direct. Gravity wins the day in both cases. It’s just that in one other forces and environmental effects play a much larger role.

In economics the role of gravity is played by uncertainty. It is the dominant force underlying all action. Most often its presence is best detected by the reaction of people to it: they make plans and seek other ways to offset it. Our institutions, for example, are a way to channel activity along more predictable lines and thus keep uncertainty at bay as long as possible.

Eventually uncertainty wins. It undoes our plans by throwing up an event entirely unexpected. We then have a choice: do we repeat one of our tried and true actions on the basis that it has worked – at least sort of – in the past? Or do we invent a brand new action and see if it works in these new circumstances. Whichever we choose we learn something: either we learn that our old trick has new application, or we learn a new trick.

So uncertainty is a driver of learning. Pushing back the boundaries of the unknown, wherein uncertainty lurks the most, is how we make progress. Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm

Economic Realism

December 27, 2014 8 comments

from Peter Radford

Lars Syll seems to have started a perpetual conversation when he posted a comment about Tony Lawson’s longstanding complaints about realism in economics. I don’t want to get dragged into what appears to be an endless, and pointless, debate … but.

The debate is endless because some economists seem to thrive on endlessness. That is to say they react with horror at closure on any topic. Thus arguments begun in the early 1800’s still roil along happily employing at least a few economists who have specialized in whatever it is that stirred the arguments back then. No one seems inclined to end the discussion, instead it is added to the ever increasing inventory of points-of-view-come- theoretical-stances that clutter economics and make it opaque to all but the most intrepid cognoscenti.

Ah, but there are others who have, in their own minds at least, arrived at closure. And that’s where the pointless part comes in. Read more…

Categories: methodology

Superior Economists

December 3, 2014 3 comments

from Peter Radford

Actually the paper I just read is called “The Superiority of Economists”. It’s another analysis of thee economics profession by Marion Fourcade, this time in association with Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan. It is well worth reading and fits neatly in the same analytical tradition as Fourcade’s 2009 book “Economists and Societies”.

The problem is that none of it is particularly surprising. The point being that economists, by asserting their superiority vis other social sciences have exposed themselves to greater scrutiny and criticism than their peers. This has, apparently, induced more soul-searching within economics than in those other social sciences. Along with the air of superiority that economists exude due to their self-proclaimed intellectualism, comes a big dollop of insecurity.

Which is a point worth making: economists, for all their arrogant assertion of the truths of their ‘science’, are a little insecure about something. Hence, perhaps, their brashness and lack of interaction with their peers. One of Fourcade’s findings is that economists are more isolated as a profession than those around them. They quote fewer non-economics papers and books in their own work, and are almost haughty in the disregard of insights that other social sciences take very seriously. Read more…

Economics and civil society

December 2, 2014 3 comments

from Peter Radford

I have been subject to quite a bit of push back on my repeated critique of the anti-democratic nature of orthodox/classical/neoclassical economics.

So I am going to double down on the basis that when you’ve hit a nerve and produce a knee-jerk reaction it is wise to hammer away.

Allow me to restate my opinion in brief: economics in the general tradition of Smith’s invisible hand up to and including the notions of Hayek, Friedman, and their disciples is, at its core, an attempt to conceive of a society stripped of politics. By this I mean it is an attempt to argue that passivity in the face of overwhelming “forces” that are “objective”, “decentralized”, and “systemic” will allow for an optimal distribution of wealth, and the attainment of the maximum possible total wealth compatible with that optimum. All that is needed is a goodly dose of rational decision making, a hopelessly large level of cognitive ability, enormous foresight, and an unobstructed view of absolutely everything. Oh, and under no circumstances ought there be any active interference in the economy to adjust the perfect outcomes. It is a perfect-in-perfect-out wonderland in which no one need concern themselves as to the ethics of the outcome. It is, after all, perfect. It cannot be improved upon. Free markets rule!

This wonderland system, so constructed, will, we are assured, give back to everyone a return justified by their so-called marginal productivity. Read more…

Categories: Political Economy

McCloskey disses democracy

November 26, 2014 9 comments

from Peter Radford

Actually it’s McCloskey dissing what she calls leftish economists generally, although poor Piketty and his notorious book provides the moment she seizes to attack us misguided folk. Riven through with fundamental error and hopelessly soft we have all, apparently, misunderstood the great sweep of history.

The lesson from which is that all is swell if we just leave it alone. We need to set aside our petty and foolish concerns about the environment, and a whole host of other nonsense about market imperfections – and, yes, government imperfections too – we need to acknowledge the great wealth that surrounds us, and gorge on the pile of goodies that capitalism has brought us.

Oh, and we all need to shut about poverty. It doesn’t exist. Read more…

DSGE is a plutocratic tool

November 8, 2014 14 comments

from Peter Radford

Hah! That caught your attention.

