Norbert Häring‘s presentation for the seminar “Economics and Power” on 23 March 2015, House of Lords, London:
Ladies and Gentlemen, To pay tribute to the Marxist jargon, in which Lord Skidelsky has phrased the title of my subject, I would like to start with a quote from Karl Marx: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. … The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, … the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.” In my own words, that says that not all economic ideas are created equal. Some ideas make it into the leading academic journals, others can hardly be published. Some ideas make those who develop them successful in academics or even famous and influential. Other ideas sentence those who develop them to a life at the margin at best.
Ideally, this would all be a function of how convincing the idea is and how good the academic is at developing the idea, writing it down and marketing it. But we all know, that excellence by itself does not get you very far. Another important ingredient for a successful career is how convenient your subject of study and your results are for powerful interests in society.
“The rich… divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part IV Chapter 1
“For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” Mark, King James Bible, 1611, 4:25
Adam Smith’s optimism and its vulgar neoliberal reincarnation, the ‘trickle down effect’, are thankfully on the back foot these days, steadily losing ground to a more ‘biblical’ narrative (see Mark 4:25 above). The Crash of 2008, the bailouts that followed, and the ‘secular stagnation’ which is keeping the wage share at historic lows (at a time of conspicuous QE-fuelled, bubble-led, asset-price inflation), have put paid to the touching belief that the ‘invisible hand’, left to its own devices, distributes the fruits of human endeavour more evenly across humanity.
from Lars Syll
In responding to these warranted wonderings, some economists – like theoretical economist David K. Levine in the article Why Economists Are Right: Rational Expectations and the Uncertainty Principle in Economics in the Huffington Post – have maintained that
it is a fundamental principle that there can be no reliable way of predicting a crisis.
To me this is a totally inadequate answer. And even trying to make an honour out of the inability of one’s own science to give answers to just questions, is indeed proof of a rather arrogant and insulting attitude.
Fortunately yours truly is not the only one racting to this guy’s arrogance: Read more…
from Lars Syll
DATE: December 12, 1991
FR: Lawrence H. Summers
1) The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. Read more…
from Lars Syll
Even after one of the most severe multi-year crises on record in the advanced economies, the received wisdom in policy circles clings to the notion that high-income countries are completely different from their emerging-market counterparts. The current phase of the official policy approach is predicated on the assumption that growth, financial stability, and debt sustainability can be achieved through a mix of austerity and forbearance (and some reform). The claim is that advanced countries do not need to resort to the more eclectic policies of emerging markets, including debt restructurings and conversions, higher inflation, capital controls, and other forms of financial repression. Now entering the sixth or seventh year (depending on the country) of crisis, output remains well below its pre-crisis peak in ten of the twelve crisis countries. The gap with potential output is even greater. Delays in accepting that desperate times call for desperate measures keeps raising the odds that, as documented here, this crisis may in the end surpass in severity the depression of the 1930s in a large number of countries.
This time it seems as though it is — really — different. At last the light at the end of the austerity tunnel seeps through.
from David Ruccio
Andrew Bacevich begins his review of Christian Appy’s new book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, with the following:
Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.
Appy’s examples include, in the area of national security, Cold Warriors McGeorge Bundy, Walt Whitman Rostow, and Samuel P. Huntington. Bacevich then extends the analysis to the new foreign policy intellectual establishment associated with Ashton Carter in his return to the Pentagon as President Obama’s fourth secretary of defense.
I wonder if we might use the same kind of analysis to examine Obama’s economic team, especially the first group of economic advisers. They included Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (whose “counselors” included Lewis Alexander, Gene Sperling, and Lael Brainard), National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council (and now Chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers) Jason Furman, and others. In Obama’s case, the members of the economics “Brains Trust” weren’t from Yale but had close associations with Robert Rubin, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton.
from Dean Baker
Last month, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and top Obama adviser Larry Summers ripped into those arguing that more education is the answer to the country’s inequality problems:
“The core problem is that there aren’t enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won’t get the jobs. Unless you’re doing things that have things that are affecting the demand for jobs, you’re helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs.”
