Policy Unpacked #4 – Rethinking post-crash economics

Policy Unpacked logoSince the Global Financial Crisis questions have been asked about the adequacy of dominant approaches to economic analysis. Are they sufficient to help us understand the economy or do they need supplementing or reformulating?

This is an important question for policy not simply because of the debate over austerity but also because economic ideas and arguments are increasingly influential when seeking to shape, justify or change policy more generally.

Students at a number of British universities have sought to question whether the economics curriculum they are offered for their undergraduate degree is adequate. This week the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester University published a report seeking to make the case for a more pluralist, critical and broad-based economics education.

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Economics after the crash

Economics after crash coverOne of the topics I’ve revisited regularly on this blog over the last three years is the nature of economic knowledge and economic analysis.

I have brought together nineteen of these blogposts as a collection of essays on the philosophy, ethics and methodology of economics. The essays touch on questions such as why economists missed the global financial crisis, debates about how economics needs to change, and the impact that economic analysis has on the real world. The issue of orthodoxy, heterodoxy and pluralism in economic analysis features prominently. The need for a stronger ethical component to economic education and economic analysis is a recurrent theme. Several of the essays make the link between economics and a broader political economy.

The essays are available free to download below the fold here, from the bookshop, or direct from my Scribd site.
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On signs you’re reading bad criticism of economics

Constructive criticismA couple of weeks ago Chris Auld’s blog carried a post entitled 18 signs you’re reading bad criticism of economics. Auld is seeking to help the reader differentiate bad criticism from ‘solid’ criticism. The post generated plenty of debate below the line and was retweeted into my timeline several times.

I’ve been thinking about the post for a few days. There are a whole bunch of issues tangled up in Auld’s 18 signs. Some of them are relatively technical points. Some of them are rather more far-reaching.

I have a suspicion that underlying Auld’s distinction between good and bad criticism there is the division between internal and external critique. That is, good criticism is internal criticism – it is generated from within a particular academic community by people working from within broadly the same intellectual paradigm. External criticism originates, surprisingly enough, from outside that paradigm. We generally find that economists – like most people – are rather more tolerant of and amenable to internal than external critique.

Auld dismissed bad criticism as crankery, which is a label that mainstream economists have a tendency to apply rather indiscriminately to perspectives that differ too much from their own. One person’s crankery is another person’s foundational critique. But if proponent and critic operate from profoundly different social ontologies then most likely all that will result is mutual incomprehension. That doesn’t necessarily make criticism from a non-mainstream economic perspective wrong. Except from the perspective of the mainstream economist, of course.

I won’t run through Auld’s points in detail, but I wanted touch on all of them. [Read more...]

Dr Smith and the “neoclassicals”

dames 03Debates over the demarcation of different schools of economic thought are by no means new. Taxonomic disputes break out sporadically. Whether “mainstream”, “orthodox” and “neoclassical” economics ever have been, are, or could be synonymous is a question that has exercised several authors of a philosophical turn of mind. Lately the econ blogosphere has turned to the issue, with the focus on the identity and identification of neoclassical economics. Noah Smith made an intervention on the issue a couple of days ago.

Smith notes that the characteristics commonly associated with neoclassical economics, as defined by Wikipedia, look like this:

Neoclassical economics is a term variously used for approaches to economics focusing on the determination of prices, outputs, and income distributions in markets through supply and demand, often mediated through a hypothesized maximization of utility by income-constrained individuals and of profits by cost-constrained firms employing available information and factors of production, in accordance with rational choice theory.

But, Smith argues, there are plenty of papers appearing in prestigious economics journals that don’t have all – or, in some cases, any – of these characteristics. There are authors who have written papers clearly in the spirit of neoclassical micro, but have also written papers without such characteristics. Is it sensible for such authors, having sinned once, to be forever labelled “neoclassical” by their critics? [Read more...]

Keen insight into the monetary economy

Lucas Papademos, former vice-president of the European Central Bank, has now been installed as the new Prime Minster of Greece. The imminent arrival of former European Commissioner Mario Monti as Prime Minister of Italy will get the post-Berlusconi era properly under way. This is to be an era of technocratic policy-making by market-approved placemen.

Defenders of democracy are deeply concerned about the way in which this process has evolved. It is not so much that crisis has precipitated change at the top of national governments. Nor even that these countries find themselves governed by interim governments that are appointed rather than elected. More concerning is the apparent erosion of sovereignty through the overt intervention of foreign governments in domestic affairs, and the apparent concentration of European power in the hands of the eight members of the Frankfurt Group, only two of whom are democratically elected politicians.

But this is not simply a crisis of politics and the economy. It is also a crisis of economic epistemology. Of economic knowledge. Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor, observed on Friday’s programme that “The economic orthodoxy of an entire generation of politicians seems to be failing. And they don’t know what to do.” [Read more...]

Liberal Democrat economics

In a post at Liberal England yesterday entitled Clegg tells Lib Dems to come out from behind the sofa Jonathan Calder responds to a brief piece in the Independent on Sunday. The Indie reports that Lib Dem ministers have been instructed to be a bit less reticent in speaking about the distinctively Lib Dem successes in government. The party is suffering in the polls in a way that the Tories are not. Some better PR would help.

Calder offers two reasons why the Lib Dems were behind the sofa in the first place. First, the party is not used to being unpopular. “When you are the third party, being ignored is a far more familiar experience”. Second, “we are not really sure what Liberal Democrat economics look like”.

I’m not convinced the second of these reasons put the Lib Dems behind the sofa. But I am certain it is an issue. We really aren’t sure. [Read more...]

On knowing what’s going on

Leading active members of today’s economics profession … have formed themselves into a kind of Politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule—as one might generally expect from a gentleman’s club—this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen. … They oppose the most basic, decent and sensible reforms, while offering placebos instead.

James K Galbraith

Last weekend in a brief post over at Pop Theory Clive poses one of the key social scientific questions of our time – What do economists know? Of course, the answer depends on which economists one is talking about. As the epigraph above notes, the mainstream of macroeconomics largely misses the point. It didn’t see the current economic turmoil coming and has little to offer by way of solutions. One striking thing about Galbraith’s comment is that it was written in 2000. Not a great deal has changed since then. These deficiencies with mainstream approaches have been recognised by some high profile mainstream practitioners, as I noted last month in the aftermath of this year’s Nobel prize in economics.

Yet, it is not as if economics has nothing sensible to say on the matter. [Read more...]