People who criticize General Equilibrium – henceforth GE – often fail to mention one of its major benefits to mainstream economists, one that explains its tenacity despite its obvious irrelevance as a real economic artifact.

This is that it is a weapon that allows economists to expunge politics from their subject.

Ever since Adam Smith’s fateful reference to the invisible hand, economists have been obsessed with finding an alternative to overt power relationships as a way to distribute resources and hence wealth in a social setting. Any conversations about power relationships invokes politics, since the latter is the rightful study of said relationships. This would establish political theory as a competitor to economic theory as a source of social welfare allocation. It would also alert the democratic citizenry to the positive role they can play in that allocation.

Economists have long tried to rid their subject of the supposed taint of overt politics and thus establish as a purer – in their eyes – and more scientific subject. Presumably this is because they see the study of politics as somehow unscientific.

But behind this so-called scientific agenda lurks a shadowy figure: it is the rejection by classical economists and their heirs of democracy. After all democracy is the tyranny of the masses, which to those struggling to throw off the tyranny of autocracy was an equal evil. If democracy is to be denied, if the masses are to be kept away from deciding the allocation of wealth, then some other force has to be located that can accomplish allocation in a less tyrannical way.  Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm


October 28, 2014 5 comments

from Peter Radford

I will keep this short: I have been taken aback by all the talk about the apparent onset of something called secular stagnation. Today’s Financial Times gives us another dose of it in an article by Gavin Davies. The basic argument seems to be that since both population growth and worker productivity are declining somewhat in the biggest economies we ought expect those economies to grow more slowly than in the past. This shift downwards is a sharp break with what orthodox economists had assumed the norm to be: that economies would chug along nicely because productivity is driven by technology change, and because populations have been relatively stable.

The downscaling is said to fit with the empirical evidence, and in particular with the trends that seem to have set in since around 1980.

In other words, a sputtering economic performance over the past few decades is seen as proof that we now live in more constrained times, where limited growth puts a cap on our latitude in dealing with economic issues. People drawing this conclusion almost inevitably then jump into discussions of how this reduced latitude implies a more austere role for government, and – naturally – that everyday folks just will have to manage on less.

I have a slightly different perspective.  Read more…

Categories: The Economy

Why no labor controversy?

October 22, 2014 6 comments

from Peter Radford

The familiar so-called “capital controversies” a few decades ago were never fully resolved. This is mainly because the losers of that battle eventually won the war and so were able to overlook their loss. They carried on with a muddled view of what capital actually is and ignored the impact of that muddle as if it were unimportant.

Whichever side you are on in that debate – which still emerges from the shadows now and again – I have a question: why no labor controversy?

Surely labor is as muddled a concept as capital.

If our problem with capital is supposed to be its multitudinous expression in concrete terms – is it a machine? is it money? is it simply a bookkeeping entry on a balance sheet? is it a factory? and so on – then labor too is a similar multitude.

Is labor simply an energy source?

After all people do “work” in the old fashioned sense of that word. They lift, bend, move, and otherwise translate energy into work as they go about business. Labor is thus an energy input.

Is labor a source of skill? Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm

Study the shocks

October 3, 2014 12 comments

from Peter Radford

A system in motion stays in motion. A system at rest stays at rest.

Good so far.

But: our question is a little more interesting. We want to know how the system began to move. We want to know about those moments of change. When you think about it, or when you’re not a mainstream economist, it is precisely those changes that attract your attention.

In this context it is always hilarious to be reminded of the way in which mainstream economics sees the world. It postulates an economy chugging along merrily following a path smoothly, fully determined by a combination of where it came from and a number of internal factors, and hermetically sealed off from the hurly burly around it.

To make sure that the path is smooth, mainstream theorists get rid of all the nasty stuff that could cause things to misbehave. Like people. Real people are an inconvenience, so they’re kicked out and replaced by a single representative chosen, presumably, for his or her astonishing likeness to economists. Business firms are tossed out as well. They too are represented by a single suitably cleansed and correct representative. The single firm and the single person then interact. Well, that is they interact within the confines of mainstream theory. This means they behave according to a few very simple and specially chosen rules that preclude any cheating, conniving, cooperation, or generally demeaning activity that  would discredit an economist. They are also endowed with astonishing powers of calculation. This is probably why they were chosen. I know its why I wasn’t chosen. I don’t know enough, and I am hopeless at all those lightning fast calculations. Were I the representative person inside the mainstream model I would probably send it hurtling off track so quickly it would explode before we all moved more than one time period forward. I am just clueless at knowing my preferences and trying to keep them consistent with what they were a few years ago, or with what they will be a few years hence. And I have a hard time keeping track of my taxes so I have no clue when I should stop buying food in order to save enough to pay them in the future. I think.  Read more…

Categories: New vs. Old Paradigm

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