He made these comments at a conference put on by the Robert Rubin funded Hamilton Project held at the Brookings Institution.
If the significance of these comments is not clear, the most important economic figure of the mainstream of the Democratic Party was demolishing one of the party’s central themes over the last two decades. He was arguing that the problems of the labor force — weak employment opportunities, stagnant wages, and rising inequality — were not going to be addressed by increasing the education and skills of the workforce. Rather, the problem was the overall state of the economy.
The standard education story puts the blame for stagnant wages on workers. Read more…
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…
from Lars Syll
We are storytellers, operating much of the time in worlds of make believe. We do not find that the realm of imagination and ideas is an alternative to, or retreat from, practical reality. On the contrary, it is the only way we have found to think seriously about reality. In a way, there is nothing more to this method than maintaining the conviction … that imagination and ideas matter … there is no practical alternative”
Robert Lucas (1988) What Economists Do
Sounds great, doesn’t it? And here’s an example of the outcome of that serious think about reality … Read more…
from Lars Syll
By the early 1980s it was already common knowledge among people I hung out with that the only way to get non-crazy macroeconomics published was to wrap sensible assumptions about output and employment in something else, something that involved rational expectations and intertemporal stuff and made the paper respectable. And yes, that was conscious knowledge, which shaped the kinds of papers we wrote.
More or less says it all, doesn’t it?
And for those of us who do not want to play according these sickening hypocritical rules — well, here’s one good alternative.
from Lars Syll
In econometrics one often gets the feeling that many of its practitioners think of it as a kind of automatic inferential machine: input data and out comes casual knowledge. This is like pulling a rabbit from a hat. Great — but first you have to put the rabbit in the hat. And this is where assumptions come in to the picture.
As social scientists — and economists — we have to confront the all-important question of how to handle uncertainty and randomness. Should we define randomness with probability? If we do, we have to accept that to speak of randomness we also have to presuppose the existence of nomological probability machines, since probabilities cannot be spoken of – and actually, to be strict, do not at all exist – without specifying such system-contexts.
Accepting a domain of probability theory and a sample space of “infinite populations” — which is legion in modern econometrics — also implies that judgments are made on the basis of observations that are actually never made! Infinitely repeated trials or samplings never take place in the real world. So that cannot be a sound inductive basis for a science with aspirations of explaining real-world socio-economic processes, structures or events. It’s not tenable. Read more…
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…
Where is our economic system going? What about our societies? How did we get here? And what next?
The current situation reveals not only an economic crisis but also a deep crisis of economic thought. There are many causes for this situation, and solutions can only be found through theoretical, practical and political inventiveness with our critical faculties to the fore. But, whilst such voices do exist, they have been silenced as far as orthodox economics is concerned. Simply put, there are profoud institutional barriers to the emergence and presentation of original thinking, but this blocked creativity could be released through a simple and immediate political solution. Establishing in French universities a new section, entitled Economics and Society, would allow a new way of thinking in economics.
Madam Minister, you recently decided to create this new section promoting the study of economic facts with a renewed perspective within rather than apart from social sciences. You did so because you know how much the research in economics and its teaching, but also public debate, are suffocated by the monopoly of ideas imposed by a dominant school of thought that failed to anticipate or even to allow for, let alone understand and respond to this crisis.
The proposal for this new section, and your commendable approval for it, unleashed such a backlash from the established orthodoxy that it seemed to persuade you to withdraw your support.
For these reasons, by reaffirming your support for this petition for pluralism in economics, we demand that you publish the decree that you already signed in order finally to create this new section.
Economics needs pluralism now!
You can sign this petition here http://assoeconomiepolitique.org/petition-pluralism-now/
4,559 people have already signed it, but they need lots more. You can read the names at the petition sight.
Well, heterodox is relative, isn’t it? The Pope is a heterodox if you are a Greek or a Russia. I don’t particularly like it but wouldn’t mind if people use it as an easy way of saying that I am not a neoclassical economist. But, as I have explained in my latest book (Economics: The User’s Guide), I don’t entirely subscribe to one school or another. I have been influenced by many different schools. I believe—not only for political reasons but for intellectual reasons too—we need pluralism in economics. Different schools have different methodological approaches, have different interests (some more interested in production, while others are more interested in exchange, for instance) or make different political and ethical assumptions. We need all of them to understand fully the complexity of the world.
from Stuart Birks
Well done, your concerns about the economics curriculum are getting attention. There are also many practicing economists who have concerns about the current emphasis and direction of economics as a discipline.
