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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » It’s… wait, yep, it’s the economy stupid

It’s… wait, yep, it’s the economy stupid

Economics is imperfect? Say it ain’t so:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.

Will Willkinson weighs in:

“Freshwater” economics is not a science. It is a sometimes illuminating exercise in modeling counterfactual worlds. Insofar as “saltwater” economics recognizes that the need for a better account of human psychology and transactions costs in embodied institutions, it is better. But, so far, it isn’t. So far, “behavioral” macro is mere aspiration. It’s not something anyone is actually doing in a systematic way.

Maybe the most important conclusion I drew from Krugman’s piece is the politics of the freshwater/saltwater divide is complete nonsense. To seriously acknowledge “flaws and frictions” is to acknowledge that some institutions create friction while others reduce it; that some institutions enhance the salience of certain “flaws” while others work around them; etc. Having recently read a bunch of “Keynes was right” pieces recently, it seems pretty clear that lots of left-leaning economists are mistaking flawlessness and frictionlessness as necessary premises in the argument for limited government intervention in market institutions. But the upshot of flaws and frictions could very well be that we shouldn’t expect very much from government intervention. It seems pretty clear to me that Keynes’ characterization of the role of not-exactly-rational “animal spirits” in recessions is a very small part of an adequate general account of the way the quirks of human psychology tend to scale up to the macro level. The inference from flaws and frictions to Keynesian technocracy tends to be embarrassingly hasty.

The fact is, macro isn’t close to resembling a real science. (”The economy,” nationalistically construed, isn’t even close to resembling a subject of scientific investigation!) But we can’t count on elite economists to admit it, since their claim to authority on matters of public policy stands or falls with their claim to scientific expertise.

And this is on the heels of an essay I read the other day in Edge by Douglas Rushkoff:

The marketplace in which most commerce takes place today is not a pre-existing condition of the universe. It’s not nature. It’s a game, with very particular rules, set in motion by real people with real purposes. That’s why it’s so amazing to me that scientists, and people calling themselves scientists, would propose to study the market as if it were some natural system — like the weather, or a coral reef.

It’s not. It’s a product not of nature but of engineering. And to treat the market as nature, as some product of purely evolutionary forces, is to deny ourselves access to its ongoing redesign. It’s as if we woke up in a world where just one operating system was running on all our computers and, worse, we didn’t realize that any other operating system ever did or could ever exist. We would simply accept Windows as a given circumstance, and look for ways to adjust our society to its needs rather than the other way around.

Economics isn’t completely useless because understanding the maximization of resources is important. I suspect that economics is in the state it is now because it’s grown to be self-serving. Economists don’t simply observe and predict, and they don’t have the luxury of conducting good experiments. There is no room for a control group. The biases are also overwhelming as much of economics (at least in publication) is normative.

Yet, there will always be a market wherever there is finite resources, and it is important to understand how the market operates in order to be dominate in it – but doing so changes the nature of the market. If you want to really grasp this concept, think about mating. This is a system in which there is no set price for anything, no fiat currency and value is purely subjective.

Applied economics probably has just as much to do with behavior psychology as it does number crunching. It’s been shown in several studies that people will withhold resources from another person out of spite, even if it causes them to lose out as well.

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