As in any such situation, the process of change can be crucial in determining the outcome. Often many different initiatives are called for. There is one initiative which may be effective in the short term and also instrumental in shaping developments in the long term. I am referring to the World Economics Association’s Textbook Commentaries Project.
The project involves the development of an online platform containing brief commentaries which can be used right now in existing and new economics courses. This growing collection is designed to increase critical understanding of economics approaches and awareness of alternative perspectives. The commentaries are each short and stand-alone, so can be easily be incorporated into existing courses without greatly increasing the workload. They do generate an awareness of the concerns about various approaches and the diversity of thought that exists, even if no longer included in the standard curriculum. Many commentaries draw directly on alternative literature by recognised experts in the field. It is important that students be made aware of these sources, if only to put their own knowledge in a wider context. Additional pages also highlight other accessible material (books and online teaching resources).
How can you participate?
from Peter Radford
And clearly economists don’t learn from it.
“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…
from Lars Syll
One of the main ideas underlining the book is that “being an economist” in the XXI century requires a radical change in the training of economists and such change requires a global effort. A new economics curriculum is needed in order to improve the understanding of the deep interactions between economics and the political forces and the historical processes of social change. The need for trans-disciplinary and interdisciplinary work is highlighted.
Discussions include the following. Main critiques of current practices on theory, methods and structures. Current gaps in the economics curriculum. What should economics graduates know? The contributors are: Nicola Acocella, Sheila Dow, David Hemenway, Arturo Hermann, Grazia Ietto-Gillies, Maria Alejandra Madi, Lars Pålsson Syll, Constantine Passaris, Paul Ormerod, Jack Reardon, Alessando Roncaglia, Asad Zaman.
Yours truly’s contribution to the collection is on “Economics textbooks – anomalies and transmogrification of truth.” Read more…
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…
from David Ruccio
I didn’t attend the most recent American Economic Association/Allied Social Sciences Association meetings in Boston. But, according to Chuck Collins, several sessions focused on the sensation of French economist Thomas Piketty and his 2014 book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
As an outsider to academic economics, I was struck by just how compartmentalized and smug the field appears. At one point, [Gregory] Mankiw even put up a slide, “Is Wealth Inequality a Problem?” Any economist who ventures across the disciplinary ramparts will, of course, find a veritable genre of research on the dangerous impacts of extreme inequality.
We now have over two decades of powerful evidence that details how these inequalities are making us sick, undermining our democracy, slowing traditional measures of economic growth, and turning our political system into a plutocracy.
Mankiw, at another point in his presentation, had still more embarrassing comments to make. Piketty, he intoned, must “hate the rich.” Piketty’s financial success with his best-selling book, Mankiw added, just might lead to self-loathing.
These clearly well-rehearsed quips, aimed at knee-capping the humble French economist, fell flat. Mankiw’s presentation, entitled “R > G, so what?,” came across as little more than an apologia for concentrated wealth.
And Piketty’s response? Read more…
from Lars Syll
The last seven years have not been easy for the global economy as well as the teaching of economics. The recent financial crisis and the Great Recession have led many economists, non-economists and students in economics to question the state of the discipline, wondering to what extent it provides the necessary tools to interpret the complex world we live in, signalling a deep dissatisfaction with economists’ ability to provide solutions to real world problems. Employers have recognised that the economics graduates that the standard curriculum generates are not equipped with the skills that the real world requires. Likewise, students themselves have recognised that the tools and theories they learn don’t enable them to make sense of the world they live in, let alone to address and solve real world problems …
The reason the revalidation of the economics programmes at the University of Greenwich is special is that it constitutes one of the first institutional responses to current pressures from students, faculty, employers and policy makers to produce more ‘world-ready’ graduates. In redesigning our economics programmes we – the economics programmes team – have decided to: Read more…